The next ship is one I only have a tangential connection to – the USS Bulkeley (DDG 84) is named after Vice Admiral John D Bulkeley – who was actually a major figure in my current unit – the Board of Inspection and Survey.

Are you cool enough to be featured in your own comic book? (We’ve got a copy of this framed at HQ)

John Bulkeley had a particularly distinguished career in the Navy – the kind they make comic books about (pages 13-16).  A contemporary of Gordon Chung-Hoon, Bulkeley was a member of the Naval Academy class of ’33.  You can’t exactly call his early career very promising though.  He only made it into the Naval Academy by switching from his home state of NJ to Texas to receive an appointment.  However, due to budget constraints during the Depression period, only the upper half of the graduating class received a commission in ’33.  Bulkeley next tried out the Army Air Corps, but didn’t have much luck.  A year later however, as part of a government jobs program(!) he was back in the Navy, commissioned as an Ensign.

LTJG Bulkeley (seated center) on board USS Sacramento while in Shanghai

(We have a framed pic on the office wall of him in China during the 30s – but can’t locate anything online at the moment – this pic may do for the moment) Bulkeley wound up in China as Chief Engineer on an old Asiatic fleet gunboat after he decided it would be a worthwhile challenge to steal the Japanese ambassador’s briefcase from a steamer stateroom and deliver it (via a brief swim) to Naval Intelligence.

Big brass ones on these boys

At the beginning of the war, he was a Lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three based in the Philippines.  As the Japanese began their invasion of the Philippines soon after Pearl Harbor, he lead a series of effective attacks against Japanese Naval Forces in the region between 7 Dec 1941 and 10 April 1942.  It should be noted that during this point in the war, the US Navy still had significant issues with torpedo effectiveness (ie…will they actually detonate when they hit something? – generally something of a concern when you’re in the middle of a shooting war), but each motor torpedo boat was also armed with two dual-50 cal machine gun turrets and two 30 caliber machine guns.

Restored PT 658 (a regular visitor to the Portland Rose Festival – missed my chance to take a tour…)

These guns proved very effective against enemy aircraft and smaller Japanese shipping during the early parts of the war.  Around about 22 January 1942, during the sinking of two Japanese Landing Barges, Bulkeley is recorded to have actually boarded one barge, removed two wounded Japanese troops and retrieved documents as the barge sank under him.

Follow the red dotted line

Bulkeley really hit his stride in March, when he carried out the successful evacuation of General Douglas MacArthur and the remainder of his key staff from the island fortress of Corregidor to Mindanao – a journey of over 600 nautical miles through enemy infested waters and open ocean.  As a result of his actions during this Philippine campaign (7 Dec 1941 – 10 April 1942), Bulkeley was awarded a Medal of Honor, Two Distinguished Service CrossOne Navy Cross and a Silver Star – the last specifically for the VIP evacuation operation.

Chilling post-Philippines 1942

That’s a hell of a record for anyone – especially during that timeframe, but Bulkeley was just getting warmed up.  After a little R&R and war bonds sales pitches, he ran into Joseph Kennedy and facilitated JFK’s entry to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Center in Rhode Island.

A little later, Lieutenant Commander Bulkeley headed to the European theater and during the Normandy Invasion, commanded a motor torpedo boat squadron (and minesweepers) clearing lanes to Utah Beach and screening for German E-boats.  Bulkeley and his boats picked up wounded sailors from three US ships that were sunk (USS Tide, USS Rich and USS Corry).  He was awarded a Legion of Merit for actions between 6 June and 17 July 1944.

On D+38, Bulkeley was summoned to USS ENDICOTT (DD 495) and given command – in his own words:

“We got in a whaleboat and went over to the Endicott, where he [the Commodore] told me to go down in the plotting room and stay there until I heard that the commodore had left the ship.  I was then to go up on the bridge and announce that I was taking command.  There were no written orders or notifications to the Bureau of Personnel—or anyone else.  So I took command and got the ship under way.  And away we went, down to the invasion of Southern France.”

(Editor’s note…wartime or not – this is an insane way to assume command – even moreso given that they were in the middle of a campaign – I have no doubt that it happened to other folks over the course of the war, but to go from small boats to a Destroyer overnight is really astonishing – and a good sign that he had all the confidences of senior leadership).

Over the course of a 3 day transit he didn’t have a lot of time to get stuff ship-shape from the shoddy condition in which he found it –

“Look, this is a fighting ship.  She might get into action, if you’re going to save your lives, you’d better work like hell, night and day.  We’re going to be watertight.  And you’re going to make damn sure all the guns are working, and the ammunition is readily available.”

Their initial mission was a diversionary action – to make a lot of noise and serve as a distraction.  As a result of their “pre-invasion bombardment” the Germans moved up to two divisions 80-100 miles east of the intended Allied landing site – resulting in an unopposed assault by the allies.

Having taken some damage, ENDICOTT was directed to Sicily for repairs.  En route, Bulkeley received word that two British river gunboats (HMS Aphis and HMS Scarab) were being engaged by German gunboats.  As he prepared to engage the German ships –

“I ordered our 5-inch guns to commence firing at a range about 6,000 or 8,000 yards—good-hitting range.  About two minutes went by, and no guns fired.  I said, “What the hell is going on?”  Right off the bat, we had a problem closing the breaches.  We had overheated parts of the guns during the earlier shore bombardment, which caused them to seize up.  The only gun we had working was mount three.  A great big strapping gunner’s mate first class was in charge of that turret.  He was loading the shells by ramming them in by hand.  The breach itself was sticking, and it wouldn’t fire unless it was fully closed.  So he used a sledgehammer to pound it tight. [ed. Wish I could track down this absolute chad’s name] At that time we began to fire.”

Snapshot of a sinking German Ship

The ENDICOTT quickly sank both ships (with only the one gun) and recovered 179 German prisoners.  Bulkeley received his second Silver Star for this action on 17 August 1944.

“What else could I do? You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy, then and in the future.”

(If you can believe it…HMS Aphis was commanded by Douglas Fairbanks Jr at the time.

Photogenic chaps – LCDR Fairbanks on left, LCDR Bulkeley on right.

Bulkeley held a variety of other commands throughout the cold war, including Destroyer Squadrons during Korea, and Guantanamo Bay following the Bay of Pigs Invasion, but he reached the apex of his technical career as the President of the Board of Inspection and Survey between 1967 and 1988 (this is traditionally a 2 year billet for the average Rear Admiral).  If you’ve been keeping track of the dates….that gives Vice Admiral John Bulkeley over 55 years of service.  Although he technically retired in 1975, he was recalled in a retired-retained status until 1988.  This puts him in a special sort of technical category alongside Hyman Rickover and Grace Hopper – a position where exceptionally talented individuals were retained to the greater benefit of the Navy and the country as a whole.

A long and storied career

INSURV has a worthwhile mission – and as a Reservist, it feels great being able to directly contribute to an active mission benefiting the service as a whole.  Especially being able to walk on board (and get underway with) all kinds of ships I never had the chance to serve on during my active duty service.  If anyone is interested, you can view the public FY20 report – very slimmed down from what I normally see, so a quick read frankly.  I’m looking forward to seeing my initial contributions (such as they are) represented in the forthcoming FY21 report.