From his early days as an ensign to his retirement as president of the Naval Board of Inspection and Survey, John Duncan Bulkeley brought his keen powers of observation and determination everywhere. He is perhaps best known for his courageous rescue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines during World War II, but other aspects of his long military career also deserve highlighting.
Bulkeley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, "a slow and seemingly peaceful era for America," as C. Brian Kelly notes in his "Best Little Stories of World War II." On an off-duty weekend cruise to Washington, the young ensign noticed the Japanese ambassador to the United States with three men who "looked very much like military officers in mufti," Kelly writes. Bulkeley, suspicious, purloined the ambassador's carefully guarded briefcase and turned it over to Navy intelligence in Washington, D.C. Although he never knew what was inside, Bulkeley was suddenly and swiftly transferred to a transport bound for Shanghai.
In September 1941, Bulkeley, then a lieutenant, was ordered to the Philippines in command of the six vessels of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly all Navy resources in the Philippines had been destroyed or ordered out. Defense of the area was assigned to P-40 aircraft and PT boats.
When MacArthur decided to escape from Corregidor, it was Bulkeley's decrepit PT boats that effected the rescue. From March 11-13, 1942, Bulkeley directed his squadron through stormy seas and dangerous territory to bring the MacArthurs safely out of the embattled peninsula. "Bulkeley, I'm giving every officer and man here the Silver Star for gallantry," MacArthur said. "You've taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won't forget it." In fact, Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor.
After 41 years on active duty, Vice Adm. Bulkeley retired in 1974 but was recalled to active duty, retiring again in 1987. Bulkeley spent his last years of service as president of the Naval Board of Inspection and Survey. There, his exacting standards soon became the stuff of legend. As one naval officer said, "[He] touched nearly every Navy person who went to sea during more than two decades. For a ship to have passed a 'John Bulkeley' inspection with high marks was the pinnacle [of perfection]."