The Daring Exploits of Navy Legend John D. Bulkeley
By William B. Breuer
Presidio, San Francisco. 1998, 340 pages soft cover
Reviewed by Byron D. Varner, CDR, U.S. Navy (Ret.).WWII and later Navy career days. Readers of all age groups should enjoy the sometimes incredible exploits of a truly unique American patriot.
One experience I relived was serving as Public Affairs Officer on Adm. Bulkeley's staff at the U.S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay Cuba. My close day-to-day working and social relationship with him, his staff members and his family provided a front-row seat to witness his dedication to duty and expectations for the rest of us to follow suit.
He was tough-minded, demanding, unpredictable and fair, and we got along well. There were few dull moments, especially during the continuing crises with the USSR and Cuba — which easily could have ignited a full-scale war.
That portion of the book was well documented and presented, so I feel sure the rest of the story was equally accurate. The author included a number of things about Bulkeley I didn't know, but which didn't surprise me. The Admiral wasn't prone to talk about past heroics even when asked. This man of few words let his actions speak for him.
His only seeming concession to past glory was the epic WWII movie, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, that he would show to house guests at his quarters. He did this, I believe, to emphasize how tough things were early in that war, the tragedies of unpreparedness, and the importance of perseverance against all odds.
This movie, an adaptation of W. L. White's 1942 book of the same title, chronicled those bleak times in the Philippines leading up to the fall of Corregidor and the Bataan Death March. Critics agreed it was one of the most realistic and accurate war pictures Hollywood had filmed up to that time. I saw that movie several times (including TV reruns), and read the book more than once, but never imagined I would be someday be privileged to serve with their real-life PT Boat hero. SEA WOLF tells of these exploits including the famed delivery of General Douglas MacArthur and his chosen few through stormy seas, at impossible odds, to a rendezvous with destiny.
As great as that particular feat was, Bulkeley's daring accomplishments, innovations and patriotic efforts never waned throughout one of the longest careers in U.S. naval history.
Those who experienced the Great Depression years of the1930s can vividly recall the devastating financial effects it had on our military preparedness (or lack of it) prior to WWII. Nor can they forget the gloomy days during the first year of that war and the lack of anything positive to buoy spirits of the American people or give much hope that victory might someday be ours.
Reading SEA WOLF should give anyone unfamiliar with WWII, Korea, Vietnam and other thin slice of the overall effort given by others in those wars, it is truly an important link in the military chain of events.
All facets of this extraordinary Navy man's career are covered, from his fresh-out-of-high-school onslaught of Washington to get an improbable appointment to the Naval Academy, to his China service, various war battles, assault of Normandy beaches on D-Day, and beyond. The main emphasis is on Bulkeley's WWII exploits, his critical Cold War assignment as Guantanamo's base commander, and his record-breaking tour as head of the Naval Board of Inspection and Survey.
In that extended and final tour of naval duty, during which he was accountable only to the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bulkeley practically reinvented the system. He changed it from a “dead-end career-ender” lacking discipline and morale into the most effective (and feared) organization in the Navy. In so doing, he may have made his most substantial contribution to this nation, both in security and the war-readiness of naval ships and aircraft.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal presentation of the Medal of Honor to Bulkeley headed a long list of famous people bestowing this and other nations' highest military decorations upon him. It included Navy Secretary Frank Knox, General Douglas MacArthur, French General (later President) Charles de Gaulle, Philippines President Manuel Quezon and a host of others. He was honored with a New York City ticker-tape parade, and recruited a young Ensign by the name of John F. Kennedy to become a PT-boat commander.
Along the way he managed a controversial (to everyone but him) career, ruffling the feathers of more than a few senior officials - simply by doing what he considered to be the right thing and refusing to compromise principles that would risk the safety and security of the Navy.
Everyone should read SEA WOLF, particularly those on active duty in the military and their children. It is a classic example of what leadership, duty, honor and country is all about. Perhaps it would be well if those In Congress who have had no military experience would read it, too.