Lt. John D. Bulkeley, photographed while on board a Motor Torpedo Boat (PT), circa 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
“You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”
With those words spoken by American General of the Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Bulkeley, commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, pulled away at 7:45 p.m. March 11, 1942, into what was becoming increasingly a misty and moonless night.
Japanese forces had gained a stronghold in the Philippines, and they were closing in on the island that housed MacArthur, his family and staff, plus an additional 14,000 military and civilian personnel, including Gen. Jonathan Wainwright. MacArthur wanted to stay and fight, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur off the island to prevent his capture, which would be demoralizing to the nation still recovering from the shock of the attack at Pearl Harbor and then the surrender at Wake Island.
Sources may argue when and why MacArthur agreed to have his small staff and family travel by PT boats across close to 600 miles of ocean dotted with reefs, through a harbor strewn with mines and a dragnet of prowling Japanese ships. Initially, plans were to have MacArthur spirited away in the submarine USS Permit (SS 178) or flown out by PBY flying boats.
Those plans may have been scrapped due to MacArthur’s claustrophobic tendencies, or that he had never flown before, not to mention the problems Catalinas had landing at Corregidor.
But no one questioned MacArthur’s belief and trust in Lt. John D. ‘Sea Wolf’ Bulkeley.
MacArthur and Bulkeley were already stationed at Corregidor before the war began. MacArthur had a soft spot for the small, swift patrol torpedo (PT) boats. He had even recommended the Navy Department add something similar to their fleet of ships as defensive weapons in the mid-1930s. The Navy was not impressed. MacArthur never forgot the snub.
So when MacArthur was appointed to defend the Philippines, he took a special interest in PT boat operations and required the squadron commander to report directly to him each day in person.
As MacArthur weighed the options – by sea or by air – the general chose the risky option of traveling above the water by PT boat, trusting his fate in the hands of the lieutenant he called a “bold buckaroo with the cold green eyes.”
It was hardly the easiest option. To make the distance, the PT boats would need to carry drums of gasoline on their decks that could easily be struck by a stray bullet or shrapnel. After being loaded down with an additional three tons of fuel, the boat’s main advantage, its speed, would be reduced to 30 knots. The boats themselves had no radar and only a few areas of the ocean had been mapped.
Bulkeley himself was lobbied hard during the days leading up to the departure. Thinking MacArthur would no doubt take the submarine, some of the remaining officers wooed Bulkekey as to when and where he might pick up them and their families to get them “out of Dodge” before the Japanese set foot on the island. Bulkeley made no effort to dissuade them since MacArthur’s departure was kept secret.
MacArthur had already told Wainwright he would be left behind with dwindling supplies and facing the full brunt of the Japanese forces. He promised upon his return to Corregidor he would promote Wainwright to lieutenant general. Wainwright promised if he was still alive, he would be there when MacArthur returned. Only one could keep their promise.
On the evening of the departure, however, the gig was up as MacArthur’s chosen chariot proved to be Bulkeley’s squadron. More than 15 of MacArthur’s staff were ferried to Bataan where they loaded onto PT boats 32, 34 and 35. So it was just MacArthur, his wife, Jean, 4-year-old son Arthur 32 35and his nanny, his aide Lt. Col. Sidney Huff and three other staffers who left from Corregidor.
After Bulkeley’s PT 41 caught up with the other three, they traversed a mine-laden harbor in single file before speeding through the choppy waters. It didn’t take long for the Army and civilian personnel to feel the effects of what the Navy men called “moderate” seas, which only worsened during the tripmarked by occasional squalls. Nearly all were violently seasick, including MacArthur, who stated in his 1964 book “Reminiscences: General of the Army,” that being on the PT boat was “what it must be like to take a trip in a concrete mixer.”
The only passenger who seemed not to mind was an air corps captain, oblivious to motion sickness, who slept soundly, snoring in his bunk, during the trip.
The trip took its toll on the Navy men of Squadron Three. With no maps and virtually no light, the boats became separated. PT 34 arrived first at the planned rendezvous point at Tagauayan Island. When PT 32’s operator saw a ship in the distance, he thought it was a Japanese destroyer and jettisoned fuel to increase the speed of the boat, only to find out the silhouette he saw was PT 41 with a couple of passengers standing. Attempts to collect the jettisoned fuel became futile, so PT 41 and PT 32 continued to the rendezvous point to find PT 34. But there was no sign of PT 35.
With only two good engines and little fuel, the passengers on PT 32 were divided between PT 41 and 34 which headed for their destination. The crew of PT 32 stayed behind to wait for the submarine Permit. Which was lucky for the crew of PT 35 – they finally arrived at Tagauayan Island and were told by the PT 32 crew that the other two PT boats had already left for their destination, so PT 35 followed.
Bulkeley’s crew had no easier time with it, even with their skipper handling the navigation. With no sleep in more than 48 hours, one crew member fainted while at the wheel, and another was found dozing while standing up in gale-force winds.
Bulkeley and his second-in-command, Lt. Robert Kelly, when they weren’t slicing through stormy seas, now faced a daylight dash through the Mindanao Sea, narrowly missing detection by one apparently inattentive Japanese warship. MacArthur had wanted to press on, fearing he would miss the awaiting B-17s at Cagayan that would take him to Australia. He had no way to know the planes would be delayed three days.
Upon his arrival at Cagayan, a shaky MacArthur voiced his appreciation for Squadron Three’s daring voyage.
“You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death and I won’t forget it,” MacArthur vowed.
A few hours later, PT 35 would arrive, completing the mission with all aboard. The sub Permit picked up the remaining 32 crew members, although the boat was sunk rather than leaving it for the Japanese. Bulkeley, not knowing the fate of PT 32, spent several hours in planes searching for his missing crew.
MacArthur, in the meantime, was aghast at the Flying Fortress that landed with damaged turbo superchargers and faulty brakes, bullet holes patched by ration cans and piloted by a 24-year-old and youthful-looking Lt. Harl Pease. He rejected the plane stating no way would he put his family and staff on “that broken down crate with a boy at the controls.”
While waiting for another plane, MacArthur would have one more request for his “buckaroo.” He tasked Bulkeley with evacuating Philippine President Manuel Quezon from his location on the island of Negros. Quezon, sick from tuberculous, was tired of his homeland being fought over by the Americans and Japanese, and entertained the thought of going neutral so both warring factions would leave. MacArthur did not want that to happen. So Bulkeley was told to fetch him “by any means necessary.”
Quezon at first resisted the notion of leaving the Philippines. In George W. Smith’s 2005 book “MacArthur’s Escape: John ‘Wild Man’ Bulkeley and the Rescue of an American Hero,” there is a passage that might explain Quezon’s reluctance in following the “reincarnated pirate” who stood before him on March 18.
“The skipper wore no uniform, only an old oilskin. His boots were mud-caked, and his unruly black beard and longish hair tied around his head with a bandanna gave him a menacing appearance. Embellishing that sinister look, Bulkeley strode around with a tommy gun, two pearl-handled pistols strapped to his waist, and a nasty-looking knife tucked ominously in his belt.”
Eventually, Quezon agreed to leave, so Bulkeley whisked the Philippine president, his family and staff back to the safety of Mindanao.
MacArthur made good on his promise to not forget “Sea Wolf” Bulkeley. He nominated the lieutenant for the Medal of Honor, which he received for his actions between Dec. 7, 1941 and April 10, 1942 as commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three. Not one to rest of his laurels, Bulkeley continued to make his imprint on the Navy, earning the rank of vice-admiral over the course of a 55-year career. Along the way, he also earned the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star Medal (Army) with Gold Star in lieu of the Second Silver Star Medal (Navy), the Legion of Merit with Combat “V”, the Army Distinguished Service Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart Medal, Army Distinguished Unit Emblem, and the French and Philippine Decorations. Other awards included the China Service Medal with bronze star; the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; National Defense Service Medal with bronze star; Korean Service Medal; United Nations Service Medal; the Korean Presidential Unit Citation Badge; and the Philippine Defense Ribbon. He also had the Expert Pistol Shot Medal and Expert Rifleman Medal.
The general would return to the Philippines as promised Oct. 20, 1944. But MacArthur would not find Gen. Jonathan Wainwright there. Those left behind on Corregidor, after living at near starvation levels and unable to fight off the Japanese, had surrendered May 6, 1942. The military and civilians not killed outright were taken as prisoners of war and worked in Japanese work camps. Wainwright, the highest-ranking American POW, survived his three years in captivity where he was often brutalized by the Japanese. MacArthur and Wainwright would meet finally after the Japanese agreed to surrender Aug. 19. MacArthur asked Wainwright to stand next to him during the formal Japanese surrender ceremony Sept. 2, 1945 on USS Missouri, and gave him the pen he used to sign the document.
One final note of interest. Remember baby-faced pilot Lt. Harl Pease? He turned 25 a few days after MacArthur rejected his patched-up B-17 and he, too, would earn a Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” in action with the enemy Aug. 6-7, 1942. Even though he was not scheduled to take part in a bombing mission to Rabaul, New Britain, Pease prepared the most serviceable airplane at the base for combat, declared unusable for other combat missions. Despite being intercepted by 30 enemy fighter aircraft before reaching his target, Pease and his crew were successful in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the intended target. Upon his return, enemy pursuit aircraft shot down his plane. Pease and a crew member bailed out, but were captured by the Japanese. On Oct. 8, 1942, they were forced to dig their own graves and beheaded. MacArthur endorsed Pease’s nomination for the Medal of Honor, which was presented posthumously to Pease’s father.