From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
If you were intrigued last week by Lt. John D. “Sea Wolf” Bulkeley’s daring journey to drive his PT boat 600 miles in unchartered waters, through minefields and dodging Japanese patrol boats to get General Douglas MacArthur to safety, then you’re in luck today; there is more to his story. The commander of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three was no one-hit wonder when it came to World War II heroics.
Bulkeley’s exploits didn’t end in the Pacific Theater. By June 6, 1944, Lt. Cmdr. Bulkeley was commanding officer of the PT squadrons protecting the Normandy Invasion fleet from attacks by E-boats, the German version of Bulkeley’s own PT boats.
During an interview with CBS journalist Charles Collingwood on July 3, 1944, Bulkeley explained his squadron protected minesweepers that cleared the path for the invading fleet of warships and landing craft of Operation Overlord. His PT boats were among the first to enter Cherbourg harbor, “but we didn’t stay long,” he quipped.
The PT boats were being used to draw fire from a shore battery that was holding out. Sure enough, they drew fire and just as surely, they it. When they returned the following day, there was a white flag on the fort.
Bulkeley shrugged off the interviewer’s concern about mines and having officers of high rank onboard. “Well, we’re used to mines and to high rank. We had the King of England aboard this ship (his flagship PT 517) not so long ago (the day before the invasion). … He asked me how I got along with the British. I told him I was getting along fine. In fact, five years ago, I married a British girl.”
When Collingwood asked Bulkeley which campaign was tougher, the Pacific or European theaters, Bulkeley explained it was the Pacific. “Over here (Europe) you don’t have mosquitos, malaria and rain. You have short distances to run. Only six hours of darkness right now, and you are fighting the Germans and not the [Japanese]. With the [Japanese], you know if you meet them, that it is a battle to the death. They don’t run away, and you know that if you are sunk, they will leave you to drown or try to kill you in the water. And then if you are lucky enough to reach land, they’ll kill you on the land. Over here, there is still some decency to war, if war ever can be decent.”
In mid-July, just 38 days after the Invasion of Normandy, he was given the command of destroyer Endicott (DD 495). The destroyer would be part of a ruse in appearing to invade La Ciotat to draw two German divisions from St. Tropez. The destroyer fired 3,000 rounds continuously over two nights, Bulkeley recalled in a Proceedings Magazine article in August 1994. The diversion worked. When Gen. Mark Clark landed his troops where the real assault took place in Southern France for Operation Dragoon on Aug. 15, 1944, he lost only one soldier who stepped on a mine.
Following the operation, Bulkeley was sent to Sicily for repairs to Endicott. Along the way, he heard two German gunboats were attacking two British ships, the Scarab and Aphis. “They were river gunboats built for China duty, and they had very little fire control. Their guns were small and their speed was not more than 8 or 12 knots,” he said.
Bulkeley turned his ship around immediately to provide assistance. “We soon saw huge clouds of black smoke, which looked almost as though some ships were on fire. I didn’t know what was on the other side, so I crashed on through.”
The British ships were in retreat, followed by the German corvettes Nimet Allah and Capriolo going 28-30 knots, Bulkeley recalled. Endicott was cruising at 36 knots.
“When you run into the enemy, you’ve got to attack, no question about it,” he said.
Unfortunately for Bulkeley, some of his guns had overheated during the heavy bombardment at La Ciotat and the breaches weren’t closing. There was only one gun working at mount three, and the gunner’s mate first class was pumping the shells in by hand and using a sledgehammer to close the breach.
With one gun blazing at two German ships armed with 5-inch guns, the Endicott zigg and zagged toward her targets. “We swept the decks with the 40-mm and 20-mm gunfire,” Bulkeley said. “By this time, we had closed to within 800 yards, and our 5-inch guns were scoring some hits. One of the ships capsized and the other sank later on.”
With the fight over, Endicott picked up 179 German survivors, giving them medical treatment.
Bulkeley would later serve on cruisers and a battleship, but he remained loyal to the needs of smaller craft, such as the Cyclone (PC 1) class most of which are still in service today.
“These boats are far more sophisticated,” he said of the PCs in the 1994 interview. “They are more capable, have more firepower, and are more deadly than I ever even envisioned in my PT boats. There’s a future for them all right.”
Those ships remain in service today and are an important part of the Navy’s presence in the U.S. Fifth Fleet area of responsibility.