Dawn Came the Hero

By Gault, Owen | Sea Classics, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Dawn Came the Hero


Gault, Owen, Sea Classics


Though Medal of Honor winner John D. Bulkeley earned his reputation aboard speeding PT boats, the crew of the USS Endicott openly speculated just how well the Navy's most honored hero could command a hard-luck destroyer

Whipped by the morning breeze, Endicott's signal flags snapped from the halyards with the same attentive crispness shown by the destroyer's crew as the new skipper was piped aboard. As if surreally aware that no ordinary change of command ceremony was taking place, even the harbor at Cardiff, South Wales, seemed oddly free of the usual cacophony of blaring horns and tooting tugboat whistles that serene July day in 1944.

Saluting the colors and the officer he was replacing as captain, the newly promoted full commander held a brief inspection of the crew standing stiffly at attention on the aft deck. Mounting a small podium, the new captain politely cleared his throat before beginning to speak; calmly allowing his pride-filled eyes to study the rows of white uniformed sailors now under his command. It would be several weeks before he knew any of them as well as they already knew him, for the new skipper of the USS Endicott (DD-495) was not only a charismatic national hero but already one of the most highly decorated officers in the United States Navy. The new captain was none other than John D. Bulkeley, Cdr. USN, better known to every American as famed "PT Boat Bulkeley." He had won acclaim, distinction and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his daring and courageous PT boat exploits in the ill-fated defense of the Philippines.

Somewhat stocky, possessed of an elf-like grin and likable demeanor, Bulkeley kept his acceptance address brief and to the point. There was a war raging not far away off the Normandy beachheads and Endicott, after being long laid up for repairs following an unfortunate collision at sea in May, was sorely needed for the upcoming invasion of Southern France. Though all ears were poised for news of the role this patrol-weary"tin can" would play in the coming action, Bulkeley made no mention of what the ship's next duty assignment might be. That their new celebrity skipper either chose not to divulge his orders, or had not as yet himself been informed of them only raised the crew's speculation of what life would be like under the new "old man."

THE MAKING OF A DESTROYER CAPTAIN

At best, new captains were always suspect and enigmatic, especially if they were "Regular Navy" Annapolis grads as opposed to the multitudes of new reserve officers or WWI retreads fast rising to command levels in the vastly expanded wartime Navy. To the enlisted swabbies, deck apes and snipes of the lower decks Navy "regulars" tended to run a warship strictly by the book whereas ROTC reservists and "mustangs" who had risen from enlisted rank to commissioned status were generally considered more lenient; less the rigid disciplinarians often more concerned with fitness reports and career advancement than a crew's welfare.

In John Duncan Bulkeley's case the sailors' apprehensions were most understandable for not only was their renown new skipper a 1933 US Naval Academy graduate, but clearly a no-nonsense officer who had proven time and again on the spray-wet decks of darting wooden-hulled torpedo boats that he liked nothing better than a good fight. To have a hero of Bulkeley's eminence skipper a warship might be comforting to mom back home in Peoria but to a teenager fresh out of boot camp manning a destroyer's Bofors gun there was no guarantee Capt. Bulkeley might not have his mind set on higher glory still, or that in pursuit of that glory take unnecessary chances with his ship, his fellow officers and the enlisted men whose lives depended on his every decision.

Renown hero or not, skipper Bulkeley would have to prove himself to the somewhat skeptical bluejackets of the Endicott. Though most were plank-owners seeing their first sea duty upon her commissioning many were seasoned veterans who had served under a variety of commanding officers, good and bad, on other ships. …

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