Heroes Among Us
It was July of 1936. Ensign John Bulkeley boarded a Wilson Lines overnight steamer in Norfolk, Virginia,
bound for a long weekend in Washington, D.C. As he stepped into the ship’s galley, he noticed several well-dressed Japanese men in the center of the room. The steward who seated him said they were with the Japanese Embassy. The one with a satchel on his lap was the Ambassador himself.
They were regulars on the ship and most believed they were spying on the Norfolk shipyard. Bulkeley pushed back at the statement so the steward told him to make up his own mind. There was nothing other than the Navy in Norfolk, and no one had ever seen that satchel touch the ground. Whenever the Ambassador got up, it was in his hand, and whenever he sat back down, it went right back in his lap. Whatever was inside was awfully important.
Japan had already invaded Manchuria, and with one of the biggest Naval fleets in the world, Bulkeley knew they were the next big threat to the country, so he watched the group closely. He even trailed the Ambassador to the men’s room and it just as the steward said – his satchel never touched the ground.
Convinced, Bulkeley decided to take action. He followed the group down the steps, watched them enter their ward rooms, and then waited. Around 4 A.M., the Ambassador left his quarters for the communal bathroom – without his brief case. Bulkeley darted in the room, grabbed the satchel and ran for the stairs. He could hear the Ambassador screaming as he moved to the top deck.
His mind raced through three sorted endings to the adventure. Two would end with his arrest and the loss of the satchel and, while the third wasn’t very appealing, it was his only option. He jumped over the ship’s railing, into the dark Atlantic below. It took him a day-and-a-half to get to Naval Intelligence where, after inspecting the contents, a Navy Captain emerged from behind a heavy door to tell the Ensign he was in a world of trouble.
The repercussions began with his immediate posting to one of the oldest ships in the Navy; a coal burner in the South Pacific, but that was comparatively easy to swallow. Everyone who knew Bulkeley – his superiors, subordinates, and friends alike – would all turn their backs on him. He was anything but a hero; he was a loose cannon who had stained the reputation of the U.S. Navy.
In looking back, it’s hard to grasp the incentive behind his actions. If the satchel had been filled with plans of pending attack on the shipyard and Bulkeley’s actions prevented the attack, diplomacy would cloak the incident and ensure the world would never know of his heroics. If he had chosen not to act and Norfolk suffered the fate so many military instillations did in 1941, no one would ever know he could have prevented the attack. And yet he took action.
There are countless stories where nameless individuals chose a different path. Places like the Archdiocese of Boston, Enron, Arthur Anderson, and Fanny Mae where people witnessed endemic corruption or the presence of the worst of human predators, but those bearing witness lacked the principles or wherewithal required to step up and take action.
By doing nothing, they avoided the scorn or promotion-killing repercussions so often associated with bold action. They merely watched on the perverse hope that the falsehoods, pending failure, or the heart-wrenching perversions wouldn’t rise to the level of public concern on their watch. All the time encouraged by the belief that no one would ever know they could have stepped in and stopped it from happening.
Make no mistake about it, Bulkeleys are rare, but they’re still among us. They rise to action knowing their failure to move would be masked, and their action may be equally well punished, but they rise. They do it for the only palpable return most will ever receive – the unflinching image of the man or woman on the other side of the mirror.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re going through right now, here’s to you, John Bulkeley.