Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Unlucky Saga of the Willie Dee

The Ill-Fated USS William D. Porter, DD-579
(from The Navy Times)

From November 1943 until her bizarre loss in June 1945, the American Destroyer William D. Porter was often met with the clever greeting, "Don't shoot, we're Republicans!" when she entered port or joined other naval ships. The significance of this expression was almost a cult secret of the United States Navy until the story resurfaced and received wide publicity after a ship's reunion in 1958.

More than half a century ago, the "Willie Dee, " as the William D. Porter was nicknamed, accidentally fired a live torpedo at the battleship Iowa during a practice exercise on November 14, 1943. As if this weren't bad enough, the Iowa was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and all of the country's World War II military brass to the "big three" conferences in Cairo and Teheran. Roosevelt was to meet with Stalin of the Soviet Union and Churchill of Great Britain, and had the W.D. Porter's successfully launched torpedo struck the Iowa at the aiming point, the last 50 years of history of world history might have been quite different. Fortunately, the W.D. Porter's warning allowed the Iowa to evade the speeding torpedo and historic events carried on, as we know them.

The USS William D. Porter (DD-579) was one of hundreds of big war-built assembly line destroyers. Although smaller than current destroyers, they were powerful and menacing in their day. They mounted a main battery of five dual-purpose 5-inch, .38-caliber guns, and an assortment of 20 mm and 40 mm AAA guns, but their main armament consisted of 10 fast-running and accurate torpedoes that carried 500-pound warheads.

The W.D. Porter was placed in command on July 6, 1943 under the command of LCDR Wilfred A. Walter, a man on the Navy's career fast track. In the months before she was detailed to accompany the Iowa across the Atlantic in November 1943, the W.D. Porter's crew members learned their trades, but not without experiencing certain mishaps that set the stage for the "big goof." The mishaps began in earnest with the mysterious order to escort the pride of the fleet, the big new battleship Iowa to North Africa. The night before it left Norfolk, Virginia, the W.D. Porter successfully demolished a nearby sister ship when she backed down along the other ship's side and, with her anchor, tore down railings, a life raft, the captain's gig and various formerly valuable pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee suffered merely a slightly scratched anchor, but her career of mayhem and destruction had begun.

The next event occurred just 24 hours later. The four-ship convoy, consisting of the Iowa and her secret passengers, the W.D. Porter and two other destroyers, was under strict instruction to maintain complete silence as they were going through a known U-boat feeding ground where speed and silence were the best defenses. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion rocked the convoy, and all of the ships commenced anti-submarine maneuvers. The maneuvers continued until the W.D. Porter sheepishly admitted that one of her depth charges had fallen off of the stern and detonated in the rough sea. The safety had not been set as instructed; Captain Walter's fast track career was fast becoming sidetracked.

Shortly thereafter, a freak wave inundated the W.D. Porter, stripping everything that wasn't lashed down and washing a man overboard who was never found. Next, the engine room lost power in one of its boilers. And, during all, the captain had to make reports almost hourly to the Iowa on the Willie Dee's difficulties. At this point, it would have been merciful for the force commander to have detached the hard luck ship and sent her back to Norfolk. But that didn't happen.

The morning of November 14, 1943, dawned with a moderate sea and pleasant weather. The Iowa and her escorts were just east of Bermuda when the president and his guests wanted to see how the big ship could defend herself against an air attack, so the Iowa launched a number of weather balloons to use as anti-aircraft targets. Seeing more than 100 guns shooting at the balloons was exciting, and the president was duly proud of his Navy. Just as proud was Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J King, large in size and by demeanor a true monarch of the seas. Disagreeing with him meant the end of a naval career. Up to this time, no one knew what firing a torpedo at him would mean!

Over on the Willie Dee, Captain Walter watched the fireworks display with admiration and envy. Thinking about career redemption and breaking the hard luck spell, the captain sent his impatient crew to battle stations, and they began to shoot down the balloons that, missed by the Iowa, had drifted into the W.D. Porter's vicinity.Down on the torpedo mounts, the W.D. Porter's crew watched and waited--and prepared to take practice shots at the big battleship, which, even at 6,000 yards, seemed to blot out the horizon. Torpedomen Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio were among those responsible for the torpedoes and for ensuring that the primers (small explosive charges) were installed during actual combat and removed during practice. Dawson, unfortunately, forgot to remove the primer from torpedo tube number three.

Up on the bridge, a new torpedo officer ordered the simulated firing and commanded, "Fire one." "Fire two," and finally, "Fire three." There was no "Fire four." The sequence was interrupted by a whoooossshhh - the unmistakable sound made by a successfully armed and launched torpedo. LT H. Seward Lewis, who witnessed the entire event, later described the next few minutes as what hell would look like if it ever broke loose. Just after he saw the torpedo hit the water on its way to the Iowa, where some of the most prominent figures in world history stood, he innocently asked the captain, "Did you give permission to fire a torpedo?" Captain Walter uttered something akin to, "Hell, no. I, I, iii, aaa, iiiii --- what?!" Not exactly in keeping with some other famous naval quotes, like John Paul Jones', "I have not yet begun to fight," or even Civil war era RADM David Glasgow Farragut's, "Damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead!" although the latter would have been appropriate.

The next five minutes aboard the Willie Dee were pandemonium. Everyone raced around shouting conflicting instructions and attempting to warn the Iowa of imminent danger. First, a flashing light attempted a warning about the torpedo but indicated the wrong direction. Next, the W.D. Porter signaled that she was going in reverse at full speed. Despite the strictly enforced radio silence, it was finally decided to notify the Iowa. The radio operator on the destroyer yelled, "Lion [code word for the Iowa], lion, come right!" The Iowa operator, more concerned about improper radio procedure, requested that the offending station identify itself first. Finally, the message was received, and the Iowa began turning to avoid the speeding torpedo.

Meantime, on the Iowa's bridge, word of the torpedo firing had reached President Roosevelt. He only wanted to see the torpedo and asked that his wheelchair be moved to the railing. His loyal secret Service bodyguard immediately drew his pistol as if to shoot the torpedo! The Iowa began evasive maneuvers, yet trained all guns on the William D. Porter. There was now some thought that the W D. Porter was part of an assassination plot. Within moments of the warning, a thunderous explosion occurred behind the Iowa. The torpedo had been detonated by the wash kicked up by the battleship's increased speed. The crisis was over, and so were some careers. Captain Walter's final utterance to the Iowa was in response to a question about the origin of the torpedo. His answer was a weak, "We did it."

Shortly thereafter, the new state-of-the-art destroyer, her ambitious captain and seemingly fumbling crew were placed under arrest and sent to Bermuda for trial. It was the first time in the history of the United States Navy that an entire ship and her company had been arrested. The William D. Porter was surrounded by Marines when it docked in Bermuda and was held there for several days as the closed-session inquiry attempted to find out what had happened. The outcome was delayed for a couple of days until Torpedoman Dawson finally confessed to having inadvertently left the primer in the torpedo tube, which caused the launch. Just after the torpedo left its tube, Dawson had thrown the primer over the side to conceal his mistake. The truth was eventually pried out of him, and the inquiry drew to a close. The whole incident was chalked up to an incredible set of circumstances and placed under a cloak of secrecy.That's not to say that the Navy took no action. Captain Walter and several former William D. Porter officers and sailors eventually found themselves in obscure shore assignments and Dawson was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. President Roosevelt intervened, however, and asked that no punishment be meted out as the near disaster had been an accident.

The destroyer next found herself in the upper Aleutians on patrol. It was probably thought that this was as safe a place as any for the destroyer and those around her. But before being reassigned to another area in the Pacific, she accidentally, but of course, successfully, lobbed a 5-inch shell into the front yard of the American base commandant.

When the William D. Porter later joined other ships off Okinawa, the destroyer did distinguish herself by shooting down a variety of Japanese aircraft and, reportedly, three American planes! She was generally greeted by, "Don't shoot; we're Republicans," and the crew of the Willie Dee had become used to the ribbing. However, the crew members of a sister ship, the USS Luce, were not so polite in their greetings after the W.D. Porter accidentally riddled her side and superstructure with gunfire. On June 10, 1945, the hard luck ship met her end. A Japanese "Val" bomber, constructed almost entirely of wood and canvas, slipped through the defenses. As it had very little metal surface, the bomber was not unlike our present-day stealth planes. It did not register on radar. The bomber, a fully loaded kamikaze, headed for the ship near the W.D. Porter but, at the last moment, veered away and crashed alongside the unlucky destroyer. There was a sigh of relief as the plane sank out of sight without exploding. Unfortunately, it then blew up underneath the destroyer and opened up the ship's hull in the worse possible location. Three hours later, the last man, the captain, jumped to the safety of a rescue vessel, leaving the ship that almost changed the face of the world and national politics to slip stern first into 2,400 feet of water.

Miraculously, not a single soul was lost in the sinking. It was almost as if the ship that had been so unlucky chose to let her crew live. The saga of the USS William D. Porter was over.

USS William D. Porter was named in honor of Commodore William D. Porter (1808-1864), who played an important role in Civil War operations on the Western Rivers during 1861-62.


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