USS WILLIAM D. PORTER
Kit Bonner, The Retired Officer Magazine,
The "Willie Dee" created havoc from the
time she was commissioned in July, 1943 until her unusual, and perhaps, charmed demise in
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
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 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 20mm and 40mm AAA guns,
but their main armament consisted of 10 fast-running and accurate torpedoes that carried
The W.D. Porter was placed in commission 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 other formerly valuable pieces
of equipment. The Willie Dee suffered mearly 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 U-boat deeding 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 the stern and detonated in the rough
sea. The safety had not been set as instructed. Captain Walker's fast track career was
fast becoming side-tracked.
Shortly thereafter, a freak wave inundated the
Porter, stripping everything what 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 air attack, so the IOWA launched a number of weather balloons to
use as antiaircraft 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, Adm. 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
Down on the torpedo mounts, the
W.D. Porter's crews
watched, waited and prepared to take practice shoots at the big battleship, which, even at
6000 yards seemed to blot out the horizon. Torpedoman 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 whoooooshhh - the unmistakable sound made by a successful armed and launched torpedo.
Lt. H. Seward Lewis, who whitnessed the entire
event, later described the next few minutes as what hell would look 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 the 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, iiiiii - - 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 Glasgos Farragut's, "Damn the torpedoes
- full speed ahead!" although the latter would have been more 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 to 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
Meantime, on the IOWA's bridge, word of the torpedo
firing 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 the tube, Dawson had thrown the
primer over the side to conceal his mistake. The truth was eventually priced 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 here. 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 the 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 drew 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. A fully loaded kamikaze, the
bomber headed for a 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 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 this sinking. It was almost as if the ship that had been so
unlucky chose to let her crew live. The sage of the USS William D. Porter was over.
Every so often, the crew of the Willie Dee gather
and remember their ill-fated ship. They remember the good times, and now, nearly 51 years
later, the notorious torpedo incident elicits amusement rather than the heart-wrenching
embarrassment it caused in 1943.
This article is naval historian Kit Bonner's first for The
Retired Officer Magazine. He dedicates it to his father and every other officer
who has served on a destroyer.