12 July 2021: We hope all of you who celebrate American Independence Day had a satisfying experience and enjoyed all the usual delights: fireworks, cookouts with family and friends, and "chillin'" on the beach! And speaking of fireworks, here's a story, edited down from an online publication called 1945.
Patriotic action movies would have you believe military units regularly perform like well-oiled fighting machines. But sometimes reality is closer to Bill Murray’s Stripes.
Such at least was the case of the William D. Porter, whose mishaps were famously immortalized in an article by Kit Bonner.
Named after a swashbuckling Union Civil War captain, the Porter was one of 175 Fletcher-class destroyers built during World War II. Destroyers, dubbed “tin cans” because of their lack of armor, were relatively small but fast warships often tasked with protecting convoys and larger warships. Fletcher-class destroyers boasted ten torpedo tubes, depth charge projectors, and five radar-guided 5” dual-purpose guns allowing them to ably combat aircraft, submarines and surface warships.
The “Willy D’s” shakedown cruise in the summer of 1943 proceeded uneventfully under Lt. Commander Wilfred Walter. That November, she was then assigned to a secret task force charged with escorting President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the battleship USS Iowa to conferences in Cairo and Tehran.
FDR was accompanied by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and the chiefs of the Army, Army Air Force and Navy (Admiral Ernest King). Their meetings with Churchill, Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin would shape the postwar geopolitical order.
German U-Boats were then exacting a terrifying toll from U.S. convoys in the Atlantic, so the taskforce had to maintain strict radio silence to keep the Kriegsmarine in the dark.
As Porter slipped from her quay in Norfolk, Virginia on November 12, things immediately began to go wrong. Her crew failed to properly raise the anchor, which went rattling across the deck of a neighboring destroyer, tearing away railings and lifeboats.
The following day, Iowa, Porter and two other ships were underway in the Atlantic when an underwater explosion shattered the calm. The taskforce began evasive maneuvers in response to the apparent submarine attack.
But Porter then signaled it was a false alarm: one of her depth charges had accidentally rolled off deck and detonated—because nobody had secured the charge’s safety.
Then a violent wave slammed into the destroyer, sweeping a man overboard, who was tragically never rescued, and flooding one of her boilers. The Porter fell behind and broke radio silence to update the Iowa on her repairs—eliciting an irate message from Admiral King.
Then on November 14, Roosevelt—who had been Secretary of the Navy during World War I—asked to observe an air defense drill. Balloons were released, and gunners on the Iowa and Porter began blasting them out of sky.
Captain Wilfred decided to follow up with a torpedo drill, in which the Porter practiced mock attacks on the Iowa—with the torpedoes’ primer charges removed.
Two mock torpedo launches went smoothly. But upon the third firing command at 2:36 PM, a 24-foot-long Mark 15 torpedo leapt from the Porter and surged towards the Iowa.
Torpedoes were tricky to land on target and often unreliable—but just one or two lucky hits sometimes sank even huge battleships and carriers.
The torpedo needed only a few minutes to traverse the 6,000 yards separating the Porter from the Iowa. But Wilfred, reluctant to break radio silence again, insisted on conveying the disastrous news using a signal lamp.
Unfortunately, the signalman garbled the messages twice. Finally, Wilfred radioed “Lion, lion! Turn right!” (“Lion” was Iowa’s codename.) When the Iowa’s operator responded in confusion, the captain clarified “Torpedo in the water!”
Iowa turned hard to port and accelerated to flank speed. Though the
825 pounds of HBX explosive in the torpedo might leave the Iowa at the
bottom of the sea in a few minutes given a lucky hit, Roosevelt instructed the
Secret Servicemen pushing his wheelchair to position him with a view. The
former Navy Secretary wanted to see the action.
USS Iowa fires a 16" gun
Finally at 2:40, the torpedo struck the Iowa’s wake and detonated a safe distance away.
The taskforce’s commander had had enough. He ordered the Porter to report to Bermuda. There, the Navy held an inquiry to evaluate why exactly things had gone so spectacularly wrong. Gross incompetence? A plot to kill Roosevelt?
Eventually, Chief Torpedoman Lawton Dawson admitted to having forgotten to remove the primer from the torpedo. The inexperienced seaman [ed: A Chief Torpedoman is not what we would think of as "inexperienced!"] was sentenced to fourteen years hard labor, but Roosevelt intervened to wave his sentence.
As FDR was a Democrat, legend has it Navy ships henceforth greeted the Porter with “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!”
Had the torpedo struck USS Iowa, things might have come out differently near the end of WWII! And, as an old Fletcher Class destroyerman, I can say sometimes things go "sideways" and rarely do they end well!
Until next time,