Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Strange History of the Willie D

Now those of you that routinely read this blog know that I enjoy history, especially those little nuggets that no one ever hears about. How about this?

In World War II there was a Navy ship that: (1) Wrecked a companion ship as it pulled out of harbor; (2) Depth charged the President of the United States; (3) Torpedoed the President of the United States; and (4) Shelled the home of a Base Commander. No, this is not an episode from McHale's Navy, but it would make an interesting movie.

World War II. The Navy was frantic for manpower -- pulling kids just out of high school and off the farms, quickly training them, and shipping them off to war. This was the situation with the crew of the USS William D. Porter, (the Willie D) an escort destroyer built in Orange, Texas. Most of her 125 officers and crew had never been on a ship before.

After leaving the Orange shipyards the Willie D berthed in Norfolk, Va.

Yalta Summit
Now a few of us know of the famous Yalta Summit  in Tehran with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin. Our own Willie D helped make this happen, or almost not happen.

On November 12, 1943 Roosevelt, his Secretary of State, and his Joint Chiefs of Staff set sail on Roosevelt's yacht for a friendly cruise in the bay. This was actually a top secret ruse, because the yacht pulled up along side the battleship Iowa and all the dignitaries, 80 in total, were transferred to the Iowa.

Prior to this, the Willie D was ordered from Norfolk to meet the Iowa Task Force. No one knew what was going on, and the Willie D pulled out of port for what was seemingly a typical mission. But things didn't start off well. It seems that when they raised anchor, no one explained that they were supposed to raise the anchor all the way. Somehow the anchor snagged the ship next to them ripping off its railing, life rafts and a small boat. I can imagine the Willie D radioing an "Oops, sorry 'bout that" as they continued on their way. The anchor suffered only minor scratches.

The Willie D met up with the task force which included Battleship Iowa, two aircraft carriers and three destroyers. Orders were given for strict radio silence. This was a secret mission.

The task force traveled at high speed across the Atlantic. The trip would take eight days. During this time all the ships would continue training and exercises with their crews.

While traveling through U-Boat territory, anti-submarine drills were being conducted. Suddenly in the wake of the Iowa was a huge explosion. All ships immediately went into anti-submarine maneuvers with urgent signal lamp messages passing back and forth between ships...until there was a meek little message from the Willie D. The message explained that there was no submarine and it seems that a sailor had forgotten to set the depth charge trigger to 'safe', and it accidentally rolled off the deck into the water....and it exploded after the Iowa passed over it.

Soon afterward a freak wave hit the Willie D  and washed a sailor overboard and he was never found. Then the engine room lost power and fell behind the convoy. Admiral Ernest King was the Chief of Naval Operations on board the Iowa. He was embarrassed and a bit pissed. Here he was with the government on the United States on board staring over his shoulder. He made it known to the Captain of the Willie D that he was indeed fumbling a career opportunity on this very high profile mission. Willie D's skipper vowed to do better.

On November 14 off the coast of Bermuda the Admiral thought it would be a good idea to demonstrate to the President how well the Navy could protect him. The President and entourage went to the deck to witness this demonstration. Target balloons were released and the battleship and destroyers fired their weapons destroying the balloons. Some of the balloons drifted toward the Willie D. Eager to demonstrate the ships competence they fired at and destroyed the balloons. At the same time the captain ordered a torpedo launching drill.

You see where this is going, don't you?

As is common in such drills, you "fire" at local targets, and the Iowa was the biggest target around.

Now this was a drill which meant that the primers that actually launched torpedoes were removed which prevented a real launch. So the captain ordered, "Fire 1!", and there was a satisfying click signifying launch.

Then "Fire 2!" Click.

"Fire 3"......whoooosh! A torpedo launch right at the Iowa.

If there was ever an "Aw shit!" moment, this was it.

The captain screamed at the Signal Lamp signalman to signal Iowa that a torpedo was heading their way. The poor signalman in a moment of panic signaled that a torpedo was heading away from the Iowa. The signalman realized his error and resent the message this time really screwing the message up by stating, 'We are backing away from you'.  The captain saw that the Iowa was staying on course and realized the signals must have been screwed up. So, breaking radio silence, he screamed to his radioman to transmit:

"Lion, Lion, come right!" Lion was the code name for the Iowa.

The Lion radioman was a bit stunned to hear anything on the radio, and calmly responded with:

"Identify and say again. Where is submarine?"

Iowa's radioman screamed in reply:

"Torpedo in water! Lion! Come right! Emergency! Come right! Lion! Come right!"

Did I mention that the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the Chiefs of Staff were all sitting comfortably on the deck? With a torpedo heading toward them? Fired by the U. S. Navy?

The General Quarters Alarm sounded and the Iowa picked up speed and turned sharply starboard. The sharp turn listed the ship dramatically and everyone had to grip the rails, and aides had to grab Roosevelt's wheelchair to keep it from rolling. Everyone could see the torpedo in the water heading toward them. The Iowa's guns began firing at the torpedo. Even the Secret Service had their pistols out intending to shoot that torpedo to protect the President.

The crew of the Willie D held their breath. The crew of the Iowa held their breath. But yes, the Iowa made the turn in time. President Roosevelt wrote in his diary, 'On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it -- missed by 1,000 feet'.

Soon the convoy re-formed. When Willie D took up formation, they were dismayed to see that every gun in the convoy was trained on them. Admiral King got on the radio and asked, "What happened". The meek reply from Willie D was simply, "We did it". A few minutes later the contrite radioman of the Willie D radioed, "It was an accident".  

Was it accident? That was the question. Was this a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Executive Administration of the U.S. Government? Conspiracy theories were rampant.  Admiral King ordered the USS William D. Porter out of the convey and to pull into the Naval Base at Bermuda. The fleet continued on with its Yalta mission.

When the ship pulled into Bermuda it was greeted by the U. S. Marines with rifles trained on them. The entire crew of the Willie D was arrested. This was the only time an entire crew of a Navy ship has ever been arrested.

The crew was drilled in secret inquiry, the primary purpose was to find out if there was a saboteur on board the ship trying to kill the president. Finally a contrite and shaken Seaman Dawson admitted that he failed to pull the primer from Torpedo Three. When the torpedo fired unexpectedly he pulled the used primer and threw it overboard to hide evidence of his mistake.

Lieutenant William Poindexter, one of the ships officers, made an impassioned plea to the Inquiry Board. He said, "that the inexperience of the personnel of the William D. Porter, men as well as officers" had to be considered.

But the Willie D almost killed the President. Someone had to pay. Dawson was sentenced to fourteen years of hard labor. When Roosevelt heard about the sentence, he commuted it. He said that, it was just an accident. 

Word spread throughout the fleet. The Willie D  was a screw-up ship and watch out for her. In fact wherever she sailed she was greeted with, "Don't shoot. We're Republicans!"

What to do with the Willie D? They sent her to the Aleutians off in Alaska. She couldn't do any harm up there.

Wanna' bet.

Taking Aim at the Commandants Garden
During a break from exercises in a port in Alaska, when most of the crew was off the ship, a drunk sailor came back on board. He had an inspiration. He wanted to fire a big gun. He made his way to a 5-inch gun and figured out the firing mechanism and shot the damn thing.

Where did the shell hit? In the front yard of the Base Commandant where he just happened to be entertaining senior officers and their wives.

This just further eroded the ship's reputation.

The war was hitting a fever pitch in the Pacific. A more seasoned crew was put on the ship and it was sent to fight. It fought well. During the campaign near Okinawa it shot down a high speed kamikaze diving at them. The plane struck the water and continued forward in the sea and exploded under the Willie D. It took three hours for the ship to sink. The total crew was rescued.

Rescue of Crew from Willie D

Did I make this story up? I'm not that smart. Take a look at Article from Wikipedia, and An Article by Gregory Freeman, and Craziest War Stories.



  1., if someone had written that as the plot to a novel, critics would say, "Faulty premise! That could never happen!" What is it they say about truth and fiction?

    1. I think this would make a fantastic story -- and everyone watching it would think it is a silly comedy. Then at the end, they would state: This is a true story.

      Astonishingly many incidents like this happened throughout the war -- although not all to one ship. It is the result of raw, untrained youngsters asked to go and fight.

  2. Sounds like the story of my life!

    I love these nuggets of history that you share - far more interesting than anything I ever learned in school. And yes, this would make a hilarious movie.

    1. I figure it is those little nuggets that make the past a bit more meaningful.

  3. Jerry, buy movie rights to this story! Quick, I'll go in with you on it. We'll be rich -- i can quit my job. You can hire a contractor for any current and future house problems so you don't have to be bothered while you're blogging!

    Watching films and footage of war ships I've wondered if it doesn't require an awful lot of training to handle the equipment. (I imagine that nowadays the equipment is even more sophisticated, but perhaps back-up safety mechanisms are also more sophisticated - and resistant to human error. (I hope!)

    1. I'm sure that the intent was for highly qualified and trained personnel. But, since we were essentially losing the war at first, more and more kids were being thrown into the war with shockingly little training, hoping that they would learn with experience. I imagine there are so many stories out there with funny, and not so funny, screw-ups that could have been prevented if the time and organizational expertise was available.

  4. That is a fantastic story. It reminds me of one of the British carry on films that used to be popular here.

    1. There were quite a few comedic films from the 50's depicting silly misadventures during the war -- but they were clearly imaginative fiction. A true story makes it all the more compelling.

  5. This is the sort of stuff that made working in police departments for twenty-five years ever so worth it :}

  6. Merciful Heavens and we still won the war. Truly, truth is stranger than fiction.

  7. At the height of tensions during Cuban Missile Crisis a guard at mid-west military base thought he saw a figure climbing a security fence. The guard shot at the intruder and set off the sabotage alarm which set off alarms at other bases. Ad Volk Field Wisconsin this caused nuclear armed F-106 interceptors to take off. The aircraft were starting down the runway when it was reported back that the intruder had been a bear encountering the fence.