BILL BUYS . . . 

. . . takes a light-hearted look at a sometimes crazy world of motoring - and other forms of transport - nationally, internationally, and right here in North East Victoria and the Southern Riverina

The ballad of ‘Willie Dee’

USS Porter.jpg
Bill Buys.jpg
Words/pictures: Bill Buys

THERE are some famous WWII American warships like the USS Enterprise, the San Diego, the Missouri, and a dozen more.


But there’s no mention of the USS William D Porter, a ship the US Navy would dearly love to forget ever existed.


In fact, its history would make a terrific Hollywood movie, probably of the comedy kind, but that, as they say in Biden country, ain’t gonna happen.


The USS William D Porter emerged from the shipyards as a Fletcher-class destroyer, named after a Civil War hero who stowed away on a warship at the age of 12 and enlisted at 15.


Known to her crew as ‘Willie Dee’, the destroyer’s first mission was to join the battleship USS Iowa for escort duty.


But as she left port on November 12, 1943, her anchor got caught on a neighbouring warship and ripped out some of the other ship's railings, a life boat, and other pieces of the vessel.


Undamaged itself, Porter rendezvoused with the Iowa and other destroyers for an important mission: escorting President Franklin Roosevelt to Tehran for meetings with the Allied leaders.


For security, the ships were to maintain radio silence until they reached their destination, communicating only through signal lights.


A day into the journey, a sudden underwater explosion caused the entire formation to take evasive action, believing that they were being attacked by an enemy submarine.


But it turned out that the explosion was caused by one of Porter's depth charges, which had been armed and then accidentally rolled off the ship.


Shortly after, Porter was hit by a freak wave, one sailor was lost, a boiler room was flooded, and the captain had to break radio silence to tell Iowa why the destroyer was lagging behind.


A day later, President Franklin Roosevelt, a naval enthusiast who had served as assistant secretary of the Navy, asked for a demonstration of Iowa's anti-aircraft capabilities.


The battleship sent up multiple target balloons, and gunners on its deck set about shooting them down.


A few of the balloons drifted toward Porter, whose crew also shot them down.


The accompanying destroyers then demonstrated mock torpedo attack runs.


The torpedoes' primers were to be removed to ensure they wouldn't exit the tubes when fired.


Porter got into position about 6000m from Iowa and commenced its mock attack.


As planned, the first two torpedoes did not leave their tubes when fired, but the third torpedo's primer was very much in place, and it shot out of its tube, heading straight for Iowa.


Pandemonium erupted on Porter, whose captain hesitated to warn Iowa by radio and instead, ordered a warning be sent by signal light.


But in the haste and confusion, Porter sent the wrong message, signalling Iowa that the destroyer was reversing at full speed.


Realising the mistake, Porter broke radio silence and warned Iowa of the fast-approaching torpedo threat.


Iowa turned to avoid the torpedo, which exploded about 3000m to the rear of the battleship.


Next thing, all of Iowa's guns were then trained on Porter, as the naval authorities figured it was an assassination attempt.


Porter was ordered to sail to Bermuda, where its entire crew was arrested.


That had never happened before in US Naval history.


Chief torpedoman Lawton Dawson admitted he had forgotten to remove the primer and was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour.


But President Roosevelt intervened, requesting that Dawson's sentence and any others given out for the incident be rescinded.


Roosevelt himself had asked his Secret Service detachment to move his wheelchair to the railing of Iowa so he could see the torpedo when he heard of its firing.


Porter was transferred to the Pacific after the incident with Iowa.


In late September 1944, Porter was ordered to the western Pacific, where it escorted ships and provided shore bombardment for American troops during the liberation of Luzon in the Philippines.


The destroyer even managed to shoot down four Japanese aircraft and sink a few enemy barges.


On March 24, 1945, Porter joined the naval force for the Battle of Okinawa, where it conducted shore bombardment, anti-submarine patrols, escorted minesweepers, and provided anti-aircraft support for the task force.


It also downed another five enemy planes.


Then Porter's history of horrors continued: first when it accidentally raked the destroyer USS Luce with gunfire during an air attack, and then on June 10, when a Japanese dive bomber launched a kamikaze attack on Porter as it operated off Okinawa.


Porter managed to dodge the bomber, which crashed into the water some distance to starboard.


Soon after, the warship changed course - and ran straight over the semi-submerged kamikaze plane, setting off its massive load of explosives.


The blast momentarily lifted Porter out of the water and the ‘Willie Dee’ slowly but surely disappeared under the waves to greet Poseidon, the god of the sea.


In its final moments, it did have some luck, as not a single crew member was killed or seriously injured in the attack.


All crewmen managed to evacuate before the destroyer slipped beneath the waves, ending the career of the unluckiest, and seldom mentioned, ship in US Navy history.