(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)
In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.
The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.
Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.
Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.
Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.
After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.
At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.
Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.
Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.
The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.
Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum: “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!”
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.
Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.
With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.
The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.
The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.