The Willie D. Porter (DD-579) - What a story!!!

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Since 04-08-05

Updated 05-07-06

Original source for this story:

The Ill-Fated USS William D. Porter, DD-579

By Kit Bonner

Reprinted from The Navy Times (1995)
http://www.kilroywashere.org/006-Pages/06--0Rest-.html


From: Candido Gutierrez
To: cande@classicnet.net
Sent: Tuesday, April 05, 2005 12:23 AM
Subject: The Willie D. What a story!!!

A Remarkable Story

From November 1943, until her demise in June 1945, the American destroyer 'William D Porter' was often hailed - whenever she entered port or joined other Naval ships - with the greetings: 'Don't shoot, we're Republicans!' For a half a century, the US Navy kept a lid on the details of the incident that prompted this salutation. A Miami news reporter made the first public disclosure in 1958 after he stumbled upon the truth while covering a reunion of the destroyer's crew. The Pentagon reluctantly and tersely confirmed his story, but only a smattering of newspapers took notice.

Fifty years ago today, the "Willie D" as the Porter was nicknamed, accidentally fired a live torpedo at the battleship Iowa during a practice exercise. As if this weren't bad enough, the Iowa was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time, along with Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and all of the country's WWII military brass. They were headed for the Big Three Conference in Tehran, where Roosevelt was to meet Stalin and Churchill. Had the Porter's torpedo struck the Iowa at the aiming point, the last 50 years of world history might have been quite different.

The USS William D Porter (DD-579) was one of hundreds of assembly line destroyers build during the war. They mounted several heavy and light guns, but their main armament consisted of 10 fast-running and accurate torpedoes that carried 500-pound warheads. This destroyer was placed in commission on July 1943 under the command of Wilfred Walker, a man on the Navy's fast career track. In the months before she was detailed to accompany the Iowa across the Atlantic in November 1943, the Porter and her crew learned their trade, experiencing the normal problems that always beset a new ship and a novice crew. The mishaps grew more serious when she became an escort for the pride of the fleet, the big new battleship Iowa.

The night before they left Norfolk, bound for North Africa, the Porter accidentally damaged a nearby sister ship when she backed down along the other ship's side and her anchor tore down her railings, life rafts, ship's boat and various other formerly valuable pieces of equipment. The Willie D merely had a scraped anchor, but her career of mayhem and mishaps had begun.

Just twenty four hours later, the four-ship convoy consisting of Iowa and her secret passengers and two other destroyers was under strict instructions to maintain complete radio silence. As they were going through a known U-boat feeding ground, speed and silence were the best defense. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion rocked the convoy. All of the ships commenced anti-submarine maneuvers. This continued until the Porter sheepishly admitted that one of her depth charges had fallen off her stern and exploded. The 'safety' had not been set as instructed. Captain Walker was watching his fast track career become side-tracked.

Shortly thereafter, a freak wave inundated the ship, stripping away everything that wasn't lashed down. A man was washed overboard and never found. Next, the fire room lost power in one of its boilers. The Captain, by this point, was making reports almost hourly to the Iowa on the Willie D's difficulties. It would have been merciful if the force commander had detached the hard luck ship and sent her back to Norfolk. But, no, she sailed on.

The morning of 14 November 1943 dawned with a moderate sea and pleasant weather. The Iowa and her escorts were just east of Bermuda, and the president and his guests wanted to see how the big ship could defend herself against an air attack. So, Iowa launched a number of weather balloons to use as anti-aircraft targets. It was exciting to see more than 100 guns shooting at the balloons, and the President was proud of his Navy. Just as proud was Admiral Ernest J King, the Chief of Naval Operations; large in size and by demeanor, a true monarch of the sea. 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 D, Captain Walker 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. They began to shoot down the balloons the Iowa had missed as they drifted into the Porter's vicinity.

Down on the torpedo mounts, the crew watched, waiting to take some practice shots of their own on the big battleship, which, even though 6,000 yards away, seemed to blot out the horizon. Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio were among those responsible for the torpedoes. Part of their job involved ensuring that the primers were installed during actual combat and removed during practice. Once a primer was installed, on a command to fire, it would explode shooting the torpedo out of its tube. Dawson, on this particular morning, unfortunately had forgotten to remove the primer from torpedo tube #3. Up on the bridge, a new torpedo officer, unaware of the danger, ordered a simulated firing. "Fire 1, Fire 2," and finally, "Fire 3." There was no fire 4 as the sequence was interrupted by an unmistakable whooooooshhhhing sound made by a successfully launched and armed torpedo. Lt. H. Steward Lewis, who witnessed the entire event, later described the next few minutes as what hell would look like if it ever broke loose.

Just after he saw the torpedo hit water on its way to the Iowa and some of the most prominent figures in world history, Lewis innocently asked the Captain, 'Did you give permission to fire a torpedo?' Captain Walker's reply will not ring down through naval history.. although words to the effect of Farragut's immortal 'Damn the torpedoes' figured centrally within. Initially there was some reluctance to admit what had happened, or even to warn the Iowa. As the awful reality sunk in, people began racing around, shouting conflicting instructions and attempting to warn the flagship of imminent danger. First, there was a flashing light warning about the torpedo which unfortunately indicated it was headed in another direction. Next, the Porter signaled that it was going reverse at full speed! Finally, they decided to break the strictly enforced radio silence. The radio operator on the destroyer transmitted "'Lion (code for the Iowa), Lion, come right." The Iowa operator, more concerned about radio procedure, requested that the offending station identify itself first. Finally, the message was received and the Iowa began turning to avoid the speeding torpedo.

Meanwhile, on the Iowa's bridge, word of the torpedo firing had reached FDR, who asked that his wheelchair be moved to the railing so he could see better what was coming his way. His loyal Secret Service guard immediately drew his pistol as if he was going to shoot the torpedo. As the Iowa began evasive maneuvers, all of her guns were trained on the William D. Porter. There was now some thought that the Porter was part of an assassination plot. Within moments of the warning, there was a tremendous explosion just behind the battleship. The torpedo had been detonated by the wash kicked up by the battleship's increased speed.

The crisis was over and so was Captain Walker's career. His final utterance to the Iowa, in response to a question about the origin of the torpedo, was a weak, "We did it." Shortly thereafter, the brand new destroyer, her Captain and the entire crew were placed under arrest and sent to Bermuda for trial. It was the first time that a complete ship's company had been arrested in the history of the US Navy. The ship was surrounded by Marines when it docked in Bermuda, and held there several days as the closed session inquiry attempted to determine what had happened. Torpedoman Dawson eventually confessed to having inadvertently leaving the primer in the torpedo tube, which caused the launching. Dawson had thrown the used primer over the side to conceal his mistake.

The whole incident was chalked up to an unfortunate set of circumstances and placed under a cloak of secrecy. Someone had to be punished. Captain Walker and several other Porter officers and sailors eventually found themselves in obscure shore assignments. Dawson was sentenced to 14 years hard labor. President Roosevelt intervened; however, asking that no punishment be metered out for what was clearly an accident. The destroyer was banished to the upper Aleutians. It was probably thought this was as safe a place as any for the ship and anyone who came near her. She remained in the frozen north for almost a year, until late 1944, when she was reassigned to the Western Pacific.

Before leaving the Aleutians, she accidentally left her calling card in the form of a five-inch shell fired into the front yard of the American base commandant, thus rearranging his flower garden. In December 1944, she joined the Philippine invasion forces and acquitted herself quite well. She distinguished herself by shooting down a number of attacking Japanese aircraft. Regrettably, after the war, it was reported that she also shot down three American planes. This was a common event on ships, as many gunners, fearful of kamikazes, had nervous trigger fingers.

In April 1945, the destroyer was assigned to support the invasion of Okinawa. By this time, the greeting "Don't Shoot, We're Republicans" was commonplace and the crew of the Willie D had become used to the ribbing. But the crew of her sister ship, the USS Luce, was not so polite in its salutations after the Porter accidentally riddled her side and superstructure with gunfire.

On 10 June 1945, the Porter's hard luck finally ran out. She was sunk by a plane which had (unintentionally) attacked underwater. A Japanese bomber made almost entirely of wood and canvas slipped through the Navy's defense. Having little in the way of metal surfaces, the plane didn't register on radar. A fully loaded kamikaze, it was headed for a ship near the Porter, but just at the last moment veered away and crashed along side the unlucky destroyer. There was a sigh of relief as the plane sunk out of sight, but then it blew up underneath the Porter, opening her hull in the worst possible location.

Three hours later, after the last man was off board, the Captain jumped to the safety of a rescue vessel and the ship that almost changed world history slipped astern into 2,400 feet of water. Not a single soul was lost in the sinking. After everything else that happened, it was almost as if the ship decided to let her crew off at the end.

Background information at
<A HREF="http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/579.htm"> http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/579.htm/A>

A more admirable account of her history at
<A HREF="http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/destroy/dd579txt.htm"> http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/destroy/dd579txt.htm

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DD-579

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William D. Porter
(DD-579: dp. 2,060; l. 376'6", b. 39'4"; dr. 17'9";s 35.5 k., cpl. 273, a. 5 5", 4 40mm., 4 20mm., 10 2;" tt., 2 dct., 6 dcp.; cl. Fletcher)

William D. Porter (DD-579) was laid down on 7 May 1942 at Orange, Tex., by the Consolidated Steel Corp.; launched on 27 September 1942; sponsored by Miss Mary Elizabeth Reeder; and commissioned on 6 July 1943, Lt. Comdr. Wilfred A. Walter in command.

William D. Porter departed Orange shortly after being commissioned. After stops at Galveston, Tex., and Algiers, La., the destroyer headed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 30 July for shakedown. She completed shakedown a month later and, following a brief stop at Bermuda, continued on to Charleston, S.C., where she arrived on 7 September. William D. Porter completed post-shakedown repairs at Charleston and got underway for Norfolk, Va., at the end of the month. For about five weeks, the warship operated from Norfolk conducting battle practice with Intrepid (CV-11) and other ships of the Atlantic Fleet.

On 12 November, she departed Norfolk and the following day rendezvoused with Iowa (BB-61). That battleship was on her way to North Africa carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Cairo and Teheran Conferences. During battle drills on the afternoon of the 14th, William D. Porter inadvertently fired a live torpedo at lowa. However, the destroyer signaled Iowa in plenty of time to allow the battleship to turn hard to starboard, parallel to the torpedo's wake. The torpedo exploded some 3,000 yards astern of the mighty man-of-war. William D. Porter completed her part in the mission and steamed west to Bermuda, where she arrived on 16 November.

A week later, she returned to Norfolk and prepared for transfer to the Pacific. She got underway for that duty on 4 December, steamed via Trinidad, and reached the Panama Canal on the 12th. After transiting the canal, the destroyer set a course for San Diego, where she stopped between 19 and 21 December to take on cold weather clothing and other supplies necessary for duty in the Aleutian Islands.

On 29 December, William D. Porter arrived in Dutch Harbor, on the island of Unalaska, and joined TF 94. Between 2 and 4 January 1944, she voyaged from Dutch Harbor to Adak, whence she conducted training operations until her departure for Hawaii on the 7th. The warship entered Pearl Harbor on 22 January and remained there until 1 February at which time the destroyer put to sea again to escort Black Hawk (AD9) to Adak. The two ships arrived at their destination nine days later and William D. Porter began four months of relatively uneventful duty with TF 94. She sailed between the various islands in the Aleutians chain, serving primarily as an antisubmarine escort.

On 10 June, the destroyer stood out of Attu and headed for the Kuril Islands. She and the other ships of TF 94 reached their destination early on the morning of the 13th. They started to shell their target, the island of Matsuwa, at 0513. After 20 minutes, William D. Porter's radar picked up an unidentified surface vessel, closing her port quarter at a speed in excess of 55 knots. Her radar personnel tentatively identified the craft as an enemy PT-type boat, and the warship ceased fire on Matsuwa to take the new target under fire. Soon thereafter, the craft's reflection disappeared from the radar screen, presumably the victim of TF 94's gunfire. Not long afterward, the task force completed its mission and retired from the Kurils to refuel at Attu.

On 24 June, the destroyer left Attu with TF 94 for her second mission in the Kurils. Following two days at sea in steadily increasing fog, she arrived off Paramushiro on the 26th. In a dense fog with visibility down to about 200 yards, she delivered her gunfire and then departed with TF 94 to return to the Aleutians. A month of training exercises intervened between her second and third voyages to the Kurils. On 1 August, she cleared Kuluk Bay for her final bombardment of the Kurils. On the second day out, an enemy twin-engine bomber snooped the task force and received a hail of fire from some of the screening destroyers. That proved to be the only noteworthy event of the mission, because the following day the bombardment was canceled due to poor weather and the enemy reconnaissance plane. William D. Porter dropped anchor in Massacre Bay at Attu on 4 August.

After a month of antisubmarine patrol, the warship departed the Aleutians for a brief yard period at San Francisco preparatory to reassignment to the western Pacific. She completed repairs and stood out of San Francisco on 27 September. She reached Oahu on 2 October and spent the ensuing fortnight in training operations out of Pearl Harbor. On the 18th, she resumed her voyage west, and, 12 days later, the warship pulled into Seeadler Harbor at Manus in the Admiralty Islands. She departed Manus early in November to escort Alshain (AK-55) via Hollandia to Leyte.

Though William D. Porter arrived in the western Pacific too late to participate in the actual invasion at Leyte, combat conditions persisted there after her arrival in San Pedro Bay. Soon after she anchored there, Japanese planes swooped in to attack the ships in the anchorage. The first plane fell to the guns of a nearby destroyer before reaching William D. Porter's effective range. A second intruder appeared, however and the destroyer's 5-inch guns joined those of the assembled transports in bringing him to a fiery end in mid-air.

For the remainder of the year, William D. Porter escorted ships between Leyte, Hollandia, Manus, Bougainville, and Mindoro. On 21 December, while steaming from Leyte to Mindoro, she encountered enemy air power once again. Two planes made steep glides and dropped several bombs near the convoy. The destroyer opened up with her main battery almost as soon as the enemies appeared but to no avail. Their bombs missed their targets by a wide margin, but the two Japanese aircraft apparently suffered no damage and made good their escape. Not long thereafter, four more airborne intruders attacked. William D. Porter concentrated her fire on the two nearest her, one of which fell to her antiaircraft fire. The second succumbed to the combined efforts of other nearby destroyers, and the remaining two presumably retired to safety. From then until midnight, enemy aircraft shadowed the convoy, but none displayed temerity enough to attack. Before dawn the following morning, she encountered and destroyed a heavily laden, but abandoned, enemy landing barge. After completing her screening mission to Mindoro, William D. Porter returned to San Pedro Bay on 26 December to begin preparations for the invasion of Luzon.

For the Lingayen operation, William D. Porter was assigned to the Lingayen Fire Support Group of Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's Bombardment and Fire Support Group (TG 77.2). The destroyer departed San Pedro Bay on 2 January 1945 and joined her unit in Leyte Gulf the following day. The entire group then passed south through the Surigao Strait, thence crossed the Mindanao Sea, rounded the southern tip of Negros, and then proceeded generally north along the western coasts of Negros, Panay, Mindoro, and finally, Luzon.

By the time the unit reached the southwestern coast of Luzon, it came within the effective range of Luzon based aircraft. Beginning on the morning of 5 January, enemy planes including kamikazes brought the force under attack. William D. Porter saw no action during the first stage of those attacks, because the group's combat air patrol (CAP) provided an effective protective blanket. However, the last raid broke through the CAP umbrella at 1650 and charged to the attack. William D. Porter took three of those planes under fire at about 1713, but growing darkness precluded evaluation of the results of that engagement. During that raid, cruiser Louisville (CA-28) and escort carrier Manila Bay (CVE-61) suffered extensive damage from kamikaze crashes.

Before dawn on the 6th, the destroyer moved into Lingayen Gulf with her unit to begin preinvasion bombardment. Throughout the day, enemy planes made sporadic attacks upon the bombarding ships. That evening, William D. Porter began firing on shore batteries guarding the approaches to the landing beaches. At 1738, her attention was diverted to a lone plane; and her antiaircraft battery brought it down handily. Twenty minutes later, a twin-engine "Betty" ran afoul of the destroyer's gunners who splashed this one neatly as well. William D. Porter then returned to her primary mission, shore bombardment.

After the 9 January landings. the destroyer's mission changed to call fire and night harassing fire in support of the troops. Then, from 11 to 18 January, she stood off Lingayen Gulf with TG 77.2 to protect the approaches from incursion by enemy surface forces. On the 18th, she reentered the gulf to resume support duty for forces ashore and to contribute to the anchorage's air and antisubmarine defenses. On 3 February, the warship bombarded abandoned enemy barges to assure that they would not be used against the invasion force or as evacuation vehicles. She then resumed her antisubmarine and air defense role until 15 February, when she departed Lingayen Gulf to escort Lindenwald (LSD-6) and Epping Forest (LSD-4) to Guam.

After returning briefly to Lingayen Gulf, William D. Porter moved on to Leyte to prepare for the assault on Okinawa. She remained at Leyte during the first half of March; then joined the gunfire support unit attached to the Western Islands Attack Group for a week of gunnery practice at Cabugan Island. She departed the Philippines on 21 March, reached the Ryukyu Islands on the morning of the 25th, and began supporting the virtually unopposed occupation of Kerama Retto. Between 25 March and 1 April, she provided antiaircraft and antisubmarine protection for the ships in the Kerama roadstead, while performing some fire support duties in response to what little resistance the troops met ashore on the islets of Kerama Retto.

However, by the time the main assault on Okinawa began on the morning of 1 April, she had been reassigned to TF 54, Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo's Gunfire and Covering Force. During her association with that task organization, William D. Porter rendered fire support for the troops conquering Okinawa, provided antisubmarine and antiaircraft defenses for the larger warships of TF 54, and protected minesweepers during their operations. Between 1 April and 5 May, she expended in excess of 8,500 rounds of 5-inch shells both at shore targets and at enemy aircraft during the almost incessant aerial attacks on the invasion force. During that period, she added five additional plane kills to her tally.

The constant air raids launched from Kyushu and Formosa prompted the Americans to establish a cordon of radar picket ships around Okinawa, and it was to this duty that William D. Porter switched in early May. Between 5 May and 9 June, she stood picket duty, warned the fleet of the approach of enemy air raids, and vectored interceptors out to meet the attackers. She brought down another enemy plane with her own guns; and fighters under her direction accounted for seven more.

On 10 June 1945, William D. Porter fell victim to a unique though fatal kamikaze attack. At 0815 that morning, an obsolete "Val" dive-bomber dropped unheralded out of the clouds and made straight for the warship. The destroyer managed to evade the suicide plane, and it splashed down close aboard her. Somehow, the explosive-laden plane ended up directly beneath William D. Porter before it exploded. Suddenly the warship was lifted out of the water and then dropped back again. She lost power and suffered broken steam lines. A number of fires also broke out. For three hours, her crew struggled courageously to put out the fires, repair the damage, and keep the ship afloat. The crew's efforts, however, availed nought, and, 12 minutes after the order to abandon ship went out, William D. Porter heeled over to starboard and sank by the stern. Miraculously, her crew suffered no fatal injuries. The warship's name was struck from the Navy list on 11 July 1945.

William D. Porter received four battle stars for her service in World War II.