USS William D. Porter (DD-579): 1942-1945
For the podcast version of this story, check out Episode 6: The Great Emu War of 1932!
The USS William D. Porter was a US Naval Destroyer with perhaps the worst track record in American military history. It was a Fletcher-Class ship named after a Commodore who fought for the Union during the Civil War. This seemingly cursed ship was soon dubbed the ‘Willie Dee’. It was not meant to be endearing…
Following the events of Pearl Harbor (December 7th, 1941 – when a Japanese sneak attack decimated the American Naval base in Hawaii, for those who failed history class), President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially declared war, and the United States finally entered World War II against Hitler and his allies… (better late than never, I suppose?) While the European Theater was already in full swing, the Pacific Theater was just starting to heat up, thanks to Uncle Sam who had a personal beef to settle.
Over the next few years, the US built over 1,000 ships ready for combat in the Pacific, one of those ships was the soon-to-be infamous ‘Willie Dee’. The USS Porter was constructed and launched in 1942, and was ready for her shakedown by July, 1943, before joining up with the Atlantic Fleet for maneuvers. The problems began almost immediately…
DAY ONE: The First Incident
On November 12th, 1943, while sailing out of Norfolk, Virginia, the USS William D. Porter (under the command of Lieutenant Commander Wilfred Aves Walter) was tasked with a secret mission to escort the USS Iowa to North Africa. The Iowa was a battleship that just so happened to have the President of the United States on board! FDR was on his way to the Tehran Conference to meet with Winston Churchill, and Stalin to coordinate their efforts against Germany and Japan. As the Porter was leaving dock however, someone forgot to raise the anchor!
As a result, the Porter’s anchor nearly took out a nearby ship! The Destroyer’s railings, lifeboat mounts, and even the Captain’s Gig were completely ripped off as the Willie Dee’s anchor tore into the side of the docked vessel! It was an omen of things to come…
DAY TWO: The Second Incident!
On November 13th, the Willie Dee Porter joined up with two other ships to escort the President aboard the USS Iowa. The convoy was on alert for German U-Boats and was maintaining radio silence to not give away their position. When all of a sudden, without warning, there was a massive boom!
A large explosion caused a tidal wave that shook the USS Porter, nearly capsizing it, and knocking a sailor overboard, never to be seen again. The convoy went into panic mode, assuming they were under attack, and began defensive anti-submarine maneuvers, desperately trying to suss out the enemy. Well, that is until the crew of the Willie Dee realized that a *depth charge* had simply rolled off the deck of the ship… That’s right, not only did someone forget to strap it down, they also failed to install the safety mechanism!
Seriously, how does that happen, by accident?!
Anything that wasn’t strapped down was swept away by the resulting wave and the boiler room flooded, causing engine trouble, and the ship lost power. Unfortunately, because of that, the Porter was forced to stay behind, as the captain kept the rest of the convoy up to speed on the repairs. So much for radio silence.
And that’s not even the last accident to occur *that week*…
DAY THREE: The Third Incident?!
On November 14th, FDR wanted to see a demonstration of the fleets capabilities. What could possibly go wrong?
At President Roosevelt’s request, the USS Iowa launched a series of balloons for targeting practice, while the crews below deck ran torpedo drills. The crew of the WDP aimed it’s guns at the Iowa… you know, the ship with the President on board. They went through the motions of arming three torpedo’s. The practice order was given. The first two went off without a hitch, but somehow someone forgot to remove the primer from the third torpedo! As a result: on the third shot, the practice order was given, and a live, armed, torpedo shot out across the water towards the President’s battleship!
That’s right, the ship assigned to protect the President, had now fired on the President.
The entire crew of the USS Porter went into complete pandemonium, as you would imagine. They attempted to signal the Iowa without using their radios to no avail. One guy attempted to use signal lamps to alert the battleship, but used the wrong signal, causing even more confusion. They were once again forced to break protocol, and use the radio. When they did so, the Iowa responded, “Why are you breaking radio silence!? Identify yourself!” To which the officer aboard the Porter responded: “Missile! Turn Right!”
Thankfully, the USS Iowa got the message in the nick of time, just narrowly avoiding the torpedo. When Roosevelt heard about the misfire, he asked to have his wheelchair moved closer to the edge of the ship to get a better view. FDR and his secret service men watched from above deck as the torpedo harmlessly zoomed by! All of this happened in the span of just four minutes.
At this point, the entire flotilla’s guns were aimed at the Willie Dee. For all they knew there was a saboteur aboard, perhaps it was some kind of secret Nazi plot? Nope. Just good ole’ incompetence. In a completely unprecedented move, the entire crew of the USS William D. Porter was placed under arrest! They were then summarily shipped off to Bermuda to face trail. Most of the crew got off easy, but Lawton Dawson, the poor shmuck who forgot to pull the primer from the torpedo that almost sank the President’s Battleship, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor – that is until President Roosevelt intervened and pardoned him for the mistake.
Unfortunately, as fat would have it, this was not the end of the Willy Dee’s accident prone career.
The New Years Eve Incident
The Willie Dee was then sent to the Aleutian Islands, where they figured she couldn’t get into any more trouble. They were wrong…
During a New Years Eve party, a drunk sailor aboard the Willie Dee ‘accidentally’ shot a five inch artillery shell! Although they managed to not hit anyone, the artillery shell did land in the commandant’s front lawn – where it completely demolished his garden!
At this point, the ‘Willie Dee’ had a reputation. So much so that when other American ships approached, they would signal to them “Don’t shoot, we’re Americans!”
The Battle of Okinawa – The Final Incident?
Instead of scrapping the jinxed ship for parts, Commander Charles M. Keyes took command of the WDP on May 30th, 1944. The USS William D. Porter was sent to take on the Japanese navy on the front lines of the Pacific Theater, where she fought in the Philippines. Then came The Battle of Okinawa!
Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific with about 160,000 military casualties from both sides, and lasted 82 days, as the Americans fought on land, while out at sea, the US Navy fended off a series of brutal kamikaze attacks from the air. During the conflict, the Willie Dee accidentally strafed the USS Luce in the process, because of course they did. They then managed to shoot down 5 Japanese planes… and 3 American ones?!
Finally, on June 10th, 1945, the cursed Destroyer finally met it’s match. In the early hours of the morning, an old Japanese dive bomber (Aichi D3A) came streaking towards them! The crew set their sights on the kamikaze plane heading right for them. The ship aimed, fired, and missed.
The plane then crashed into the water and after a few minutes, they all let out a giant sigh of relief… right before the Japanese bomber exploded from underneath the Willie Dee!
The underwater blast was so powerful it lifted the ship into the air before splashing back down again! The Porter immediately lost power as steam pipes burst and fires erupted all over the sinking vessel. After three hours of trying to keep the doomed ship afloat, the Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.
Miraculously, against all odds, the entire crew made it off the Willie Dee just in time, before it keeled over, sinking below the waves, never to be seen again…
For this and other crazy stories, check out the Epik Fails of History podcast, and you can find my books on Amazon!
– Erik Slader
USS William D. Porter: The U.S. Navy Destroyer’s Service in World War II