Did the Navy Almost Kill the President During World War II?
Gross incompetence? A plot to kill Roosevelt?
Here's What You Need to Remember: Then on November 14, Roosevelt—who had been Secretary of the Navy during World War I—asked to observe an air defense drill. Balloons were released, and gunners on the Iowa and Porter began blasting them out of sky.
Patriotic action movies would have you believe military units regularly perform like well-oiled fighting machines. But sometimes reality is closer to Bill Murray’s Stripes.
Such at least was the case of the William D. Porter, whose mishaps were famously immortalized in an article by Kit Bonner.
Named after a swashbuckling Union Civil War captain, the Porter was one of 175 Fletcher-class destroyers built during World War II. Destroyers, dubbed "tin cans" because of their lack of armor, were relatively small but fast warships often tasked with protecting convoys and larger warships. Fletcher-class destroyers boasted ten torpedo tubes, depth charge projectors, and five radar-guided 5” dual-purpose guns allowing them to ably combat aircraft, submarines and surface warships.
The “Willy D’s” shakedown cruise in the summer of 1943 proceeded uneventfully under Lt. Commander Wilfred Walter. That November, she was then assigned to a secret task force charged with escorting President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the battleship USS Iowa to conferences in Cairo and Tehran.
FDR was accompanied by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and the chiefs of the Army, Army Air Force and Navy (Admiral Ernest King). Their meetings with Churchill, Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin would shape the postwar geopolitical order.
German U-Boats were then exacting a terrifying toll from U.S. convoys in the Atlantic, so the taskforce had to maintain strict radio silence to keep the Kriegsmarine in the dark.
As Porter slipped from her quay in Norfolk, Virginia on November 12, things immediately began to go wrong. Her crew failed to properly raise the anchor, which went rattling across the deck of a neighboring destroyer, tearing away railings and lifeboats.
The following day, Iowa, Porter and two other ships were underway in the Atlantic when an underwater explosion shattered the calm. The taskforce began evasive maneuvers in response to the apparent submarine attack.
But Porter then signaled it was a false alarm: one of her depth charges had accidentally rolled off deck and detonated—because nobody had secured the charge’s safety.
Then a violent wave slammed into the destroyer, sweeping a man overboard, who was tragically never rescued, and flooding one of her boilers. The Porter fell behind and broke radio silence to update the Iowa on her repairs—eliciting an irate message from Admiral King.
Then on November 14, Roosevelt—who had been Secretary of the Navy during World War I—asked to observe an air defense drill. Balloons were released, and gunners on the Iowa and Porter began blasting them out of sky.
Captain Wilfred decided to follow up with a torpedo drill, in which the Porter practiced mock attacks on the Iowa—with the torpedoes’ primer charges removed.
Two mock torpedo launches went smoothly. But upon the third firing command at 2:36 PM, a 24-foot-long Mark 15 torpedo lept from the Porter and surged towards the Iowa.
Torpedoes were tricky to land on target and often unreliable—but just one or two lucky hits sometimes sank even huge battleships and carriers.
The torpedo needed only a few minutes to traverse the 6,000 yards separating the Porter from the Iowa. But Wilfred, reluctant to break radio silence again, insisted on conveying the disastrous news using a signal lamp.
Unfortunately, the signalman garbled the messages twice. Finally, Wilfred radioed “Lion, lion! Turn right!” (“Lion” was Iowa’s codename.) When the Iowa’s operator responded in confusion, the captain clarified “Torpedo in the water!”
Iowa turned hard to port and accelerated to flank speed. Though the 825 pounds of HBX explosive in the torpedo might leave the Iowa at the bottom of the sea in a few minutes given a lucky hit, Roosevelt instructed the Secret Servicemen pushing his wheelchair to position him with a view. The former Navy Secretary wanted to see the action.
Finally at 2:40, the torpedo struck the Iowa’s wake and detonated a safe distance away.
The taskforce’s commander had had enough. He ordered the Porter to report to Bermuda. There, the Navy held an inquiry to evaluate why exactly things had gone so spectacularly wrong. Gross incompetence? A plot to kill Roosevelt?
Eventually, Chief Torpedoman Lawton Dawson admitted to having forgotten to remove the primer from the torpedo. The inexperienced seaman was sentenced to fourteen years hard labor, but Roosevelt intervened to wave his sentence.
As FDR was a Democrat, legend has it Navy ships henceforth greeted the Porter with “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!”
But Porter’s misadventures were far from over. On December 29 she arrived at Dutch Harbor, Alaska for her new assignment. While partying on New Year’s Day, a drunk sailor discharged one of her 5” guns, sending a 55-pound shell arcing into the backyard of the base’s commandant, who was hosting a holiday party—leaving his flower garden the worse for wear.
Over the next eight months, the Porter’s crew undertook uneventful anti-submarine patrols and raided the Japanese Kuril islands. Then in November, she joined the fighting at Leyte Gulf, where her gunners shot down at least three aircraft.
In 1945, as U.S. troops engaged in a bloody invasion of Okinawa, Porter was assigned first to cover the landing, then to serve as an air defense picket. In one month, she expended 233 tons of 5” shells bombarding shore positions and blasting six more aircraft out of the sky.
But outrageous misfortune revisited the destroyer a final time on June 10. At 8:15 AM a D3A1 ‘Val’ dive bomber plunged towards Porter in a kamikaze attack. As Porter’s guns roared, the obsolete aircraft smashed into the water beside her.
But the Val’s momentum carried it underneath the Porter, before the explosives packed inside it detonated. The eruption raised the 2,500-ton destroyer out of the water. The impact as she smacked back down ruptured steam lines, causing fires to break out.
For three hours the Porter’s crew attempted to save the listing destroyer (photo here) before the order to abandon ship was given.
But the unluckiest ship in the Navy had one good turn left: every single member of her crew escaped with his life.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article originally appeared in August 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.