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The interesting History of the Willie Dee (DD579)

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The USS William D. Porter — “Willie Dee” to her crew — was a War World II destroyer, and is arguably the unluckiest ship in the history of the world. She lasted less than two years, until her ill-fated demise in June of 1945. The USS William D. Porter (DD-579) was one of the many war-built assembly line destroyers. Although the ships were small compared to modern-day destroyers, they were formidable forces in their time. Their main armament included 10 fast-running and accurate torpedoes that carried 500-pound warheads, but also included anti-aircraft artillery weapons.

The USS William D. Porter was commissioned on July 6th 1943 under the command of LCDR. Wilfred A. Walter. In November of 1943, she was ordered to accompany the battleship Iowa on a secret mission across the Atlantic.  The crew members quickly learned its tasks and purposes before setting sail, but clearly wasn’t ready for its upcoming mission — a few days later, they almost killed the precious secret cargo aboard the Iowa — U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and many high-level U.S. military officers.

The series of misfortunes began with the surreptitious order to escort the Iowa to North Africa. The night before she was to set sail, the William D. Porter took out a nearby sister ship when, while backing into the side of this ship, tore down essential equipment with her anchor — including railings and the captain’s gig. The Willie Dee suffered only minor scratches to her anchor, but this marked the beginning of her two-year life of total chaos.

About 24 hours later, the four-ship convoy consisting of the William D. Porter, the Iowa, and two other destroyers had set sail for Africa. All of the ships were under strict orders to maintain total silence as they sailed through the waters that were suspected to contain German U-boats.

The ships hoped to quickly and quietly cross the ocean undetected. Not long into the journey, there was a massive explosion that shook the entire small fleet. All of the ships immediately began anti-submarine maneuvering. The chaos continued until Walter admitted that a depth charge had fallen off of the stern of the ship and detonated.

Soon after accidentally detonating a depth charge, a huge wave smashed into the William D. Porter stripping it of everything that wasn’t tied down on the weather decks  and a man was washed overboard, never to be seen again. As a result of the wave, the engine room lost power in one of its boilers. The mission, which had demanded total silence, turned into an hourly reporting fiasco from  Walter to the Iowa. On Nov 14 the four ships were east of Bermuda 

 when the president wanted to test the defenses of the Iowa in the event that they came under an air attack. The crew of the Iowa launched weather balloons to simulate anti-aircraft targets, and fired over 100 guns. In command of the William D. Porter, Walter, wanting to join in on the fun and redeem himself for the Willie Dee’s earlier episodes, sent his men to their battle stations.

Willie Dee’s crew started shooting at the Iowa’s missed balloons that had drifted toward their ship. Down below on the torpedo mounts, the crew was preparing to take practice shots at the Iowa — which was 6,000 yards away. During live torpedo drills primers are removed from the Torpedo tubes as a safety precaution. One of the  Torpedoman forgot to remove the primer from one of the torpedo tubes. The torpedo officer gave the exercise  firing command and an armed Warshot Torpedo launched and was traveling straight toward the Iowa with President Roosevelt.

According to Bonner, a prominent historian who has studied the Porter, “the next five minutes aboard the Willie Dee were pandemonium.” The crew ran around yelling conflicting orders, and tried to think of the best way to contact the Iowa under their stringent orders of silence. They attempted flashing light signals but on the wrong side of the ship.

The William D. Porter finally decided that it was necessary to break the mandatory radio silence, and notified the Iowa. When Roosevelt heard that a torpedo was zooming toward him, he asked to be moved with his wheelchair over to the railing so that he could see it. Fearing an assassination plot, the Iowa turned its guns toward the William D. Porter. The crisis ended when the torpedo  detonated as it struck heavy waves created by the Iowa’s increased speed. Walter reportedly answered with a meek “We did it” when pressed. The entire crew was placed under arrest and sent to Bermuda to face trial  the first instance in U.S. Naval history that the entire crew of a ship had been arrested.

One of the torpedomen, Lawton Dawson, confessed to having accidentally left the primer in the torpedo tube and attempting to conceal the evidence by throwing the empty primer cartridge over the side of the ship. The inquiry proved that the situation was merely a string of unfortunate events and the information was not released to the public. Dawson was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor, and the rest of the crew’s careers were to be ended — but Roosevelt intervened, asking that no punishments be levied on the crew for the series of accidents.

The William D. Porter was eventually reassigned to the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific and whilst on a relatively simple patrol mission accidentally fired a five-inch artillery shell which landed on the base commandant’s front yard.

Later in the war the William D. Porter was assigned to Okinawa, Japan where she did an outstanding job destroying many Japanese aircraft and unfortunately three American aircraft. 

On June 10, 1945, the ship ran out of any luck when a kamikaze plane snuck undetected into U.S. airspace. It crashed alongside the Willie Dee and exploded underneath  the ill-fated destroyer. This tore open the ship’s hull and caused the ship to sink. In a final twist of much-deserved luck — all of the crew survived.

 

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Truly a story that I'm frankly surprised Hollywood has not grabbed up and ran with. It would fall in with "The Wackiest Ship In The Army" and a few other similar comedies. 

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I worked with a Torpedoman that put a MK44 Warshot Torpedo in the water against one of our submarines. The ship got on Gertrude and informed the Submarine and it did an emergency blow. He was suppose to remove all the air flasks in the tubes not loaded with exercise torpedoes but didn’t and sonar selected the wrong tube. Opps.

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3 hours ago, lmagna said:

Truly a story that I'm frankly surprised Hollywood has not grabbed up and ran with. It would fall in with "The Wackiest Ship In The Army" and a few other similar comedies. 

Mel Gibson is currently filming a movie called Destroyer which is about a ship off of Okinawa.

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