The USS William D. Porter was a Fletcher-class destroyer in the US Navy during WWII named after Commodore William D. Porter.
Porter had served in the United States civil war and was famously known for having managed to steer his ship to safety despite having been partially blinded and severely burned from a pierced boiler.
This story however, isn’t about him. This story is of the boat named after him, and it’s bumbling misadventures during WWII.
The ship, referred to by the crew as the Willie D, was one of hundreds of destroyers that the US hurriedly churned out during WWII. It was put into service in July of 1943, with a crew of 125 men. Because there were so many ships at the time, the pool of experienced and qualified crewman was remarkably diluted. Of the 125 men on the Willie D, few were experienced; most had been in high school or working on farms not too long beforehand.
Try to imagine an unruly college frat running a Navy destroyer and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the crew operated and looked.
Little time was available for training, and after only 4 short months the Willie D was assigned to one of the most critical and highly secret missions the Navy had ever undertaken. An escort mission involving… the President of the United States of America.
President Roosevelt (FDR) was traveling to French North Africa to meet with: British Prime Minister William Churchill, Leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, and an important (but irrelevant to this story) Chinese general.
No one was to know about the trip until FDR had arrived safely at the meeting. The President and his party of around 80 others quietly slipped out of Washington aboard his fancy presidential yacht, sailed down the Potomac River, and met up with the USS Iowa in Chesapeake Bay.
Also on board were the Secretary of State and numerous other Joint Chiefs of Staff. Everyone who was anyone was on this boat trip.
The mission was also so confidential that none of the crew even knew the details of their mission until FDR had been rolled onboard.
The USS Iowa snuck back out to sea under orders to maintain absolute radio silence. It was to meet up and be escorted by a total of two aircraft carriers, and three destroyers to protect it from the German submarines littering the Atlantic. One of those destroyers was the Willie D.
Things went wrong IMMEDIATELY.
Captain Wilfred Walter, of the Willie D backed the ship out of its berth near Norfolk, Virginia.
There was a horrible noise.
The Willie D’s anchor had snagged onto the ship beside it ripping it to shreds. Railings, life rafts, a small boat, and other vital equipment were all torn from their fellow ship. The crew of the Willie D had failed to pull up their anchor all the way. Overall, the Willie D sustained little damage other than a couple of scratches and a stern talking to.
The Willie D then met up with the other ships and the mission commenced. At maximum speed the trip would take 8 days. During the voyage the ships and their crews were to continue with the training and drills they usually conducted when at sea.
About 48 hours into the mission, the ships were traveling through an area known to be filled with U-boats when an explosion rocked the water.
Immediately, all of the ships went into evasive maneuvers believing they were under attack, until they realized what had truly happened.
The Willie D had been running a training exercise, in which they pretended to drop disarmed depth charges into the ocean. But the crew had forgotten to disarm their anti-submarine weapons. If fact, they hadn’t even dropped the depth charges into the water. One of them had quite simply rolled off of the deck… and exploded.
The Willie D was extremely lucky the depth charge had sank somewhat before exploding, because it might have blown the stern (the backside) off of the ship had it not.
There was also another strange incident in which the Willie D was hit by a freak wave. It washed away anything that wasn’t tied down including one crewman, who was never to be seen again. The wave also knocked out the ships boiler causing a loss in power whereupon the Willie D fell behind the other boats.
Admiral Ernest King called the Willie D and told them to get their shit together. They did not.
It was at this point that FDR asked to see a demonstration of how the USS Iowa would react if it were to come under attack by the Germans (instead of by one of their own ships). He wanted to see how the crew would perform if there were an aerial attack.
In order to do this, large balloons were released into the sky to simulate enemy planes, which were then shot down by the Iowa’s impressive anti-aircraft guns.
Most of the balloons never stood a chance, but they ultimately missed some of them.
Captain Walker, of the Willie D, wanted to make up for his mistakes and recover his reputation as ship captain. So he gave the order to shoot the shit out of the balloons coming towards them.
The balloons coming towards them from the direction of the Iowa.
The Iowa… where the President was.
But, everything went okay. In fact, they managed to down the leftover balloons and nothing went wrong.
That is, until Captain Walker decided to take it one step further. He wanted to show off to the entire fleet what the Willie D was really made of, so he ordered the practice firing of a couple of disarmed torpedoes.
They pretended to fire the first torpedo.
They pretended to fire the second torpedo
WHOOSH!!! A live torpedo speed away from the Willie D.
Now here is a very important detail to the story that you should know. In order to do the drill the crewman had to pick a target, so…
THEY WENT WITH THE FUCKING USS IOWA WHERE THE PRESIDENT WAS!!!
The next few minutes aboard the Willie D were pure unadulterated pandemonium. Everyone ran in circles shouting conflicting instructions, all the while attempting to figure out how to warn the Iowa.
They too were under the strict radio silence order, and they decided to maintain it despite having FIRED A TORPEDO AT THE PRESIDENT. So instead they chose to use signal lights, a MUCH slower form of communication. A crewman was sent to relay the message, but he was understandably a little freaked out. Partly because a couple of months ago he had been working on a farm, and now he was trying to save the life of the President with a flashlight.
He signaled to the Iowa that there was a live torpedo in the water… but that it was heading in the other direction (away from the Iowa).
He quickly realized his mistake and tried again. This time relaying that the Willie D was going in full reverse speed. Again, he was understandably frazzled.
The Willie D couldn’t wait any longer. It’d been two minutes since the torpedo had been fired when they finally decided to break radio silence to tell the Iowa.
Upon hearing of the incoming explosive, President Roosevelt, being the coolest man alive, asked the secret service to roll him out onto the edge of the USS Iowa so he could see the torpedo approaching. He had his men pull their guns to shoot at the torpedo as it came closer, because there is no better target practice than torpedo target practice.
The Iowa made a sharp turn, just narrowly avoiding the torpedo, which blew up in their wake.
The Iowa then aimed ALL of her main guns at the Willie D, assuming that they had been taken over, because obviously nobody could be stupid enough to actually fire a torpedo at the ship with the President on it.
They grossly overestimated the Willie D and her crew.
Captain Walter tried to assure them that it was an accident, but was ordered by Admiral King to leave the fleet and sail to Bermuda. There they found themselves facing armed Marines who were there to arrest every single member of the crew.
This is the first and only time an entire Navy crew has been arrested.
The ship was then surrounded by sea mines.
The crewman who finally copped to having left the primer attached admitted to having thrown the evidence overboard during the panic after the torpedo had been launched. He was sentenced to 14 years hard labour, but FDR intervened and had him released because the incident had after all been an accident. FDR was a pretty cool dude.
For years after, the crew was frequently hailed with the greeting, “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!”
The Willie D became even more of a black sheep, and was placed where it was believed it could do the least amount harm: Alaska.
All was well for about a year…
Until just before the Willie D was to leave for assignment, some sailors got a little too drunk. They then decided to have a little fun and shoot one of the big guns. They fired one shell, having absolutely no idea where it would land.
It landed in the Base Commander’s front yard and blew his flower garden to smithereens.
That same Base Commander also happened to be home, hosting a dinner party for fellow officers and their wives when it happened. A lovely way to end an evening, if I do say so myself.
The Willie D was then sent to campaign in the Pacific, where they actually fought rather well. Probably because of the new captain and the now more seasoned crew.
In late March 1945, the Willie D was sent far out into the ocean to intercept incoming Japanese aircraft.
They took another blow to their reputation when they managed to riddle a fellow ship with gunfire. Which is a natural thing that totally happens when firing at planes really high up in the sky.
On June 10th 1945, the Willie D fell victim to a truly one-of-a-kind kamikaze attack.
*Author’s Note: Fun Fact: Only 3% of Kamikaze pilots were successful. Also many of them were high on methamphetamines given to them before their missions*
As one of the Kamikazes came in low heading straight towards the Willie D, they successfully shot it down before it could hit the ship. They celebrated, but the attack was not over.
The Japanese plane had been flying so fast that when it hit the water, it continued to move towards the ship. It finally exploded, directly under the Willie D.
The ship was lifted out of the water, all power was lost, and fires broke out throughout the entirety of the ship. 3 hours were spent fighting the fires before the order was finally given to abandon ship. Not one man on the Willie D died.
*Author’s Note: A man named Richard McCool (his actual name) was awarded the Medal of Honor for assisting in the rescue of the survivors of the USS Willie D.*
The Willie D is the only Navy vessel to have ever fallen victim to an underwater Kamikaze attack.
Thus ended the colorful career of the USS Willie and its crew.
No one knew of the Willie D’s misadventures until 1958 when the official records were finally released to the public.