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Interesting bit of history.

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  • Edward Jensen
    Written by Kit Bonner, a noted Naval Historian. A BIZARRE BIT OF U.S. NAVAL HISTORY ABOUT WHICH MOST AMERICANS KNOW “ZILCH” From November 1943, until her
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 20, 2012
      Written by Kit Bonner, a noted Naval Historian.

       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!'
      Description:  http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/pix2/0557911.jpg
       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.

       In 1943, 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 W.W.II military brass. They were headed for the 
       Big Three Conference in Tehran, where Roosevelt was to meet Stalin and 

       Had the Porter's torpedo struck the Iowa at the aiming point, the last 
       60 years of world history might have been quite different. The USS 
       William D Porter (DD-579) was one of hundreds of assembly line 
       destroyers built 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 the other ship's 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 

       Just twenty four hours later, the four-ship convoy, consisting of Iowa 
       and her secret passengers, the Willie D, and two other destroyers, was 
       under strict instructions to maintain complete radio silence. Since 
       they were going through a known U-boat feeding ground, speed and 
       silence were the best defense.
      Description: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/dod/8505379.jpg
       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 washed overboard and was 
       never found. Next, the fire room lost power in one of its boilers.

       The Captain, at this point, was making reports almost hourly to the 
       Iowa about 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, the 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 

       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 

       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 

      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 the torpedo was headed in another direction.

       Next, the Porter signaled that the torpedo was going reverse at full 

       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.

       Torpedo man Dawson eventually confessed to having inadvertently left 
       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 
       meted out for what was clearly an accident.

       The destroyer William D. Porter 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 re-assigned to the Western Pacific. However, 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 
       Commander, thus rearranging his flower garden rather suddenly.

       In December, 1944, the Porter 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 Porter 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 it from 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 alongside 
       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 place.
       Description: http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/0557902.jpg
       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.

       Kit Bonner, Naval Historian
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