We all make mistakes, be it in personal decisions or maybe relationships, even in our jobs. That’s part of us as human beings. At work, there’s this accidentally-sent-an-email-without-the-attachment kind of mistake, and then there’s this I-almost-blew-up-the-President-of-the-United-States mistake. For the US Navy, it’s painfully the second one.

We mess things up sometimes, and in the world of the military, these errors become the perfect means to tease your peers and make sure they never forget what they did. When the USS William D. Porter was brought back to its homeport, it was greeted with a giant, “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!” Guess why?

Off to a Not-So-Great Start

In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull boarded the USS Iowa, together with the top brass of the US military during World War II. They were on a crucial and special mission of meeting their Allied counterparts in Cairo and Tehran. These leaders included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s dictator, Joseph Stalin.

USS Iowa in Port Mers-el-Kébir. (Dave Way via Ron Reeves, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sailor are a superstitious lot, and some ships are considered “lucky” and others are considered a jinxed, or Albatrosses, a reference to the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ poem from the late 1700s.  USS Porter was a hard-luck ship within months of her commissioning. As she was leaving Norfolk to join the Iowa carrying the President, her stern swept the side of another destroyer berthed next to her, smashing the other ship’s lifeboat davits and carrying away her railing. The following day, one of Porter’s depth charges slipped off it rails and detonated so close to the ship that a large wave washed over her stern sweeping a sailor overboard who was not recovered. Thinking the Iowa task force was under attack by a U-boat, the battleship and her other escorts twisted and turned out of formation until the Porter could signal that it was just a depth charge accidentally exploding.

Just a depth charge.

President Roosevelt wanted to see a demonstration of the capabilities of one of America’s newest battleships so the Iowa send a bunch of target balloons aloft and opened up with her anti-aircraft batteries in an awesome display of firepower. Most of the balloons were shot down by the gunners onboard USS Iowa. However, some drifted over to where USS Porter was, and they got to shoot down a few balloons as well. The other escort ships, USS Porter included, were to next demonstrate mock torpedo runs on the USS Iowa while the President watch from the bridge of the battleship. And this is when the Porter was unlucky again. Primers on the torpedo launchers were supposed to be removed to prevent the torpedoes from being fired. As it turns out, one tube was left primed.

Mistakes Were Fired

USS Porter went into position roughly 6,000 yards from Iowa to begin its mock attack. Things went according to plan as the Porter made a flank speed run at the Iowa and then swung her bow to bring her torpedo tube mounts to bear on the target.   Just like a normal drill, the weapons officer keyed the triggers on the launcher for the simulation attack. Then, to his absolute horror he watched Mount #2 launch a live torpedo at the Iowa(and the President aboard) at close range. More than 600lbs of high explosives doing nearly 50 knots were on it way.

Porter’s captain would have been able to warn USS Iowa about the mistake immediately, except orders to maintain strict radio silence were in place to avoid radio detection and location by German U-boats, the USS Porter would have to signal USS Iowa of the incoming torpedo using a signal lamp.

That would have worked just about as well except they sent the wrong message to the unsuspecting battleship. Instead of flashing a message like  “TORPEDO HEADING YOURS, TURN HARD APORT!” as a warning, she blinked over a message that she was reversing speed. Aboard the battleship this message would have been read with a “So what?” reaction. Seeing the battleship not reacting at all and in utter desperation, the captain of USS Porter broke radio silence and informed them that a live torpedo was heading for them.

Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the veranda of the Soviet Legation in Tehran during the first “Big Three” Conference, November 1943. In the background are aides to the US President. (Oulds, DC (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Iowa sounded her general alarm and turned to avoid the torpedo. It worked and the torpedo exploded about 3,000 yards away from the rear of the battleship in her wake. Now, with the president aboard, Iowa’s guns were swung to bear on the Porter, thinking there might be some sort of plot hatched on the destroyer to assassinate the president. It took a little while for everything to be worked out. Porter was then ordered to sail to Bermuda for an inquiry into the incident. As a result, Chief Torpeodman Lawton Dawson admitted that he failed to remove the primer as ordered. He was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor by Court Martial, but President Roosevelt intervened in the case, saying it was just an accident. In fact, when he was advised that a torpedo was coming their way, he ordered his Secret Service to move his wheelchair to a position where he could have a better view of it hitting the Iowa, displaying not only the confidence that a navy ship could hit what it aimed at, but also confidence that the Iowa was tough enough to take that hit.

Contrary to urban legend, USS Porter’s Lieutenant Commander Wilfred A. Walter was not relieved of command following the incident and stayed in command until May 30, 1944. After commanding USS Porter, he also commanded other ships and became a rear admiral.

Series of Unfortunate Events

That, however, was not the only unfortunate event that USS Porter became part of. She ended up being sent to Alaskan waters(probably on purpose) and it seemed as if her luck had changed. Then the navy sent her to the Central Pacific Theater and her bad luck returned when  she accidentally raked the destroyed USS Luce with gunfire during an air attack during the early days of the Battle of Okinawa. In June 1945, a lone Japanese Aichi D3A “Val” came down from the clouds in a kamikaze attack on the USS orter. The Destroyer was able to evade the plane, and it crashed next to the ship. Alas, this bit of good luck for the Porter turned out not to be so lucky.  The plane’s bomb somehow made its way beneath the ship detonated under the Porter, lifting her clean out of the water.  The Porter had ruptured steam lines and lost power as her crew fought fires breaking out in the now dark compartments.  After three hours of trying to save the ship, her captain ordered her abandoned. The Porter had been in service just three years before she entered the watery graveyard that was the Pacific Ocean in WWII.

While the Porter was certainly unlucky, that bad luck didn’t attach itself to her crew. In the attack, explosion, flooding and fires that finally sank her, she didn’t lose a man.

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