- Fazio, Lieut. V. RANEM
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Editor’s Note: This story was discovered and contributed by Vince Fazio. He wishes it to be known that he is no relation to the Torpedoman Fazio mentioned in the text.
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 Navy ships, with the greeting ‘Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans’. For half a century, the US Navy kept a lid on the details of the incident which prompted this salutation. A Miami news reporter made the first public disclosure in 1958 after–he had stumbled on the truth, while–he was covering a reunion of the destroyer’s crew. The Pentagon reluctantly and tersely confirmed his story, but only a smattering of newspapers took notice.
Fifty years ago, the Willie D, as the Porter was nicknamed, accidentally fired a live torpedo at the battleship USS Iowa during a practice exercise. As if this weren’t bad enough, Iowa was carrying President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time, along with Secretary of State, Cordell Hull and all of the country’s World War II military brass. They were headed for the Big Three Conference in Tehran, where Roosevelt was to meet Churchill and Stalin. Had Willie D’s torpedo struck Iowa at the aiming point, the last 50 years of world history might have been quite different.
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 ten fast running and accurate torpedoes that carried 500 lb warheads. This ship was put into commission in 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 Iowa across the Atlantic in November 1943, Willie D 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 new battleship Iowa.
The night before they left Norfolk, bound for North Africa, Willie D accidentally damaged a nearby sister ship when she backed down along the other ship’s side and her anchor tore down railings, life rafts, ship’s boat and other formerly valuable pieces of equipment. Willie D merely had a scraped anchor. But her career of mayhem and mishaps had begun.
Just 24 hours later, the four ship convoy consisting of Iowa and her secret passengers and two other destroyers was under strict instructions to maintain strict radio silence. As they were going through a known U-Boat feeding ground, speed and silence were the best defence. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion rocked the convoy. All of the ships commenced anti-submarine manoeuvres. This continued until Willie D 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 after, a freak wave inundated the ship, stripping away everything that was not lashed down. A man was washed overboard and never found. Next, the boiler room lost power on one of her boilers. The Captain, by this point, was making hourly reports to Iowa on his ship’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 14th November dawned with a moderate sea and pleasant weather. 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. 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, Chief of Naval Operations; large in size and by demeanor, he was a true monarch of the sea. Disagreeing with him meant the end of a Naval career. Up to now, no one knew what firing a torpedo at him would mean.