- 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)
. . . . Over on Willie D, Captain Walker watched the fireworks display with admiration and envy. Thinking about career redemption and breaking the hard luck spell, he sent his impatient crew to battle stations. They began to shoot down the balloons Iowa had missed as they drifted into Willie D’s vicinity. 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 combat and removed during practice. Once a primer was installed, on a command to fire, it would explode, shooting the torpedo out of its tube. Dawson, on this particular morning unfortunately had forgotten to remove the primer from 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 the unmistakable ‘whoooooooosssssing’ 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 the torpedo hit the water on its way to Iowa and some of the most prominent figures in world history, Lt 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 Iowa. As the awful reality sank 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 that it was heading in another direction. Next, Willie D signaled that she was going reverse at full speed! Finally, they decided to break the strictly enforced radio silence. The radio operator in the Destroyer transmitted ‘Lion (code word for Iowa) ‘Lion, come right’. The operator in Iowa, more concerned about radio procedure, requested that the offending station identify itself first. Finally, he message was received and Iowa began turning to avoid the speeding torpedo.
Meanwhile, on Iowa’s bridge, word of the torpedo firing had reached FDR, who asked that his wheelchair be moved to the railing so that he could see better what was coming his way. His loyal Secret Service agent immediately drew his pistol as if he was going to shoot the torpedo. As Iowa began evasive action, all her guns were trained on Willie D. There was now some thought that Willie D 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 as the battleship increased speed.
‘We did it’
The crisis was over and so was Captain Walker’s career. His final utterance to Iowa, in response to a question about the origin of the torpedo, was a weak ‘We did it’. Shortly after, the brand new destroyer, her captain and entire crew were placed under arrest and sent to Bermuda for trial. It was the first time that an entire ship’s company had been arrested in the history of the US Navy. The ship was surrounded by Marines when it docked and held there for several days as the closed session inquiry attempted to determine what had happened. Torpedoman Dawson eventually confessed to having inadvertently left the primer in the torpedo tube, which caused the launching. Dawson had thrown the used primer overboard 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 Willie D officers eventually found themselves in obscure shore assignments. Dawson was sentenced to 14 years hard labour. President Roosevelt intervened however, asking that no punishment be meted out for what was clearly an accident. The destroyer 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 reassigned to the western Pacific. Before leaving the Aleutians, she accidentally left her calling card in the form of a 5 inch shell fired into the front yard of the American Base Commandant, thus rearranging his flower garden.