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A Torpedo for Your Thoughts…or a Three Hour Tour

Was it Gilligan’s fault that the S.S. Minnow ran aground on that uncharted desert isle?  Maybe, but the Minnow

The Minnow

(not named for the small bait fish, but named for Newton Minow, who Gilligan’s Island executive producer Sherwood Schwartz believed “ruined television.”  Minow was chairman of the F.C.C. and was noted for his speech in which he called American television “a vast wasteland”) survived the show and now resides on the east side of Vancouver Island as a charter boat for sightseeing tours. This cannot be said of the escort destroyer USS William D.Porter.

It was 1943 and the “Willie Dee’s” first duties were to be  assigned to one of the most secret and critical missions of ww2. They were to escort the mighty USS Iowa (currently docked at the Port of Los Angeles) whose mission was to deliver Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  Secretary of State Cordell Hall, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many others (totaling more than 80 in the President’s party) to French North Africa to meet with Joe Stalin and Winston Churchill. This was the first of the high level summits between the Allied leaders. With maximum speed, the trip would still take up to 8 days in U-Boat infested waters, so the sailors were on high alert and radio silence was imperative.

The Willie Dee’s journey got off to a bad start. As Capt. Wilfred Walter backed his ship out of its berth in Norfolk, Virginia her anchor snagged the ship beside it and ripped off it’s railing, life rafts, a small boat, and various other equipment. It wreaked havoc on its neighbor, but just scratched Willie Dee’s anchor. In a hurry to meet the Iowa, Capt. Walter issued a quick apology and the destroyer was on it’s way.

The sun of ineptitude was shining on the Dee, so within of 48 hrs into her mission a loud explosion startled the convoy and this initiated anti submarine maneuvers. Not to worry signaled the Willie Dee. It was just a depth charge that had accidentally fallen off the ship because the trigger was not on “safe” as it should have been .

Soon after that the ship was hit by a freak “rogue wave” losing a man over the side never to be seen again. The wave caused the engines to temporarily lose power putting the “Porter ” far behind the convoy. The Chief of Operations, Admiral Ernest King, was on board the Iowa and was becoming increasingly embarrassed and frustrated by the actions of the Willie Dee. He made his displeasure known to Capt. Walter who assured the Admiral that things would improve. Improve they did not.

The USS William D. Porter

When the convoy was east of Bermuda, the Iowa’s captain offered to show Roosevelt how the battleship could repulse an air attack. As the Iowa fired its defensive guns at weather balloons sent aloft as targets, the president sat on the deck enjoying the show.  Over on the Willie Dee, Capt. Walter thought this would be a good shot at redemption and ordered his crew to battle stations.  They conducted a drill in which they would practice torpedo launching at another ship. The crew chose the Iowa, some 6,000 yards away.  The trick here is that all the primers, which are needed to launch the torpedoes, are to be removed.  The problem is that the crew did not remove all the primers – so when the bridge officer shouted fire #1 there was no sound which was good, when he said fire #2 there was no sound which was also good, but when he said fire #3 and a ‘ whooooooosh’ sound was heard, the astonishment was quickly overcome by pure horror. The crew of the Porter had just sent a torpedo at the Iowa carrying the President of the United States.

Remember, this is a secret mission and radio silence is very important, for breaking it might signal its location to the enemy. A signalman was to alert the Iowa of the terrible situation, but the young inexperienced sailor instead signaled that the Willie Dee was “going in reverse at full speed.”  Capt. Walter put on the scale ” Should I break radio silence or possibly kill the Leader of the Free World.”  He broke radio silence and after haggling over who was calling, the Iowa obliged to turn hard right missing the torpedo by 350 yards which blew up in its wake. Capt.Walter and crew could breathe again, only to see every gun on the Iowa train their sights on the small destroyer thinking assassination was in the air. Walter tried to soothe the Iowa by saying it was a mistake. Admiral King had had enough of the Three Stooges act and ordered the Willie Dee out of the convoy and to report to Bermuda where the crew was met by fully armed Marines and the entire crew was arrested. A  first in American Naval history.  Somebody had to take the fall, so a crew member was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. When Roosevelt heard the sentence he ordered the crewman freed since no harm was done.

The Porter was sent to the chilly waters of the Alaska to cool down, but a drunk crew member was determined to fire one of her guns, sending a 5 inch shell into a commander’s front yard while he was having a party for fellow officers and their wives. No harm, but another notch in the yardarm of the Navy’s goofiest ship.

The “Willie Dee” sinking

It is now 1945 and the Porter eventually found itself patrolling the seas off Okinawa where it was fighting off Japanese kamikazes, blasting several out of the sky. A kamikaze approached the Willie Dee and it successfully shot it down, but the plane was moving so fast that when it went into the water, it continued to moving underwater towards the ship. It moved directly under the William D. Porter and exploded, lifting the ship out of the water.

The ship who had caused so much trouble that it seemed Gilligan might have been their Captain, sunk in less than 3 hours without losing a single crewman.  It’s niche in history was kept secret until 1958, when the Navy made the story public. The Minnow or the Willie Dee?  Don’t know how many crew members of the Willie Dee looked like Ginger or MaryAnn nor did they have anyone as smart as the professor.   Groove.

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