One of the more interesting aspects of history is how the occasional tale is often overlooked, like those surrounding an American Fletcher-class destroyer – the USS William D. Porter – and the key events in this destroyer’s rather short, but chaotic, career.
The first notable incident, not declassified until 1958, involved a series of errors made by the Porter’s crew prior to and during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s November 1943 trip to Tehran via Mers-el-Kebir for a meeting with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek. The Porter, launched only four months prior, was part of a small flotilla of warships tasked to provide escort duties of the USS Iowa as she transported her contingent of Roosevelt and his staff as quickly as possible across the Atlantic. The voyage of the Porter, however, was off to a less than auspicious start when, as she hastily backed out her berth at the Norfolk Naval Station, she dragged her anchor across an adjacent ship, causing only minor damage to topside structures and equipment on the other vessel.
The most significant events occurred underway, though. Shortly after the crossing had begun, high seas had knocked loose a depth charge on the Porter, causing it to detonate and sending the escorting fleet into evasive antisubmarine maneuvers. Attention was further brought upon the Porter by the Chief of Naval Operations – ADM Ernest King, on board the Iowa – after a crewman was washed overboard and the engine room lost power. This chain of mishaps culminated in the proverbial “last straw” for the Porter, when during training and anti-aircraft gunnery, she accidentally launched a live torpedo at the battleship during a simulated attack. Oblivious to the chaotic light signals being exchanged warning of the torpedo en route to the Iowa, President Roosevelt was on deck in order to view the ant-aircraft gunnery demonstration, and once the battleship began to wildly maneuver and engage the torpedo with gunfire, his wheelchair needed to be steadied by his bodyguards. The torpedo missed, passing behind the battleship, and the Porter found itself tersely ordered from the formation with the battleship’s guns trained on her.
Sent to Bermuda, the ship’s crew was arrested en masse – a first in U.S. Navy history – and subsequently investigated. Finding that the majority of the crew was relatively inexperienced offered some explanation as to the sequence of unfortunate events plaguing the trip, and the crewmember responsible for the accidental firing of the torpedoes escaped punishment of 14 years’ hard labor only due to a later pardon from Roosevelt himself. The Porter was later sent to Alaska, where the crew worked to clear the ship’s reputation, however, another mishap involving a drunken visitor firing one of the destroyer’s main guns – demolishing the base commander’s front yard – continued to haunt those assigned to the ship. “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!” became the standard greeting from other ships until the Porter sank in 1945. While the kamikaze was successfully shot down by the destroyer, it crashed in such close proximity to the warship that it detonated beneath the destroyer. Staying afloat for three hours, every one of the crew was safely rescued from the ill-fated ship, leaving nothing but an odd legacy of misfortune.
This article relates a story almost too incredibly unfortunate to believe. Having seen my share of near comical mishaps in the Army, nothing I have seen to date even comes close to this story. I can completely relate to the overall reluctance on the part of sailors to follow assignment orders to this ship – I have known of many soldiers on assignment to either poor geographical locations or to units with known command climate issues, and the dread upon receipt of notification is unmistakable.
The bigger picture of these events, however, stresses the importance of crew mix, training, and situational awareness during high-profile missions. Integrating experience with the neophyte is a possible reinforcement of an obvious point in that during times of a rapid influx of men and equipment, there has to be some institutional continuity in order to keep things running smoothly. Training also played a key role – distractions were provided by the anti-aircraft demonstration which lead to vital steps in the preparation for the simulated firing of the torpedoes. Lastly, in times of increased visibility to distinguished visitors, situational awareness tends to become restricted to immediate events or parts instead of taking the whole situation into account.
 Gregory A. Freeman, “USS William D. Porter: The U.S. Navy’s Destroyer’s Service in World War II,” HistoryNet, 2006, accessed November 9, 2015, http://www.historynet.com/uss-william-d-porter-the-us-navy-destroyers-service-in-world-war-ii.htm
 Robert F. Dorr, “Hard-Luck Destroyer Porter Subject of Dubious Navy Legend,” Navy Times, 2001, accessed November 9, 2015, http://search.proquest.com/docview/203919649?accountid=8289.
 Robert F. Dorr, “Hard-Luck Destroyer Porter Subject of Dubious Navy Legend.”
Dorr, Robert F. “Hard-Luck Destroyer Porter Subject of Dubious Navy Legend.” Navy Times. 2001. Accessed November 9, 2015, http://search.proquest.com/docview/203919649?accountid=8289.
Freeman, Gregory A. “USS William D. Porter: The U.S. Navy’s Destroyer’s Service in World War II.” HistoryNet. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://www.historynet.com/uss-william-d-porter-the-us-navy-destroyers-service-in-world-war-ii.htm.