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This Day in History: The Unlucky "Willie Dee"

On this day in 1943, a U.S. Navy destroyer accidentally torpedoes the battleship USS Iowa, then ferrying Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that this destroyer, USS William D. Porter, has been called “the unluckiest ship in US Navy history.”


Fortunately, everyone lived to tell the story.

USS Iowa, serving in the Pacific.

Trouble began for the so-called “Willie Dee” during its first real mission. “The mishaps began as comedic scenes from Dumb and Dumber,” one historian writes dryly, “but evolved to the more serious.”


The destroyer had been assigned to accompany Iowa on a secret mission: The battleship was carrying Roosevelt and other officials across the Atlantic to meet with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.


The convoy was to depart in radio silence on November 13, but Willie Dee was already in trouble by November 12. She accidentally backed into a nearby ship while in port! Willie Dee caused major damage to that vessel but had only minor damage to her own anchor. She was thus deemed fit to carry on the next day.


Bad luck continued as the journey got underway: A depth charge accidentally fell from Willie Dee’s stern. The safety hadn’t been set, and the subsequent explosion sent the rest of the convoy scurrying into anti-submarine maneuvers. Willie Dee’s captain confessed, which had to be embarrassing. Making matters worse, a freak wave soon broke over Willie Dee, washing away anything that hadn’t been buttoned down and putting the engine out of commission.


Things soon got more serious. November 14 dawned a beautiful day, and Roosevelt wanted to see a training exercise. Iowa launched weather balloons, using them to simulate anti-aircraft action.


“Just as we were approaching Gibraltar, the Iowa started some training exercises,” H. Seward Lewis, one of Willie Dee’s officers later explained, “firing at balloons and stuff, and all of the destroyers were taking part. We were using the Iowa as a target for a simulated torpedo attack. The skipper ordered ‘Fire one, Fire two, Fire three.’ When we fired No. 3, a fully-armed torpedo shot right toward [Iowa]. Someone had forgotten to disarm No. 3.”


Willie Dee’s officers were already in trouble for breaking radio silence and didn’t want to do it again. They used warning signal flags and blew the ship’s whistle. Finally, they conceded. “Lion, Lion, Lion,” an officer barked, breaking radio silence (again) and using Iowa’s code name, “come right, come hard right!”


“The big old thing finally lumbered around out of the way,” Lewis sighed, “and the torpedo exploded when it hit the wake about 50 yards behind the ship.”


In an interesting twist, Roosevelt was apparently mostly intrigued by what was happening.  At least reportedly, he had his wheelchair taken to the railing because he wanted to see the torpedo!


The drama didn’t stop there, of course. The crew of Iowa didn’t know what had just happened. Was someone out to get FDR? Could anyone aboard Willie Dee be trusted?


“[T]he language from the Iowa and the destroyer division commander wasn’t fit to print,” Lewis concluded. “Our whole ship was put under arrest—the only time I ever heard of that happening in the Navy—and we were ordered back to Nassau.”


A trial was held, but it was finally determined that Willie Dee’s crew was merely incompetent, not malicious. The ship’s chief torpedoman was initially sentenced to 14 years of hard labor, but Roosevelt stepped in and put a stop to it.


The incident was kept secret from the public for many years, at least until a 1958 reunion of the destroyer’s crew brought the incident to light.


Lewis shrugged: “No one was exactly proud of it.”

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