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That one time when president Roosevelt almost got killed – by a US warship

Sam Dickson

Be it in war or peace, mishaps do happen. But when you’re commanding a warship on a top-secret mission to escort probably the most important political figure in the universe, torpedoing his vessel might be considered to be a bit more than a mistake. Rather, a full-on calamity. But let us put things in perspective – although short-lived, the entire history of USS William D. Porter was an utter disaster.

Said warship was commissioned on July 6th, 1943, under the command of a promising captain Wilfred A. Walter. The ship was a Fletcher-class destroyer, meaning its purpose was to serve as a bodyguard to larger vessels often incapable of defending themselves against smaller and more agile ships.

The first mission given to “Willie Dee” – as it came to be known – was to join a fleet that was to take president Franklin D. Roosevelt to a meeting with Churchill and Stalin in Teheran. Out of its 16 officers, only four had served on a ship before. Whoever made the actual decision to assign a vessel with such an inexperienced crew to a mission like that probably didn’t have much experience himself.

The ship departed Norfolk on November 12th, 1943. It was to meet the USS Iowa, secretly carrying the president, the secretary of state and joint chiefs of staff. But the very beginning of its journey showed signs of things to come. As someone forgot to lift the anchor all the way, it scraped along a nearby ship completely destroying its railings, lifeboats, and other equipment. Oops. As they were running late to meet the president, they basically just said “sorry guys” and kept on going.

Timbeeeeeeer! Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Timbeeeeeeer! Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

A day later, Porter joined the convoy and headed across the Atlantic. The journey was to last eight days. These kinds of expeditions require full fighting efficiency. Thus, all of the boats are required to perform training exercises along the way. Already on November 13th, the first one took place and Willie Dee was tasked with dropping fake anti-submarine depth charges.

The only problem was, they weren’t so good at discerning fake from real. So at one point, our troublesome ship dropped a live depth charge, to much distress of the rest of the convoy. Everyone thought the cover was blown and Nazis were going for the president himself. Two incidents in two days. Good job.

But each day brings a new adventure. The very next day, probably eager to find out whether at least his own ship was able to handle its combat equipment, Roosevelt requested an anti-aircraft practice to take place. The crew of USS Iowa let loose dozens of balloons and shot at them, to much praise. Alas, as some balloons drifted away towards Willie Dee its captain saw his chance for redemption. He not only ordered his men to shoot down the remaining balloons but to perform a torpedo drill.

Now, it might sound really dangerous, but torpedo exercises really don’t take a brainiac to perform. You remove the primer needed for the torpedo to actually hit the water, you aim at the nearest ship, the bridge officer yells “fire”, and that’s about it. By now, you’d already realized that Iowa acted as their target of choice.

USS Iowa, so big not even a torpedo could miss it. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

USS Iowa, so big, not even a torpedo could miss it. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

“Fire one”, shouted the officer. As expected, silence substituted for the familiar “whoooooosh” sound of a live torpedo. Then there was “fire two”. Silence. “Fire three!” and for a split second, the whole crew of USS William D. Porter went numb. But their silence was unable to drown out the sound of a torpedo that had just been sent away towards the president of the United States. Now, panic.

As this was a top-secret mission, there were some strict rules to follow – among which, no radio communication. Thus, captain Walter ordered his young and, you guessed right, quite inexperienced signalman to use light signals to inform Iowa of the incoming disaster. He had about two minutes before history would take a dramatic turn.

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