Do you ever get sick of hearing about "the greatest generation"? For over 60 years now, it's been all "they survived the Depression" this and "they defeated the Nazis" that and "they never looked stupid in hats." Well, not everything the heroes of the 20th century did was pitch perfect. For example, the WWII destroyer USS William D. Porter was easily the stupidest ship ever launched. If ships were people, this one would be the kid who ate paste off a stick. And then almost killed the president by accident.
So when we say that this ship's service played out in exactly the way it would if it had been a hastily scripted Adam Sandler comedy, we're not exaggerating. We're talking about a ship that ...
#5. Wrecked a Friendly Ship Just Pulling Out of Port
The USS William D. Porter's completely ridiculous career as a warship began with an important escort mission. What could go wrong? Well, they came fairly close to accidentally blowing up the president, so there's that. But the problems started before they even left port.
The ship was named after this beard. We have no idea who the man attached to it is.
The destroyer was specifically commissioned to serve as an escort for larger boats (destroyers are widely known to be the Navy's Kevin Costners to other ships' Whitney Houstons). So in November of 1943, the William D. Porter was, as its first mission, to escort the battleship USS Iowa across the Atlantic Ocean to an important summit in Iran. "Why would a battleship need to go to a political summit?" you're probably asking. "It can't even talk." The answer is that the president of the United States, the secretary of state and the joint chiefs of staff were on the Iowa, and they had a secret appointment with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.
FDR was the official coke hookup of the Allied leadership.
So it was a big deal. The USS William D. Porter was only one of the ships in the convoy that was going to get them there. There was only one problem: The Porter was staffed with the cast of Police Academy.
The trouble started before the boat even left the dock. Specifically, someone forgot to raise the anchor up all the way, and as they backed out ever so slowly, they dragged the anchor along the moored deck of her sister ship. Picture an anchor scraping along railings, lifeboats and thousands of dollars' worth of war shit like a coked up toddler in a candy store. Picture the looks on the faces of the newbie sailors as they watched it happen a) on their first day on the job and b) on the way to meet the freaking president.
"Holy shit we damaged our anchor."
The captain of the Porter, Wilfred Walter, issued a quick apology, looked at his watch and realized he really needed to meet up with the USS Iowa for their escort mission. So he said, "Wellllp. Catch you later, dude!" and left, leaving the U.S. Navy with the mess. But hey, beginners' nerves, right? How much worse could things get from there?
Much. Much worse.
#4. Nearly Blew Up the President's Boat With a Depth Charge ...
Twenty-four hours after the anchor-scrape incident, the Porter meekly took its place alongside the rest of the convoy, no doubt with her metaphorical head hanging and her shame glasses on. The journey across the Atlantic would take eight days, and the ships would pass through U-boat-infested waters during wartime, so it was critical that the boats keep up with training and maneuvers on the journey. For example, in a real-live battle situation, if a submarine got too close, it was the destroyer's job to drop depth charges (just huge bombs that sink down and blow up next to the submerged sub). So, one of the drills that the Porter was tasked with was sending out fake depth charges for practice.
You can tell where this train wreck is heading, can't you?
"We wrote 'void' on the side, so it should be dead. Bombs are like checks, right?"
Yes, the geniuses on the Willie Dee never got around to disarming their anti-submarine weapons. And on November 12, a live depth charge just fell off the deck. Fell. As in it kind of rolled off, into the ocean, within killing distance of the president of the United States. And it exploded. And that was when shit got real.
As you can imagine, the sonar on every ship in the convoy started ringing like the world was ending, because clearly there was an enemy boat within firing range. In addition to trying to track the phantom Nazi down, the ships also began executing evasive maneuvers, which means they were tasked with getting the hell out of the line of fire. Surely the Axis powers had intelligence on the secret mission and were after them, knowing that freaking FDR was on board.
"Hide in my cabin? Not when there are Nazi assassins to mock."
Just as the captain probably got ready to wheel FDR over the deck in a mercy killing, everyone got a message from the Porter. They did it. The Willie Dee was actually fortunate that the bomb had sank a ways before detonating, otherwise their entire stern would have blown off. But we're going to take a wild guess and presume no one was counting their lucky stars at the moment when they had to make that call.
"You know when you're so embarrassed you want the ship to explode and remove your head with shrapnel? That."
And then, because every single man on the Willie Dee had made a deal with the devil and lost, a freak wave hit the boat, knocking one guy overboard (he was never found) and flooding the boiler room. This resulted in a loss of power, which put the William D. Failure even further behind the rest of the convoy. If it had been us, we would have just quietly turned tail and slipped on back to the States. But they didn't. Even though Admiral Ernest King, who was in charge of the convoy (and getting sick of the problems and hourly damage reports from the Willie Dee), personally radioed Captain Walter, telling him to cut the shit out and start acting properly.
"This thing is making weird sounds. Someone should see to that."
Walter vowed to "improve his ship's performance." But of course he didn't, otherwise this list wouldn't exist.
#3. ... Then Accidentally Launched a Torpedo at the President's Boat
So by this point, everyone on the mission was understandably a little skittish. So FDR himself takes the initiative of asking the crew of the Iowa to demonstrate that they could defend themselves if someone other than the idiots at the back of the convoy tried to attack them; specifically, to defend itself if the Iowa were under attack from the air. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he probably imagined the Porter was capable of flying, and he wanted to be ready.
If we were sitting on the deck of this ship, we'd feel goddamn invincible.
The way this particular drill worked was that the Iowa would release balloons that served as targets for anti-aircraft guns. Fair enough. Until some of the balloons drifted over to the Porter and someone (Captain Walter) thought it was time for redemption. So he ordered his crew to fire on any balloons missed by the Iowa's gunners. That part went fine. Then, feeling cocky, he ordered a practice firing of their torpedoes. And the practice target would be the Iowa.
Oh, yes. You know what's about to happen.
They announced "Fire one!" and the first fake torpedo was fake fired. "Fire two!" and the second fake torpedo was fake fired. "Fire three!" and a swooshing sound was heard. The crew watched in horror as an actual torpedo left the tube and made a beeline for the Iowa and the president of the United States.
"My Roosevelty senses are tingling."
Remember that this was a secret mission -- no one knew the president of the United States would be on the USS Iowa until he boarded it, and even then the whole deal was hush-hush. They were at war, after all. And all it would take to sabotage the trip would be one slip-up to the wrong person. Which was why the convoy was supposed to exercise radio silence.
Now, there are occasions when you have to break radio silence, like if for instance something even worse than being discovered by the enemy will happen if you don't. You'd think that "just shot a torpedo at the president" would be one of those times when you have to break the rule for the greater good.
"Hang on, is this the Roosevelt who wrestles torpedoes? No? Damn shame."
Not according to the brainiacs on the Porter. They decided radio silence trumped the life of their commander in chief and everyone else on board the ship, so they used light signals to warn the Iowa a torpedo was coming. Light signals. Like it was 1775 and they were at the Old North Church waiting for Paul Revere.
"Three if by torpedo (by sea)."
But they couldn't even get that part right. The signalman quickly told the Iowa that a torpedo was in the water ... except he said that it was going in the opposite direction. Realizing his mistake, the signalman tried again. This time he completely botched it and accidentally signaled to the Iowa "We're going in reverse full speed." We wouldn't be surprised if the Iowa had a little party at that news.
Finally, someone decided to break radio silence and ordered Iowa to turn right fast. After haggling over who was calling, the Iowa quickly obliged. Obviously the president was panicking, knowing that death could be on its way ... oh wait, no, Roosevelt asked to be rolled over to watch the torpedo action. His Secret Service agents then proceeded to pull their pistols to shoot the torpedo themselves if necessary. Luckily, the torpedo wound up missing the boat, thanks to the Iowa's sharp turn.
And because the crew of the Porter couldn't even get a simple tragic accident right.
This was about the point when Admiral King ordered the Porter to please leave the convoy, lest they try to assassinate the president again. So the crew followed orders and sailed to Bermuda, where they found themselves confronting armed Marines who were there to arrest them. All of them. It was the first time an entire Navy crew had been arrested.