|The Willie Dee|
Don't Shoot, We're Republicans!
by Midnight Fremasons Guest Contributor
W.B. Steven L. Harrison, FMLR
Brother Franklin D. Roosevelt, Holland Lodge 8 of New York City, crossed the Atlantic in November 1943, to attend a World War II summit. While the President was en route traveling on the USS Iowa battleship, the navy arranged a demonstration of firepower for its commander-in-chief. At the start of the trip the battleship William D. Porter joined the Iowa to show off its capabilities for FDR. While weighing anchor the Porter ripped the lifeboat mountings off of a sister destroyer, rendering the damaged ship un-seaworthy. The following day, a depth charge fell from the Porter and exploded, requiring all area ships, including the Iowa, to take evasive maneuvers. Two days later, during the demonstration, crew members inadvertently fired a live torpedo at the President's ship. Learning this, Brother Roosevelt asked to be taken deck-side so he could watch! Again forced to take evasive action, the Iowa barely avoided the live "fish."
After the incident with the torpedo, the Porter was quarantined and the entire crew arrested. Later, the ship's captain, Lieutenant Commander Wilfred A. Walter, and several of his officers were sentenced to shore duty. Lawton Dawson, who was responsible for releasing a live torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years at hard labor. Fortunately for Dawson, a compassionate Roosevelt gave him a presidential pardon.
The "Willie Dee," as it came to be known, and the remainder of its crew were "exiled" to Alaska, where most assumed it couldn't get into trouble. This held true until a drunken crew member accidentally fired a live round of ammunition into the base commander's house while amusing himself on one of The Porter’s big guns. The unfortunate incident was compounded by the fact that the commander was hosting a party and several surprised dignitaries were at his home when the shell hit.
By this time, the ship's reputation was so bad, whenever it pulled into port sailors from other ships would greet it by begging, "Don't shoot, we're Republicans!" The catcall implied the Porter’s crew shot at FDR because he was a Democrat.
The war in the Pacific required every piece of firepower the US could muster. Reluctantly, the Navy called the Porter into service at Okinawa where, not unexpectedly, it shelled another American battleship. After that incident, the Navy moved the Willie Dee farther out to sea where it could do no harm, but where it was also a sitting duck. A Kamikaze pilot spotted the isolated ship and set it as his target. Fortunately, the pilot missed the Porter badly and dove into the sea. Unfortunately, his plane exploded and the concussion capsized the battleship. In the end and true to form, a hapless Kamikaze pilot had sunk the hapless Willie Dee. Miraculously, however, every single crew member survived the incident when another Navy ship came to the rescue.
Somewhat ironically, the battleship was named for US Navy Commodore William D. Porter, who had a distinguished career. He commanded the Essex during the Civil War and was instrumental in several Union victories. Brother Porter was a member of St. John Lodge 11, Washington, DC.
Although the saga of the Willie Dee has its humorous side, historians agree Brother Roosevelt was in legitimate danger when the torpedo nearly struck the Iowa. Had the episode ended tragically, the war and history may have taken a different turn with Brother Henry Wallace in command.
W.B. Steve Harrison is a Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is the editor of the Missouri Freemason Magazine, author of the book Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, a Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research and also its Junior Warden.