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‘Sarsaparilla!’

Just one word.

But the beginning of a most unbelievable story of World War II.  One that never made the headlines because of the tight security and secrecy surrounding it.

I first wrote about it after the war in the 1950s.  It goes back to Armistice Day (Veterans Day), November 1943 and Norfolk, VA.  I was a signalman on the destroyer USS Cogswell and had the signal watch that particular night.  Our captain, Comdr. Harold Deuterman said to me:  “I am expecting an important message.  It might be only one word–sarsaparilla.  If it comes, awake me immediately.”

It wasn’t too long before the battleship USS Iowa reached out of the inky darkness with a flashing signal light.  Three dots, dot dash, dot dash dot and so on until the flashes spelled S-A-R-S-A-P-A-R-I-L-L-A.   The captain was awakened and the message relayed to two other destroyers, one of them the William D. Porter.

Whatever else “sarsaparilla” meant it told us to get underway.  Around midnight, the Iowa and its screening escorts the Cogswell, Porter and another destroyer whose name I don’t remember slipped quietly out to sea under cover of darkness while Norfolk slept.

It was a mysterious trip.  No one told us where we were going but you could tell something was up.

A few days later we were nearing Gibraltar.  I was on the bridge with other signalmen.  A quiet, peaceful day–until the silence was shattered by a booming cry: ‘T-O-R-P-E-D-O”!  And there it was–a torpedo streaking through the water toward the Iowa.

The Iowa was warned by emergency flag hoists and a talk-between-ships telephone.  She managed to turn to avoid the torpedo, which exploded about 50 yards behind in her wake.

General quarters were sounded and the Cogswell crew rushed to their battle stations as we prowled the area looking for the German submarine to drop depth charges on.  But we couldn’t locate the sub.  Then we learned there was no sub to locate.  The torpedo was not from a German submarine.  It had been fired from the Porter.
The flag officer in charge of the destroyer escort was on the Cogswell and sputtered and fumed when the Porter informed us “that was our torpedo”.  The Porter, it was later learned, had its torpedo mounts aimed at the Iowa in a simulated attack training session.  A live torpedo in one of the tubes was accidentally fired and sped toward the Iowa’s No. 2 Magazine.  If the torpedo had hit, it could have sunk the Iowa.

The flag officer continued to sputter.  Why all the rage, I thought to myself, a young kid from Quincy Point.  After all, it didn’t hit the Iowa.  But he knew something that we didn’t know.

On the Iowa were Harry Hopkins, Admirals Leahy, McIntire and Cook.  Generals Marshall, Arnold, Handy, Somervell and Watson, according to Hopkins’ private papers made public after the war.  Not only that, but with them was Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations.  And someone else was aboard the Iowa:  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  We were escorting him to the Teheran Conference to meet with Churchill, Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek.

We later turned the Iowa over to another division of destroyers one day out of Africa.  The Cogswell and Porter headed to Bermuda.  The Porter was held in Bermuda for a board of inquiry investigation with the whole ship under arrest.  The board found that the Iowa episode was an accident with no evidence of any sabotage.  The Porter was ordered to the Aleutian Islands apparently as punishment duty.  But that didn’t end our relationship.

The Cogswell headed for the Panama Canal and out to the Pacific where we screened the carriers in the Third and Fifth Fleets.  And on to the Marshalls, Truk, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, the Philippines, China Sea, Formosa, the Bonnin Islands, etc.  Forgotten was the William D. Porter.

But now it was June 1945 and Okinawa, the doorstep to the Japanese mainland.  The Cogswell was assigned to radar picket duty between Okinawa and Japan with other destroyers.  Two destroyers would go out together as a team.

On June 10, the Cogswell moved out to take its picket station.  Out came another destroyer to join us.  We could hardly believe it.  It was the William D. Porter, which we hadn’t seen since the Iowa incident.

We took our positions abouat 500 yards apart.  And suddenly there was a Japanese Kamikaze high in the sky and diving down on us.  We fired all our guns at the plane but it got through.  Now the pilot had to make a quick decision, which destroyer would be his target.  He picked the Porter.

We thought it crashed onto the Porter.  But according to the Navy version, it was a near-miss.  The plane’s bomb apparently passed under the Porter before exploding, causing uncontrolled flooding.  LCS hurried to the Porter’s side to take off 350 crewmembers.  Word was there there were no fatalities.

About three hours later, the Porter rolled over on her starboard side.  Her bow shot up like the grasping hand of a person drowning and she slipped into her watery grave.  It was a sad sight.

We were with her only twice.  One day firing a torpedo at the President of the United States and the other taking a Kamikaze instead of us.  She was a hard luck ship.  Jinxed.

by Henry Bosworth, Quincy Sun (November 6, 2008)

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