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Sinking the USS Reuben James

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Sinking the USS Reuben James

On October 31, 1941, the USS Reuben James became one of America’s first casualties of war—even before war was declared.On October 31, 1941, the USS Reuben James became one of America’s first casualties of war—even before war was declared.

On October 31, 1941, the USS Reuben James became one of America’s first casualties of war—even before war was declared.

By Joseph Connor, Jr.

When the destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245) was assigned to convoy duty in the North Atlantic in the autumn of 1941, its crew had a sense of foreboding and feared the worst. Germany and Great Britain had been at war for two years. The United States was still neutral, at least officially, but neutrality offered little solace—or protection. Deadly German U-boats were prowling the North Atlantic and feasting on Allied shipping. Convoy duty was hazardous and becoming more so by the day.

Reuben James is a name rich in Navy lore. On February 16, 1804, James, a boatswain’s mate, stood on the deck of the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli as Barbary pirates struck.

When a sword-wielding pirate attacked Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, James is said to have jumped in front of Decatur and taken the blow meant for him. The ship named for James, the USS Reuben James, was a four-stack destroyer, commissioned in 1920. She was 314 feet long, 30 feet in the beam, and capable of speeds of up to 33 knots. She was armed with four 4-inch guns in her main battery, torpedo tubes, depth charges, and numerous antiaircraft weapons. To her crew, she was affectionately known as “Ol’ Rube.”

Although the United States was still offi- cially neutral, Congress had enacted the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 to help Great Britain survive. The act permitted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sell, lend, or lease munitions, aircraft, weapons, and military supplies to “the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Great Britain was one of those countries.

U.S. Navy ships helped escort the convoys bringing Lend-Lease goods to England. The Royal Canadian Navy escorted the convoys to a point off Newfoundland. The U.S. Navy picked the convoys up there, escorted them out into the Atlantic, and handed them over to the British Royal Navy at a mid-ocean meeting point. The Navy performed these duties while the United States maintained its official neutrality. The pretext was that the Navy was helping to supply American troops stationed in Iceland. Merchant ships of other nations, such as Great Britain, were free to tag along, and these “hitchhikers” got U.S. Navy protection. This subterfuge was necessary because of isolationist sentiment in Congress, but it fooled few, least of all the German Navy.

On September 4, 1941, a German U- boat attacked the destroyer USS Greer (DD-145) as she steamed alone toward Iceland. The Greer dodged two torpedoes and counterattacked with depth charges. In response, Roosevelt ordered the Navy to shoot on sight any Axis warship found in waters “the protection of which is necessary for American defense.” The North Atlantic came within the scope of this order. Roosevelt’s logic was simple: “If you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.”

The sinking of the USS Reuben James by Navy artist Griffith Baily Coale, who witnessed the German U-boat attack on the destroyer while it was on convoy duty west of Ireland. Ninety-nine Americans died.

USS Reuben James by Navy artist Griffith Baily.

On October 17, 1941, a U-boat torpedoed the USS Kearny (DD-432) as she escorted a 50-ship convoy. U-boats had already torpedoed several merchant ships in this convoy and a burning ship had silhouetted the Kearny, making her an easy target. The Kearny, a modern ship commissioned in 1940, survived the attack and reached port, but 11 sailors were killed and 22 more were injured. “Hitler’s torpedo,” Roosevelt said, “was directed at every American,” but America did not go to war over this act of war.

The escalating danger worried the crew of the Reuben James. They listened to the radio, read the newspapers, and knew the score. When chief machinist’s mate Alton Cousins visited his family that fall, he left his gold watch behind. “It’s not going down with me,” he told his wife. While on leave, boatswain’s mate Frederick Post had a drink with a friend and predicted it would be the last drink they would ever have together. For gunner’s mate Walter Sorensen, his main wish was to come home on leave just once more, “even if it is only for a few days.” “Ol’ Rube” was not as rugged or in the same class as modern destroyers like the Kearny, but “in an emergency … these craft must be used as found,” retired Admiral William V. Pratt told Newsweek magazine.

On October 23, 1941, the Reuben James left Argentia, Newfoundland, to escort convoy HX-156. Her skipper was Lt. Cmdr. Heywood L. “Tex” Edwards, a 1926 Naval Academy graduate and a member of the 1928 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. The Reuben James was one of five destroyers escorting the convoy’s more than 50 merchant ships, many of which flew the Union Jack. Her mission, seaman James Thompson wrote to his parents, was to “see who is raising hell with our ships.”

Only one destroyer in the convoy—the USS Niblack (DD-424)—had radar. On the Reuben James, torpedoman Robert Howard recalled, “All you had was a pair of binoculars and a rubber ear to press against the skin of the ship to listen for [submarine] screw noises.”

The Reuben James’ last day was October 31, 1941. At daybreak, she was about 600 miles west of Ireland and “blacked out to avoid reflection in the inquisitive monocles of U-boat periscopes,” as Newsweek put it. A torpedo fired by U-552 hit her on the port side, ignited her forward magazine, and blew her in half. “With a terrific roar a column of orange flame towers high into the night as her magazines go up,” recalled Griffith Baily Coale, a naval artist sailing with the convoy.

Survivors on the Reuben James saw the instantaneous damage. “The whole front of the ship lifted up and it was gone. Gone in an instant,” recalled electrician’s mate Thomas Turnbull. “Midships was now the bow” is how fireman Norman Hingula described it. The aft part of the ship remained afloat for about five minutes.

Those who survived the blast jumped into the frigid water. They had no choice. The Reuben James carried only two lifeboats and they were now useless. One had been demolished by the torpedo; the other could not be lowered into the water because of the steep angle of the sinking ship.

The USS Kearny, shown here, was attacked by a U-boat two weeks before the James was sunk, causing the deaths of 11 Americans. Neither attack provoked the U.S. into declaring war on Germany.

The USS Kearny, shown here, was attacked by a U-boat two weeks before the James was sunk, causing the deaths of 11 Americans. Neither attack provoked the U.S. into declaring war on Germany.

As the survivors struggled to stay afloat, unsecured depth charges from the Reuben James hit the water as the ship sank. Terrified sailors heard the depth charges arm themselves, and then the charges exploded, hurling debris and men into the air. “If it hadn’t been for those depth charges, we probably would have had another 40 or 50 survivors,” recalled Fireman Second Class George Giehrl. “Some were knocked unconscious. Others were torn apart.”

Nearby ships rushed in to save the survivors. Rescuers heard “cursing, praying, and hoarse shouts for help” from sailors struggling to stay alive. “Choking on oil and water, they are like small animals caught in molasses,” artist Coale wrote. Acting with “cold precision,” the ships and their crews rescued the few survivors.

“I know I got picked up pretty quick,” said William Bergstresser, a chief machinist’s mate. “The water was so cold it would kill you in no time. But it didn’t seem quick. It seemed like a long time.”

Of the ship’s crew, only 45 were saved; 99 sailors perished, including all seven of the ship’s officers. Among the sailors lost were Alton Cousins, who never reclaimed his gold watch, Frederick Post, who never had another drink with his friend, and Walter Sorensen, who never got his wished-for last visit home.

The presence of the escort destroyers may have saved the crew of the Reuben James from even greater casualties. On April 2, 1942, the same U-boat—U-552— sank the SS David H. Atwater, an unescorted collier, off the coast of Virginia. As the crew abandoned ship, U-552 raked them with machine-gun fire, killing all but three of the 27 men.

Word of the Reuben James sinking quickly reached the United States, but details were few. When Neda Boyd, wife of machinist’s mate Solon Boyd, heard the news on the radio, she “froze in the chair.” She felt a sense of doom because, when last home, her husband had told her, “I’m afraid we won’t be back this time.” Their six-year-old daughter heard the name of her dad’s ship on the radio and wept inconsolably. (Luckily, Boyd survived).

A New York Times editorial said that the sinking “brushes away the last possible doubt that the United States and Germany are now at open war in the Atlantic.” “Worse than piracy,” proclaimed Navy Secretary Frank Knox, and Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky accused the Germans of trying “to drive us off the seas, and I don’t believe the American people are ready to be driven off.” Senator George Aiken of Vermont, however, said that Roosevelt was “personally responsible for whatever lives may have been lost” because he had ordered convoy duty.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cabled Roosevelt that he “grieved at the loss of life you have suffered with Reuben James.” In her daily newspaper column, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that she could not “help but think of every one of the 120 men and their families, who are anxiously awaiting news.” The Russian newspaper Pravda praised the United States for having “taken its fighting post,” and the London Daily Mail predicted that the United States was “marching down the last mile to a declaration of war.”

Germany defended the attack. By escorting British ships, a German official said, the Reuben James became fair game: “Anybody walking along the railroad tracks at night should not be surprised if they get run over by an express train.” Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota seemed to agree. “You can’t expect to walk into a barroom brawl and hope to stay out of the fight,” he said. Japanese officials were strangely silent.

While news of the sinking arrived quickly, word on the fate of the crew took several days longer. In Portland, Maine, where about half the crew lived, the wives of 40 crew members—“red-eyed and listless, after hours of vigil with little sleep”— awaited news of their husbands.

On November 2, Almeda Edwards, wife of Lt. Cmdr. Edwards, wrote to her husband, “It has been two days and still no one has told me that you are coming back to me. I know you will though….” Before she could mail her letter, however, she learned that her husband would not return. Like many others, she received the dreaded news through a telegram from “C.W. Nimitz, Chief of Bureau of Navigation.”

Forty-three years earlier, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor had led to an outcry for war, but the sinking of the Reuben James did not spark the same reaction. Roosevelt did not break off diplomatic relations with Germany, and he stayed away from the bellicose rhetoric he had used after the Greer and Kearny attacks. As for a declaration of war, the New York Times noted, “The people, their Representatives in Congress and even many high officials of the government are deeply divided on the subject.” Rather than spark enlistments, Navy enlistments declined 15 percent in November 1941, something officials attributed to the loss of life on the Reuben James.

Some did rally to the flag, however. John Ryan, 43, joined the Navy after his son, John Jr., died on the Reuben James. He said he was “itching to get a crack at” the German Navy. Young men in Logan County, West Virginia, home of lost sailor George Woody, sought revenge. “The incident stirred up emotions in our hometown. As a result, several of us local boys enlisted in the Navy,” said Farris Burton, one of those who joined up.

In Boston harbor, the Navy held a memorial service on the deck of the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), a ship well known to sailor Reuben James, as the families of the lost seamen looked on with “tear-stained, tight-lipped faces.” Six women, led by Almeda Edwards, “tossed flowers on the ebbing tide and even as they did the sun broke through the thick clouds and bathed the wreaths in its pale light,” the Associated Press reported.

World events soon pushed the Reuben James to the side. Five weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan, and Germany declared war on the United States.

The Reuben James, however, was not forgotten, thanks in large part to folksinger Woody Guthrie’s ballad about the sinking: “Tell me what were their names. Tell me what were their names. Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

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