October 31, 1941 U-Boat Sinks USS Reuben James - History

October 31, 1941 U-Boat Sinks USS Reuben James - History

In March of 1941, the United States began assisting Great Britain by providing escorts to convoys traveling from the US to Great Britain. The escorts would cover the ships as far as Iceland and from there it would become the responsibility of the British Navy to escort the ships.

On October 23 the Reuben James and four other destroyers sailed from Naval Station Argentia in New Foundland escorting Convoy HV 156. On the morning o October 31st of the coast of Iceland, 1941 off the coast of Iceland U-552 fired at a British merchant ship but instead hit the Reuben James in the bow. Ammunition on the ship exploded and the bow sunk immediately with aft section going down five minutes later. One Hundred crew members were killed with only 44 enlisted men and no officers surviving.

September 4, 1941: The First American Ship to Fire on a German Ship in World War II (The Greer Incident)

On September 4, 1941, US Navy destroyer USS Greer was attacked by German submarine (U-boat) U-652, and returned the compliment by depth charging the German sub. Although the battle did not result in either ship being damaged, and no sailors were killed, the “Greer Incident” assumed enormous political proportions as the German and American governments scrambled to gain political advantage from the confrontation at sea. The incident could have easily resulted in outright hostilities and a declaration of war between the US and Germany, but as each country was not quite ready to take that final plunge, the result was the “Shoot on sight” declaration by the United States claiming the right to fire upon any German U-boat or ship “…in any waters which America deems vital to its defense constitutes an attack. In the waters which we deem necessary for our defense, American naval vessels and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under the water, or Axis raiders on the surface of the sea, strike their deadly blow—first.” (Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States.)

Digging Deeper

Far from just minding her own business, on September 4, 1941, the Greer was on her way to Iceland when she was advised of a U-boat about 10 miles directly ahead of her. Greer began a search pattern with her underwater detection equipment (sonar). Greer’s soundmen detected the sub and the destroyer began following the predatory craft, radioing its position to American and British ships. A British anti-submarine patrol plane dropped 4 depth charges in accordance with the directions from Greer, which is why the U-boat captain must have thought the Greer was attacking his boat. The U-boat fired a torpedo at the destroyer, and then another before Greer began a depth bombing campaign in an attempt to sink the submarine that now posed a deadly threat to the ship.

The incident spawned a diplomatic furor, with the aggrieved Germans complaining that the American destroyer had attacked a German submarine without provocation. Of course, the Americans countered that the U-boat had fired torpedoes in 2 separate attacks on the Greer. While the incident did not result in a declaration of war between the United States and Germany, it did result in the previously mentioned “Shoot on sight” order. Not long after the Greer Incident, the USS Reuben James DD-245, another destroyer, was sunk by U-552 on October 31, 1941, while escorting a convoy to Britain. Reuben James had positioned herself to block any torpedoes aimed at an ammunition carrying cargo ship when she was struck by a torpedo meant for the ammunition carrier. Reuben James sank quickly after her forward magazine blew up, leaving only 44 survivors of the 144 people aboard. None of the 7 officers aboard survived. Reuben James was the first US Navy ship sunk during World War II, about 5 weeks before the US entered the war.

The Greer was a Wickes Class destroyer, commissioned in 1918. Smaller and more lightly armed than the Fletcher Class of destroyer (175 built from 1941 to 1945) made famous during World War II, Greer was the old “four stacker” variety, capable of a highly respectable 35 knots top speed, but displacing only 1165 tons with her 314 foot length and 31 foot beam. She was armed with 4 X 4 inch guns along with a single 3 inch gun and 12 torpedo tubes, as well as being capable of dropping depth charges. The Fletcher Class destroyers were bigger (twice the displacement at 376 feet long and 39.5 foot beam) and slightly faster (36.5 knots top speed) and much more heavily armed, with a main battery of 5 X 5 inch guns, up to 10 40mm automatic anti-aircraft cannons, up to 12 automatic anti-aircraft 20mm cannons, 10 torpedo tubes, and 6 depth charge projectors to go along with the 2 depth charge racks.

Questions for students (and subscribers): Do you agree with the US policy of escorting convoys headed to Britain before the US was officially involved in World War II? Should the US have simply declared war on Germany (the Axis) and joined Britain? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

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The featured image in this article of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Greer (DD-145) is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.

About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.

The first American warship to be sunk as a result of hostilities during the Second World War was not at Pearl Harbor. That distinction belongs to USS Reuben James, one of three American destroyers mentioned by name as having taken provocative action in violation of the neutrality laws in the German declaration of war. By October 1941 24 US Navy destroyers were employed in convoy duties between Halifax and Iceland. Reuben James was one of them. When a convoy of 43 ships left Halifax on October 22, 1941 they were met by Reuben James and four other American destroyers.

Early on the morning of October 31 the convoy was approaching Iceland when it was sighted by two German U-boats. Almost simultaneously Reuben James detected one of the U-boats on its sound detection gear. Reuben James moved towards the bearing upon which the sound was detected when it suddenly exploded. A torpedo from the U-boat had struck the destroyer on the port side and penetrated into its forward magazine and the resulting explosion blew the ship in half. Reuben James carried a crew of 159 and one supernumerary, a passenger enlisted man bound for Iceland.

There were 44 survivors, and all of the officers aboard were killed. Whether the destroyer had been deliberately fired upon or if it had blundered into the path of a torpedo which had been fired at one of the ships of the convoy has since been a matter of conjecture. The commander of the German submarine, Erich Topp, became one of the leading German submariners of the war, and never said whether he was aiming at the destroyer. None of the Americans who had been on the destroyer&rsquos bridge survived and it is not known if they had seen the torpedo before it struck.

Within days the US Navy was sending out the telegrams notifying next of kin of the loss of their relative, which would become all too common in the coming days. Relatives were informed that their loved ones were lost in the performance of their duties when their ship was sunk by a torpedo. Nonetheless there was no large public outcry for war with the Germans, and isolationists continued to claim that FDR was trying to drag America into a European war. The convoying and shoot on sight order remained in effect.

Reuben James was the only ship of the convoy it escorted to be lost. That was seldom the case after the US entered the war, Battle of the Atlantic losses rose dramatically in 1942. When Adolf Hitler declared war he specifically cited the Reuben James incident as another of the American provocations which led to his declaration of war. Within a few weeks of the sinking of the American destroyer the Japanese launched their attack in the Pacific and Reuben James, except to the families and friends of the dead crew, was largely forgotten as war fever was directed towards Japan.

October 31, 1941 U-Boat Sinks USS Reuben James - History

Notice disclaimer: Ronald David Greenberg created this website as a tribute to the destroyer U.S.S. Reuben James (DD-245)) a nd those of the ship's complement lost when the ship was torpedoed and sunk by U-boat (U-562) south of Iceland, October 31, 1941 . This website is also intended to provide general information about the USS Reuben James and the song The Sinking of the Reuben James . The site is not intended as a definitive or authoritative rendering of the above subjects, though I made a diligent effort to create an accurate site and to exercise the care that the subject of this tribute deserved.

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The political settlement ending World War I left a bitter legacy that poisoned international relations and led within 20 years to an even more devastating war. By the 1930's, totalitarian regimes in central Europe and Japan threatened their neighbors. In the Far East, Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931 and 1932, a first step in seeking the domination of China over the next dozen years. In Europe, Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial power in Germany in 1933 and rebuilt that country's military forces. Between March 1938 and September 1939, Hitler annexed Austria, dismembered Czechoslovakia, and, with the acquiescence of the Soviet Union, invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Having guaranteed the integrity of Poland's borders, Great Britain and France declared war against Germany on 3 September. Between February and June 1940, Germany overran Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, leaving only Great Britain to oppose Hitler's ambitions in western Europe.

As the world edged closer to another major conflict, the United States maintained a strong isolationist position in the international community. By 1939, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that the United States could not remain neutral indefinitely as the Axis Powers-Germany, Italy, and Japan gradually escalated their aggression and violence. While the United States remained unwilling to wage war, President Roosevelt gave China in the Far East and Great Britain in Europe all the encouragement and support possible.

While providing aid to China and Great Britain, the United States began to build its war industry and rearm, thus preparing for entry into the war. President Roosevelt sought to make the United States an "arsenal for democracy." The Allies obtained armaments and supplies from United States manufacturers, at first on a "cash and carry" basis, later on credit under the Lend-Lease program.

By 1941, the German submarine offensive against Allied shipping in the Atlantic threatened to starve Great Britain. Like Japan, she was dependent on ocean borne commerce to sustain her economy and defend herself. The British population depended on imports for a third of its food and for oil from North America and Venezuela to sustain its lifeblood, but German submarines in 1940 and 1941 were sinking merchant ships and tankers faster than the British could replace them. Consequently, the United States gradually undertook a greater role in the campaign that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill named the Battle of the Atlantic.

In September 1941, the U.S. Navy began to escort convoys in the western part of the North Atlantic. Within a month, a German submarine attacked a U.S. destroyer (USS Kearney, DD432 on 17 October 1941) escorting a convoy near Iceland, leaving several sailors dead or wounded. On 31 October, a German submarine [U-552 under Topp] sank a U.S. destroyer (USS Reuben James, DD245) 600 miles (966 km) west of Ireland, killing 115 of the crew.

The Flush deck destroyer USS Reuben Jones

Despite this loss of life, events in the Far East rather than in Europe pushed the United States into World War II. By July 1941, Japanese forces had occupied French Indochina, and U.S. economic sanctions had cut off much of Japan's oil and other imported resources. In October, the Japanese government decided on war, even as it negotiated with the United States. Japanese military leaders hoped to strike a blow that would paralyze the U.S. fleet in Hawaii long enough to establish a defensive ring from Southeast Asia through the East Indies and eastward in the Pacific as far as Wake Island. This strategic plan would have provided Japan with unlimited access to the rich resources of Southeast Asia. As the opening stage of this plan, a Japanese aircraft carrier task force attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and nearby facilities in Hawaii on 7 December 1941.


The United States was not prepared for war. Though the Battle of the Atlantic had raged since September 1939, the United States lacked ships, aircraft, equipment, trained personnel, and a master plan to counter any serious submarine offensive. However, steps taken just before and shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack helped the U.S. Navy enhance its submarine defenses. The U.S. Coast Guard was transferred to the U.S. Navy in November 1941, and the next month President Roosevelt named Admiral Ernest J. King Commander in Chief, United States Fleet. In March 1942, the admiral became Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as well, giving him the authority and means to direct the U.S. effort in the Battle of the Atlantic, particularly in the American Theater.

This theater included the North and South American continents, except Alaska and Greenland, and the waters about the continents to mid Atlantic and mid Pacific Oceans. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy organized its existing East Coast naval districts into sea frontiers, with the Eastern Sea Frontier extending from the Canadian border to northern Florida. The Gulf Sea Frontier encompassed the Gulf of Mexico as far south as the border between Mexico and Guatemala, most of the Florida Coast, the northern half of the Bahamas, and the eastern half of Cuba. The Panama Sea Frontier covered the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Central America and Colombia, and the Caribbean Sea Frontier included the rest of the Caribbean and the northeast coast of South America.

To provide adequate anti submarine measures in this vast area, the U.S. Navy needed trained manpower and specialized surface vessels. As early as 1937, it started training personnel for convoy escort duty in surface vessels, but by 1941 had only a few qualified officers for this duty. Shortly before the United States entered the war, the U.S. Navy's General Board chose the Hamilton Class Coast Guard Cutter as the ideal anti submarine ship. It proved to be an outstanding American escort vessel, but as late as October 1942 only five were on anti submarine convoy patrol in the North Atlantic. The U.S. Navy also had too few destroyers for its needs, even with the use of World War I era ships, and for the first few months of the war had to rely on smaller craft, including civilian yachts, for anti submarine patrols.

The U.S. Navy's air arm in 1941-1942 was as inadequate as its anti submarine surface fleet. Initially, the U.S. Navy had no escort carrier, a type that eventually was very effective against the German submarines. It also lacked aircraft capable of long range [radius of 400600 miles (644966 km)] or very long range [radius up to 1,000 miles (1,609 km)] patrols over the ocean.

Prewar plans called for the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) to support naval forces in case of an emergency. To supplement its meager anti submarine forces, the U.S. Navy turned to the USAAF, commanded by General Henry ("Hap") H. Arnold. USAAF doctrine, however, emphasized strategic bombing, and the USAAF had no equipment or trained personnel for the specialized job of patrolling against, detecting, and attacking submarines from the air.

The USAAF's medium and long range bombers, including the twin engine Douglas B-18 Bolos and North American B-25 Mitchells and the four engine Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated Vultee B-24 Liberators, were potentially capable of an anti submarine role. These carried bombs rather than depth charges and lacked radar or other special submarine detection equipment. Also, like the U.S. Navy, the USAAF had many demands for the few aircraft on hand. The shortage of aircraft equipped for anti submarine war continued into mid 1943, with fighters and light bombers often used as anti submarine aircraft.

A B-17 bomber

Initially, the USAAF leadership considered the USAAF's role in anti submarine war to be temporary, and the major thrust of its efforts remained strategic bombing. Thus the USAAF somewhat reluctantly began flying anti submarine missions in a two front naval war waged off both the East and West Coasts of the United States.


After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the greatest danger of submarine attack apparently was along the West Coast of the United States, but the Japanese submarine fleet never presented much of a threat. Japanese strategic policy limited submarines primarily to attacks on enemy naval forces, with merchant shipping being a purely secondary target. Even if naval policy had been different, in December 1941 Japan had only 20 submarines capable of traveling from Japan to the West Coast.

During December nine of these patrolled off the West Coast, attacking ten commercial vessels and sinking one merchant ship and three tankers. Then, between February and October 1942, four other Japanese submarines patrolled off the West Coast up to a month at a time. They sank seven ships, including a submarine (USS Grunion, SS-216, sunk off Kiska, Aleutian Islands on 30 July 1942), and on at least three occasions attacked installations ashore, inflicting little damage. No Japanese submarines operated off the West Coast again until late 1944, when one sank two more ships.

On 28 November 1941, HQ USAAF ordered the 2nd and 4th Air Forces, the two organizations that shared responsibility for West Coast air training and defense, to support the U.S. Navy in patrolling against submarines. Their commanders worked closely with U.S. Navy authorities to institute offshore patrols that avoided duplication of effort and still covered essential areas of coastal waters.

Lack of experience and different administrative and operational methods initially clouded liaison between the USAAF and the U.S. Navy. The establishment of a joint information center in late December 1941 at San Francisco, California helped solve the liaison problems. Differing methods of patrol created some inter-service tension. The U.S. Navy used a search pattern shaped like a fan, with every aircraft branching out from a central point on diverging courses, while the USAAF flew a parallel track search pattern, with each aircraft on patrol flying parallel within sight of the aircraft on either side. The USAAF pilots soon adopted the fan pattern in the interest of inter-service cooperation and more efficient coverage of the patrol areas. The U.S. Navy flew patrols close to the shore, but the USAAF anti submarine missions ranged up to 600 miles (966 km) offshore from Seattle, Washington, in the north all the way south to the coastline of Lower (Baja) California.

In December 1941, the USAAF had only 45 modem fighter aircraft, 35 medium bombers and ten long range bombers stationed on the West Coast. To meet the immediate need for more long range aircraft, on 8 December, the USAAF created a temporary collection agency of air crews and B-17's formerly bound for the Philippine Islands. This "Sierra Bombardment Group" participated in offshore patrols until early January 1942 when the absence of an immediate threat became obvious and scheduled movements of aircraft to the Southwest Pacific could resume.

While the Sierra Bombardment Group provided short term relief from personnel and aircraft shortages, it did not solve problems presented by untrained, inexperienced personnel and lack of submarine detection equipment. The available aircraft were not equipped with radar or other devices, and detection of enemy submarines depended solely on eyesight. The anti submarine air crews occasionally mistook whales and floating logs for Japanese submarines. They frequently reported and attacked enemy submarines, but rarely confirmed results. A B-25 crew of the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium), 2d Air Force, bombed a submarine near the mouth of the Columbia River on 24 December 1941. They claimed it sank, but in fact no Japanese submarine was sunk off the West Coast during World War II.

In February 1943, the USAAF ceased flying anti submarine patrols off the West Coast. Japanese submarines had not appeared off the coast since October 1942, and U.S. Navy aircraft and surface vessel strength had grown sufficiently strong to handle any new threats.


In complete contrast to the West Coast, German submarine forces posed a deadly threat to U.S., British, Canadian, and other Allied shipping off the East Coast of the United States. Because of British reliance on imports, Germany's leaders sought to destroy Allied shipping. Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of Germany's submarine force, had formulated a strategy of attacking Allied shipping at weakly defended points to achieve the greatest destruction at the least cost. Furthermore, Germany had the submarine force to pursue Admiral Doenitz's strategy. It began 1942 with 91 operational submarines at the peak of its strength a year later, it had 212. These submarines, sailing from bases in France, took about three weeks to reach American waters. Modified to carry an extra 20 tons of fuel, they could remain on patrol two to three weeks, and averaged 41 days at sea. Admiral Doenitz managed to extend this time by refueling and resupplying the operational submarines from specially modified submarines. Called "milch cows," they carried enough fuel and supplies to resupply other boats and extend their time at sea to an average of 62 days with one refueling and 81 days with a second refueling. The first submarine "milch cow" deployed at sea in March 1942.

The sudden entry of the United States into World War II caught Admiral Doenitz by surprise, with no submarines immediately available to send to American waters. He allocated five long distance submarines, all he could quickly make ready, to Operation DRUMBEAT, his code name for operations against shipping in U.S. coastal sea lanes. These sailed from Lorient, France, between 23 and 27 December 1941. On 11 January 1942, some 300 miles (483 km) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the leading submarine, U-123, commanded by Captain Reinhard Hardegen, sank an Allied merchant ship, the first combat loss in the American Theater. Three days later, Captain Hardegen sank another ship just off the coast of Massachusetts.

Kptlt. Reinhard Hardegen
Captain Hardegen and the rest of the German submariners used tactics that Admiral Doenitz had developed during the inter war years. Usually, the submarine would lie on the shallow continental shelf in as little as 30 meters (98 feet) of water during the day, then surface to attack at night. The submarine operated on the surface to obtain a favorable position, then hit the target with two to four torpedoes. If the ship did not immediately sink, the Germans sometimes gave the ship's crew time to abandon ship, then finished the vessel off with shells from the deck gun. As German submarine commanders realized the vulnerability of Allied merchant shipping and the inability of the U. S. anti submarine forces to respond or patrol, they sometimes attacked from the surface in the daytime.

Using these tactics, the Germans between mid January 1942 and the end of June sank 171 ships off the East Coast, many of them tankers. For several months, the German submarine offensive gravely threatened the cargo carrying capability of the Allies. Not until the last quarter of 1942 did the United States build merchant ships rapidly enough to offset losses inflicted by the German submariners. During the first half of 1942, the Allies lost three million tons of shipping, mostly in American waters. The submarine attacks claimed about 5,000 lives, and the loss of irreplaceable cargoes grievously endangered Great Britain's ability to continue the war.

This perilous situation resulted in part from the tragic U.S. delay in taking such precautionary measures as controlling maritime traffic and organizing submarine defenses. German submarine captains arriving in American waters in the first half of 1942 found merchant ships following peacetime sea lanes and sailing practices. The ships, sailing independently instead of in convoys, were silhouetted at night against the brightly lit coast, making the job of the enemy much easier. U.S. military leaders until May 1942 undertook little effective action to find and attack submarines whose positions were known through distress signals from torpedoed ships or to redirect merchant shipping away from waters where attacks had taken place. While no one reason can be cited for the delay in instituting defensive measures, the general state of American unpreparedness is perhaps the best explanation.

Early in the war the USAAF and the U.S. Navy pooled their meager resources for anti submarine patrols. In response to a U.S. Navy request, the USAAF on 8 December 1941, directed the I Air Support Command and I Bomber Command of the 1st Air Force to initiate patrols in the Eastern Sea Frontier. The I Air Support Command's observation and pursuit (fighter) aircraft patrolled out to 40 miles (64 km) offshore from Portland, Maine, south to Wilmington, North Carolina, but usually had fewer than ten aircraft per day on patrol. The I Bomber Command, 1st Air Force, relied on its medium B-25 and B-18 bombers to fly up to 300 miles (483 km) offshore and its heavy B-17's to cover up to 600 miles (966 km) out. On the average, however, until March 1942 this command had only three aircraft flying each day from Westover Field, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, and three from Mitchel Field, Hempstead, Long Island, New York, not nearly enough to patrol the Eastern Sea Frontier effectively.

The USAAF obtained the assistance of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) to augment I Bomber Command's efforts. Organized a week before the war began, the CAP consisted of civilian pilots willing to fly their own aircraft off the coast to look for submarines and to assist in the rescue of survivors. Receiving only aviation gasoline from the USAAF, the CAP began patrolling on 8 March 1942, eventually establishing 21 stations from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Brownsville, Texas. With the help of the CAP, the I Bomber Command flew almost 8,000 hours in March, about as much as in January and February combined. The additional patrols forced German submarines to remain submerged except on the darkest nights.

As the number of patrols increased, the USAAF overcame numerous deficiencies in its anti submarine efforts. Originally, aircraft were unarmed or armed with bombs instead of depth charges. They could not fly at night and none had radar before March 1942. The air crews lacked training in navigation, recognition of ships, and anti submarine attack tactics. In December 1941, forced to rely on eyesight alone, they often reported incorrectly the sighting of surfaced and submerged submarines. On 29 December near Newport, Rhode Island, a USAAF bomber dropped four bombs on a U.S. Navy destroyer that the air crew had mistaken for a submarine. Fortunately, the bombs exploded harmlessly.

The United States sought the guidance of Great Britain, which had been waging anti submarine war against Germany since 1939. As suggested by the British, the USAAF and the U.S. Navy established a Joint Control and Information Center in New York City on 31 December 1941. The center tracked the movements of merchant shipping, plotted enemy contacts, and determined the locations of all surface and air anti submarine patrols.

One British capability the Americans remained unable to exploit until mid 1943 was intelligence that virtually pinpointed the locations of enemy submarines. During the inter war period, Germany developed a machine, called Enigma, to encipher the military codes used to transmit radio messages. Early in World War II the British, in cooperation with the French and Polish govemments in exile, developed the means to break the German codes enciphered by the Enigma, with intelligence derived from the broken codes known as ULTRA. The British routed convoys around the locations of enemy submarine wolf packs, using ULTRA information as well as intelligence derived from aerial reconnaissance, radio fingerprinting (identification of individual enemy radiomen by their distinctive method of sending messages), and radio direction finding. Shortly after the United States entered the war, Great Britain agreed to provide pertinent ULTRA intelligence to the U.S. military. However, on 1 February 1942, Germany replaced its original Enigma machines on the Atlantic Uboat net with a new, more complex machine employing more encrypting rotors, resulting in codes that the British could not decipher. Not until 13 December 1942, six weeks after the capture of German code books related to the new Enigma from a badly damaged enemy submarine, were the British able to again read the German Uboat code. (They soon discovered that the Germans had broken the Allied code directing convoy traffic, a discovery that resulted in a new British code in March 1943.) By August, the British and Americans were reading German messages almost as soon as they were intercepted, but for much of the time between January 1942 and October 1943, when the USAAF participated extensively in the anti submarine war, ULTRA intelligence was sporadic or nonexistent.

To add to the intelligence woes of the Americans in 1942, the U.S. Navy initially failed to send the information it did receive from the British to the using commands. Consequently, the intelligence was not being used in operations against the enemy. Even if it were disseminated, intelligence data often lost its usefulness because it was not quickly communicated from U.S. Navy to Army organizations or down the chain of command in either service.

In large part, the intelligence lapse stemmed from the chaos and confusion that Army and U.S. Navy commands suffered in the first few months of the war. This confusion also led to faulty tactics that usually resulted in unsuccessful attacks on enemy submarines. Attacked submarines often escaped because the aerial and surface attacks were sporadic rather than sustained. Through inexperience, poor training, and lack of adequate forces, both U.S. Navy surface forces and USAAF air crews often failed to follow up initial anti submarine attacks.

Once again the USAAF and the U.S. Navy turned to the British for applied lessons in tactics. British tactics exploited the weaknesses of the submarine, which had to surface, usually at night, to recharge its batteries, ventilate the boat, and permit crew members a chance to come topside. Constant aerial patrolling to as far as 600 miles (966 km) out to sea restricted opportunities for submarines to operate on the surface. Until the first USAAF aircraft received radar sets in March 1942, the submarines could surface and attack almost at will during dark nights or inclement weather, but the advent of night flights using radar to locate surfaced submarines added considerably to the value of the routine anti submarine air patrol. By June 1942, I Bomber Command aircraft had vastly increased sightings of and attacks on German submarines.

As the British had learned, when an air crew sighted an enemy submarine, it had to act quickly to achieve surprise. An attack later than 15 to 35 seconds after the submarine submerged usually proved unsuccessful. By flying in clouds and attacking at an angle from 15 to 45 degrees, the pilot increased the chances of a hit or near miss. The attack itself required the aircraft to fly as low as possible, preferably about 50 feet (15 m) above the water, and to drop the depth bomb within 20 feet (6.1 m) of the submarine's pressure hull. As the aircraft passed over the submarine, the air crew would fire the machine guns in an attempt to damage it and suppress antiaircraft fire.

The first successful USAAF aircraft attack on a German submarine, U-701, on 7 July 1942, incorporated these tactics. The official history of I Bomber Command records the attack from an Lockheed A29 Hudson piloted by Lieutenant Harry J. Kane of the 396th Bombardment Squadron (Medium) based at NAS Alameda, California but operating from MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina.

"Lieutenant Kane attacked by the book. He was flying a routine patrol from Cherry Point, North Carolina. He sighted a submarine seven miles (11 km) away. Since he was using cloud cover, he was able to approach it undetected, closing in on a course of zero degrees relative to the track of the submarine. He attacked from 50 feet (15 m) at 220 miles per hour (354 km/h), releasing three MK XVII depth charges in train about 20 seconds after the target submerged. The submarine was still visible underwater as the bombs fell. The first hit short of the stem the second, just aft of the conning tower the third, just forward of the conning tower. Fifteen seconds after the explosions, large quantities of air came to the surface, followed by 17 members of the crew."

Accumulated experience coupled with British coaching, improved radar, depth bombs, and other equipment resulted in noticeably higher levels of success for USAAF anti submarine patrols during July, August, and September 1942. In the previous quarter, only seven of 54 attacks resulted in damage to submarines, but in the third quarter, eight of 24 attacks damaged submarines, not counting the one sunk on 7 July.

Reuben James is lost while on Iceland convoy duty

WASHINGTON -- The navy department tonight announced the rescue of 44 enlisted crew members of the U.S.S. Reuben James, but gave no clue as to the fate of approximately 77 others aboard the aged destroyer when she was blasted to the bottom of the North Atlantic, by a U-boat Thursday night.

Except to report the rescues, the navy had no further details.

The navy's announcement gave no indication that it has abandoned hope for those not accounted for.

None of the Reuben James' seven officers was listed among the rescued.

The navy did not give the names of those rescued, nor did it reveal the number of men aboard the 1190-ton, 21-year-old craft when she was torpedoed while convoying precious war cargoes for Britain. It listed only the names of the seven officers. Ships of this class, however, normally carry about 114 enlisted men.

Inasmuch as the Reuben James was on convoy duty when attacked, it was presumed other craft were continuing a search for those not accounted for.

It also was presumed the navy has not yet received the names of those rescued, but the announcement promised that additional details will be released when received. Because ships at sea use radios as little as possible to prevent their whereabouts from becoming known, names of those rescued may not be known until the vessels which picked them up reach port.

The text of the announcement:

"The navy department has received a report that 44 members of the crew of the U.S.S. Reuben James have been rescued. The survivors who have been accounted for are all enlisted men.

"The navy department has no further information at this time, but additional details will be released when received."

This was the first word received on the fate of the crew since this morning's announcement that the Reuben James was sunk last night west of Iceland -- in the same general area where the United States destroyer Kearny was torpedoed Oct. 16 with the loss of 11 of her crew, and where the destroyer Greer fought a bloodless battle with a submarine Sept. 4.

News of the sinking -- first American warship sunk in the battle of the Atlantic -- brought angry demands in congress for quick revenge.

But President Roosevelt calmly told his press conference that he had nothing to add to the announcement and that the attack will not change the international situation from this nation's point of view. He said the destroyer simply was carrying out an assignment.

Asked if the incident might lead to a complete diplomatic break with Germany, he said he had not heard of such a possibility.

In command of the Reuben James was Lieut. Comm. Heywood L. Edwards, 35, a native of San Saba, Tex., and a former Olympic athlete.

The other officers whose names were made public tonight:

Lieut. Benjamin Ghetzler, 34, Annapolis, Md.

Lieut. (junior grade) Dewey G. Johnston, 31, El Cajon, Calif.

Lieut (J.G.) John J. Daub, 26, Saltsburg, Pa.

Lieut. (J.G.) James M. Belden, 30, Syracuse, N.Y.

Ensign Craig Spowers, 24, East Orange, N.J.

Ensign Howard V. Wade, 22, Glen Ridge, N.J.

How the rescues were effected may not be revealed for some time. It was pointed out, however, that the ill-fated destroyer's life-saving equipment included two 26-foot motor whale boats and at least six life rafts designed for 25 persons each.

Earlier in the day, Roosevelt was reading a news ticker account of the sinking announcement when reporters filed into his office for his semiweekly press conference.

The President would not discuss the prevailing belief that one or more German submarines have been sunk since he issued his "shoot first" orders to the navy last month. This government, he said, would follow its World war policy of keeping secret such information.

A correspondent suggested it would be impossible to prevent such news from reaching Germany but the President disagreed. He recalled that word of submarine sinking was kept from Germany for a considerable time during World war I and the anxiety caused by their unexplained disappearance proved a valuable weapon in breaking down German morale.

Roosevelt left for a weekend at Hyde Park, N.Y., soon after the press conference. The navy and state department were to keep him abreast of developments.

Congressional reaction was not so temperate.

Senator Nye (R., N.D.), non-interventionist leader, said the attack was inevitable. He said "You can't walk into a bar room brawl and hope to stay out of the fight." Senator Taft (R., Ohio), said it is "an inevitable result of a shooting war."

Chairman Connally, (D., Tex.) of the senate foreign relations committee, demanded that congress avenge "this dastardly act of aggression." Senator Pepper of Florida, frequent bellwether of foreign policy moves, pleaded for coolness, "knowing that the job ahead is to make sure of the earliest, speediest death of despotism."

Senate leaders believed the sinking would swing votes behind pending neutrality revision legislation. Assistant Minority Leader Austin, of Vermont, said defeat of the measure now would represent a "humiliating surrender to Hitler." Senator Gurney (R., S.D.), said the attack clinches arguments for complete repeal of the law.

The navy's announcement did not reveal the source of its information. It said:

"The navy department announced that the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was sunk by a torpedo during the night of Oct. 30-31 while convoying in the North Atlantic west of Iceland.

"The commanding officer is Lieut. Cmdr. H.L. Edwards, U.S. navy.

"No further details are available at this time, but will be released when received."

The Reuben James was of the same type as the 50 over-age destroyers traded to Great Britain for Atlantic bases. It was 314 feet long, had a beam of 30 feet and was armed with four four-inch naval rifles and a battery of anti-aircraft guns.

It had been in trouble before. On Nov. 30, 1939, soon after the navy began its operations, the destroyer ran aground off the north coast of Cuba. It was pulled free without serious damage and with no casualties.

The craft had exceedingly thin armor. It was named in honor of Reuben James, a boatswain's mate, who participated in the war against the Barbary coast pirates and once saved the life of Capt. Stephen Decatur by interposing his body between that of his commander and the scimitar of a pirate.

Its skipper, a native of San Saba, Tex., was well-known throughout the fleet. He is 25 years old and graduated from the naval academy in 1926. He was captain of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in the 1928 games. He took command of the destroyer on April 6, 1940, after having served aboard submarines assigned to the Pacific fleet.

Naval experts declined to estimate the probable number of casualties. They pointed out that the Kearny, which was able to limp 400 miles to port after having been nearly cut in two by a torpedo, was a more sturdy ship than the Reuben James and it suffered casualties of 11 dead and 10 pounded.

USS Reuben James (DD 245)

In March 1941, USS Reuben James (DD 245) joined the convoy escort force that was established at Hvalfjordur, Iceland to escort British convoys from Canadian ports as far as Iceland, where the convoys were taken over by British escorts.

At 08.34 hours on 31 Oct 1941, U-552 fired a spread of two torpedoes at a destroyer and hit it with both torpedoes. The ship hit was USS Reuben James (DD 245) (LtCdr H.L. Edwards, USN) which was escorting convoy HX-156 in the US Escort Group 4.1.3 together with with USS Benson (DD 421), USS Hilary P. Jones (DD 427), USS Niblack (DD 424) and USS Tarbell (DD 142). The explosions broke the ship in two, the forward section sank immediately with all hands while the stern remained afloat for five minutes. When the stern sank the unsecured depth charges exploded killing some survivors in the water. USS Niblack (DD 424) picked up 36 men (one of them died of wounds on 2 November) and USS Hilary P. Jones (DD 427) picked up ten more, but all officers were lost.

USS Reuben James (DD 245) was the first warship of the US Navy lost in the Second World War (two months before Pearl Harbor).

Location of attack on USS Reuben James (DD 245).

ship sunk.

If you can help us with any additional information on this vessel then please contact us.

Media links

U-Boat Attack Logs
Daniel Morgan and Bruce Taylor

October 31, 1941 U-Boat Sinks USS Reuben James - History


Sinking of the USS Reuben James

Thanks to Paul Chastain, FCCS(SW) USN (ret) for sending this in.

For some American sailors, World War II began before December 7, 1941. During the latter part of 1941, U.S. Navy ships provided escorts for convoys bound for Great Britain carrying war materials from our "Arsenal of Democracy." Because German U-boats (submarines) considered all ships in the convoys fair game, it was only a matter of time before we became involved in a "shooting war."

Disaster struck in the early morning hours of October 31, 1941. While escorting convoy HX-156, the American destroyer U.S.S. Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 115 of 160 crewmen, including all officers. Although not the first U.S. Navy ship torpedoed before the war, the Reuben James was the first one lost. After the news of the sinking reached America, many concerned people wrote letters to the Navy to find out the fate of friends or loved ones.

Sadly, most of the country ignored the sinking. One who did not was folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote his now famous song immediately after the incident: Tell me, what were their names? Tell me, what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James? USS Reuben James DD-245, sunk by German Submarine U-552 on 31 October 1941 !

Slideshow of the USS Reuben James DD-245 and German U-552 includes photos of DE-153 and Guided Missile Frigate FFG-57. It is accompanied by Woody Guthrie's song written shortly after the sinking of the USS Reuben James DD-245 on October 31, 1941, five weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Boatswains Mate Reuben James

Guided Missile Frigate USS Reuben James FFG-57 returning to Pearl Harbor after deployment. It was the last remaining guided-missile frigate homeported in Hawaii and was decommissioned July 18, 2013 after nearly thirty years of distinguished naval service.

USS Reuben James (FFG 57), The officers and crew of USS Reuben James hosted nearly 100 friends, family, alumni and honored guests during a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Among those who attended were 30 former crew members and their families, including five "plank-owners" (crew members who were assigned to the ship when it was commissioned) and six former commanding officers of the ship. "This ceremony was an opportunity for us to say fair winds, farewell, and "a job well done" -- not only to the crew today but also to the thousands of Sailors who served aboard Reuben James over the years," said Capt. Chris Bushnell, Deputy Commodore of Destroyer Squadron 31. "It was my pleasure to thank "Fightin' 57" and her crew for their fine service and hard work and also to present Reuben James the Ney Award last Thursday." Guest speaker at the decommissioning was retired Navy Captain Faris T. Farwell, former commanding officer of the ship, 1997-1999. CAPT Brent Smith, chief of staff for Commander, Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, officiated. The ship returned from deployment in early May, 2013 after participating in a series of bilateral maritime exercises for Cooperative Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) in the Seventh Fleet area of responsibility.


“Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James, Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?”

The USS Reuben James was a Clemson-class destroyer, built just after World War I in 1919. Clemson-class, also known as four stackers, were the most common destroyer ever built by the US Navy, with 156 built, until the Fletcher-class in World War II.

It was armed with 4, four-inch guns, and 12 torpedo tubes. It also carried depth charges for anti- submarine warfare. The USS Reuben James was commissioned on 24 September 1920.

The ship was named after Reuben James, a sailor who gained fame for stepping in front of Lieutenant Decatur during a battle in the Barbary Wars and taking a sword blow to the head that was intended for Decatur, who went on to gain great fame in the Navy. Interestingly, it appears in retrospect, that story might be in error and another man actually took the blow.

In 1921, she helped escort the remains of the Unknown Soldier of World War I from Europe back to the United States.

The Reuben James was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Heywood L. Edwards. A 1926 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Heywood had wrestled in the 1928 Summer Olympics, placing 4th in the light heavyweight division.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, she was assigned to the Neutrality Patrol, escorting convoys sailing to Great Britain. They escorted as far as Iceland, whereupon, security was taken over by British ships.

23 October 1941, she was one of five destroyers escorting convoy HX 156 from Newfoundland. As they approached Iceland and the handoff, they were required to spend an extra day in order to insure the task was completed.

On 31 October 1941, Hallows Eve, the USS Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552, commanded by Erich Topp.

The torpedo hit the port bow, detonating the forward magazine, blasting the destroyer in two. Every officer was killed.

The ship went down quickly. Of 144 on board, there were 44 survivors.

Due to the fact that the United States was not at war, the sinking caused a large outcry. However, it was not until 7 December, over 5 weeks later, that the United States entered World War II.

Woody Guthrie wrote a song, The Sinking of the Reuben James.

“Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame? She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea.” Woody Guthrie

But what if the Reuben James encounter with U-552 turns out to be something altogether different?

That is the premise of one of the missions in Hallows Eve (Time Patrol)

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James

Definition and Summary of the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James
Summary and Definition: Incidents involving the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James all occured in the Atlantic before the United States officially entered World War II. The "Greer incident" occurred south of Iceland in the North Atlantic on September 4, 1941. The USS Greer, an American destroyer had been radioing the position of a German U-Boat to the British and became the first US Navy war ship to be fired on by a German U-Boat but did not sink. The USS Kearny was torpedoed on October 17, 1941 by a German U-boat while on patrol off Greenland, but did not sink. The U.S.S. Reuben James was the first United States warship to be sunk by a German U-boat on October 31, 1941 and resulted in the loss of 115 of 160 American crewmen. These incidents in the Atlantic moved the United States nearer to outright involvement in the European war.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James
Franklin Roosevelt was the 32nd American President who served in office from March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945. Important events during his presidency were the incidents surrounding the USS Greer, Kearny and the Reuben James.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Facts for kids
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids.

Facts about the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 1: Great Britain had declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 and the British Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 2: The Lend-Lease Act allowed the British access to American arms, munitions and supplies but the British had to send its own ships to pick up the goods.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 3: The convoys of British cargo ships were under constant attack by German U-Boat submarines and their precious cargoes were being lost.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 4: The United States was still technically neutral so President Roosevelt was unable to order the US Navy to protect the British merchant cargo ships.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 5: FDR therefore declared the western half of the Atlantic as neutral and ordered the US Navy to patrol what he called the 'Hemispheric Defense Zone' and help the allies by reporting the location of German U-Boat submarines to the British.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 6: The "Greer incident" occurred south of Iceland in the North Atlantic on September 4, 1941. The USS Greer (DD 145), an American destroyer was carrying American mail to Iceland and had been radioing the position of a German U-Boat to the British.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 7: The USS Greer became the first US Navy war ship to be fired on by a German U-Boat (U-652) but the two torpedoes missed their target.

Facts about the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids

Facts about the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 8: The USS Greer had maintained the German U-boat in sound contact for 3 hours and 28 minutes. After evading the two torpedoes fired at her the Greer attacked with 19 depth charges and therefore also became the first American ship in World War II to attack the Germans.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 9: The Greer was flying the American flag and her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. FDR responded to the "Greer incident" by issuing what became known as his "shoot-on-sight" order toward German submarines.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 10: President Roosevelt unofficially declared war on anyone who further attacked American vessels, or foreign shipping under escort, in the North Atlantic stating "If German or Italian vessels of war enter these waters, they do so at their own peril."

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 11: FDR reported the events of the "Greer incident" to the American people during one of his 'Fireside Chats' on September 11, 1941 calling it an act of piracy. The president went on to state that the Nazi danger to the Western world had long ceased to be a mere possibility.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 12: The USS Kearny (DD 432) was torpedoed on October 17, 1941 by a German U-boat (U-568) while on patrol off Greenland. The USS Kearny but did not sink, but 11 men were killed and 22 men were injured in the explosion.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 13: Ten days after the attack on the USS Kearny, President Roosevelt made his "Navy Day Address" to the nation on October 27, 1941 stating that the "forward march of Hitler and of Hitlerism can be stopped - and it will be stopped. "

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 14: On October 31, 1941 the U.S.S. Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk whilst escorting convoy HX-156 of forty-three merchant ships from Halifax, Nova Scotia to England.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 15: The explosions broke the ship in two and the sinking of the Reuben James American destroyer resulted in the loss of 115 of 160 American crewmen. Reuben James was the first United States warship sunk two months before Pearl Harbor

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James Fact 16: The incidents in the Atlantic moved America nearer to outright involvement in the European war. Japan bombed the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States entered World War II.

Facts about the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James for kids - President Franklin Roosevelt Video
The article on the USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James provides detailed facts and a summary of one of the important events during his presidential term in office. The following Franklin Roosevelt video will give you additional important facts and dates about the political events experienced by the 32nd American President whose presidency spanned from March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945.

USS Greer, Kearny and Reuben James

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Watch the video: USS Greer, USS Kearny, USS Reuben James, and the Undeclared War.