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This Day in History: USS Reuben James, first warship lost in World War II

On this day in 1941, USS Reuben James is torpedoed by a German submarine. She would become the first American warship sunk during World War II. But how could that be? Wasn’t America then still neutral? After all, the attack on Pearl Harbor was still weeks away.

Reuben James wasn’t even the first to clash with Germany during those months. As early as April 1941, USS Niblack dropped depth charges to ward off a potential German U-boat attack. In mid-October, USS Kearny was hit by a torpedo, but she survived. (See October 16 post). Now Reuben James would take a mortal hit.

Perhaps you’re wondering why America maintained an official position of neutrality for so long?

Reuben James was then part of a U.S. Navy task unit, escorting a convoy of merchant ships across the western Atlantic. The convoy was just south of Iceland by the morning of October 31. Most of the ships weren’t equipped with radar, nor was the convoy zigzagging to avoid submarine strikes. Unfortunately, a German submarine chose that moment to come on the scene.

Reuben James was hit, suddenly, just as she was turning to investigate a strong direction-finding bearing. The explosion slashed through the fore part of the ship, igniting the forward magazine and tearing the ship apart. The front half of the ship sank immediately. The stern remained afloat for maybe five minutes before it sank, too.

The men struggling in the water were covered with oil, which made it hard to climb into rafts. Their hands were simply too slick! Men began vomiting black oil. Some suffocated on the oil instead. Others were too badly hurt to help themselves in the water, and they drowned.

Then things got even worse. As the stern went down, Reuben James’s own depth charges began exploding. Life rafts were thrown into the air. One survivor would remember “a blinding flash. I felt like I was swimming. Then I realized I couldn’t feel any water under me. I turned head-down. I was about 25 feet above the water.”

Oily, slippery men were forced to find their way onto rafts. Again. Some didn’t make it.

Finally, USS Niblack and USS Hilary P. Jones arrived to help. Rescue efforts were difficult because the survivors were still too covered in oil to help themselves. Finally, a few dozen men were dragged aboard, still choking and gagging on oil and water.

In the end, Niblack saved only thirty-five men out of the 160-man crew. Hilary P. Jones saved only ten. Every officer had been killed.

Most Americans still didn’t want to be in World War II, and Reuben James didn’t get the attention it should have. Perhaps singer Woody Guthrie saw what was coming down the pike, though? He wrote his famous folk song soon after Reuben James went down.

Tell me, what were their names? Tell me, what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Pearl Harbor was just around the corner. The sleeping giant would soon be jolted wide awake.

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