On this day in 1941, the USS Reuben James (DD-245) was sunk by the German submarine U-552 while escorting a convoy bound for the U.K. As the U.S. was not yet at war, this is an example of how history is messy. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard typically escorted convoys up to Iceland, which President Roosevelt had declared to be the extent of U.S. territorial waters (it’s 12 nautical miles today).
For its part, the U-552 was aiming for a merchant ship, which was certainly a lawful target in a war, and all the more so if carrying arms.
A few months later, on December 11, Germany’s declaration of war mentions the Reuben James incident as a provocation, as well as earlier battles with destroyers USS Greer (DD-145) and USS Kearny (DD-432). (The war with Japan was not mentioned.) This wasn’t America’s first engagement in the war. It’s simply the first where we lost a ship. 115 hands were lost. Only 44 survived.
Woody Guthrie wrote a song to show outrage over the sinking. Both he and Pete Seeger had been vehemently anti-war until earlier that June when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, forcing Stalin (and Guthrie and Seeger) to change sides. Prior to that, they were recording anti-war songs like “‘C’ For Conscription.” (It’s probably generally assumed that song was written to oppose the draft during the Vietnam War, but it was earlier sung to oppose entry into WWII.)
Reuben James was a sailor who fought in 1804 in the First Barbary War, serving under (and saving the life of) Lt. Stephen Decatur himself. Those were the days of swords and hand-to-hand combat. Two other ships had his name: USS Reuben James (DE-153), in service 1943 to 1947, and USS Reuben James (FFG-57), in service 1986 to 2013. I hope there will be more.