DESCRIPTION: Describes the sinking of the destroyer "Reuben James" by submarines off the coast of Iceland, the loss of 100 men [and the rescue of 44]. Chorus: "What were their names, tell me what were their names/Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?"
AUTHOR: Words: Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger w. the Almanac Singers
EARLIEST DATE: November, 1941
KEYWORDS: battle navy war death rescue ship derivative
Oct. 31, 1941 - U. S. destroyer Reuben James, an old 4-stacker, is the first American ship sunk in World War II.
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (1 citation):
PSeeger-AFB, p. 84, "Reuben James" (1 text, 1 tune)
Woody Guthrie, "Sinking of the Reuben James" (on AmHist2)
Pete Seeger, "Reuben James" (on PeteSeeger41)
Pete Seeger & Sonny Terry, "Reuben James" (on SeegerTerry)
cf. "Wildwood Flower" (tune)
The Sinking of the Reuben James
NOTES [2653 words]: There is some dispute over the authorship of this song; most alumni of the Almanac Singers say that Guthrie wrote the verses, Seeger added the chorus, but Seeger insists that other members of the group also contributed lyrics. - PJS
The Reuben James was named for the man who saved Stephen Decatur's life when both were serving on the Intrepid (Paine, p. 430) during the wars with the Barbary Pirates. James continued to serve with Decatur for many years. He was captured by the British during the War of 1812, but he returned to the American navy when released after the war. In all, James suffered three injuries in combat, and retired from the Navy in 1836 (he had lost a leg); he died on December 8, 1838 (Parkin, p. 1).
There is a picture of the Reuben James facing p. 112 of Parkin, and Preston, p. 97, has a photo of her as she looked in 1939. She was one of the the four-stack flush-deck destroyers built by the U.S. Navy in the period 1917-1920, The ship was a member of the Clemson class (Bruce/Cogar, p. 306), which (according to Jane's, p. 144) were 310 feet long, 31 feet wide. Figures as to her displacement vary; Bruce/Cogar, p. 306, says 1190 tons; Paine, p. 430, 1090 tons; Worth, p. 308, 1100 tones; Jane's says the class was 1215 tons as designed. It was a huge class of ships; the Clemsons and the similar Wickes class totalled 273 ships, according to Parkin, p. 331 (for comparison, only 71 destroyers, in seven other classes, were built by the U.S. from 1923 to 1937; the Clemsons, despite their age, were the standard destroyers of the pre-World War II period). Because the ships were built in such large numbers, and so quickly (some in less than two months), they often were not very well-constructed (Alden, p. 3); there simply weren't enough construction sites to assemble high-quality ships at that pace.
There were many problems with the design; the boiler layout was inefficient, reducing their range, and the four stacks meant that they didn't have much deck space (Preston, p. 48) -- a real problem as they were loaded with more and more anti-submarine equipment!
The Clemson class as a whole was noted for being very "wet" forward, and for rolling badly even by destroyer standards; they also had "a turning radius larger than a battleship's" (Worth, pp. 308-309). They had been designed to have long range and be good at conducting torpedo attacks during a fleet action, so they were very long and lean -- and hence not maneuverable; "this suited them poorly for antisubmarine work where agility was needed" (Reilly, p. 11). And they didn't even really have a very long range; on convoy escort, they didn't have enough spare fuel to make high-speed chases (MorisonAtlantic, p. 87). Nor was much done to improve them between the wars; there was no money for upgrades, and most of them spent at least some time rusting in the reserve fleet (Reilly, p. 12) -- indeed, some crews were assigned to crew two ships, alternating between two to keep both in some sort of working order (the "rotating reserve"; Alden, p. 17). When the Americans next designed a destroyer type, more than a decade later, they produced a new design with nothing in common with the four-stack classes.
This does not mean that the ships were entirely useless in World War II; the John D. Ford, in particular, was almost the only bright light in the horrid story of the Java Sea campaign of 1941-1942, where the Japanese swept aside a fleet of American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships; she received a Presidential Unit Citation for her service (Alden, p. 97; she survived the war, to be scrapped in 1945; Alden, p. 79). But they were so poor as destroyers that Alden, pp. 89-95, has an extensive list of those converted to other ship types: 22 minelayers, 14 seaplane tenders, 18 minesweepers, 36 high-speed transports, 42 "miscellaneous auxiliaries," and at least 14 unclassifiables such as target ships, water barges, and at least one fruit carrier!
All sources agree Reuben James was completed in 1920, making her pretty old and tired by 1941. She was initially fitted with four 4" guns and four 21" torpedo tubes; her speed when new was 35 knots. She, like the other Clemsons, had no antisubmarine weapons when built! (Alden, p. 30).
Immediately after World War I, Reuben James was involved in humanitarian missions and peacekeeping around Europe, and was one of the ships that celebrated the return of the Unknown Soldier to the U.S. (Parkin, p. 2). Later in the 1920s, she was frequently involved in United States interventions in Latin America (Paine, p. 430). In the years immediately before World War II, she was part of the Neutrality Patrol, being part of "Patrol 3" (MorisonAtlantic, p. 15n.) that watched over a region very roughly corresponding to the coasts of the Carolinas. In March 1941, she became part of Destroyer Squadron 31, one of three destroyer groups assigned to the "Support Force Atlantic Fleet" -- i.e. convoy protection. One of the groups was made up of new destroyers, but both Squadron 31 (led by Captain Wilder D. Baker) and Squadron 30 consisted of old destroyers, mostly Clemsons.
The ships of the Clemson class were those that were "lent" to Britain before the U.S. entered World War II, although Reuben James was not one of the ships transferred. Although critics disagreed, the Americans really did have old destroyers to spare -- most of them had gone into mothballs before World War II, and needed real work to get back into sailing shape (Snow, p. 94), and a lot of them never did go back into service. But Britain had lost about half of the destroyers of its Home Fleet at Dunkirk; it needed ships desperately, no matter how broken-down and ill-made they were (Snow, p. 90).
"The Rube" briefly went into mothballs in 1931, then guarded American interests in Cuba during the revolution there (Parkin, p. 2). She spent 1934-1939 in the Pacific before returning to duties in the Atlantic. Despite minor refits in the period between the two wars, by 1941, she was fairly "tired," and almost certainly somewhat slower than her 1920 speed.
At the time of her sinking, she was commanded by Lt. Commander H. L. Edwards (MorisonTwo, p. 37) -- who sounds like a bit of a cowboy; he was known as "Tex" and had been an Olympic wrestler (Roscoe, p. 23). She was part of a squadron commanded by Commander R. E. Webb (MorisonAtlantic, p. 94). She was based at Hvalafjordur, Iceland (a base the Americans had occupied somewhat earlier, without noticeable enthusiasm on the part of the Icelanders; MorisonAtlantic, p. 74fff.), and she sank while escorting convoy HX-156 from Argentia, Newfoundland (Paine, p. 430. Parkin, p. 3, says she was one of five American destroyers in the convoy escort -- but only one of the five ships had radar, so they had little ability to find U-boats. To make it worse, the radar-equipped destroyer was at the back of the convoy, according to Roscoe, p. 24, so it probably couldn't spot anything anyway).
The escort was not zig-zagging (MorisonAtlantic, p. 94). Internet sources say that it was because the ships of the convoy were having trouble with station-keeping, the escort had to sail straight courses to prevent collisions. This obviously made the escorts a better target. And it was a slow convoy, sailing at just 8.8 knots (Roscoe, p. 23).
Williams, p. 156, reports that she was hit on the port side by a torpedo, and broke in two. The forward section promptly blew up. "The stern remained afloat for a further five minutes, as fuel split into the sea from the ruptured tanks and covered the survivors in a black, choking coat of oil. From the water men could hear the screams of those trapped inside as she sank. As the twisted remnants of the destroyer slipped under the water her depth charges exploded, killing many of those left struggling in the water. Only 45 of the 160-man crew were saved."
Snow, pp. 139-140, agrees that the Reuben James was guarding convoy HX-156 when Erich Topp's U-552 spotted her. He wanted to sink tankers, not destroyers, but the destroyer was in the way, so Topp fired two torpedoes into her. "The Reuben James was not a new ship; she was a four-stacker, older than many of the men who crewed her. She had no double hull, and fewer watertight compartments [than newer ships such as the Kearny]. The torpedo ignited her forward magazine. The Reuben James split in two just in front of her fourth stack, and the forward part was gone in seconds, taking with it every officer and the captain, Tex Edwards. The stern stayed afloat for perhaps five minutes, giving some of the men there the chance to escape into the winter sea" (Snow, p. 140).
One of the survivors reported two explosions when the ship was hit (Parkin, p. 4), but that doesn't necessarily indicate two torpedo hits; explosion #2 may have been a secondary explosion. Crewmen on the aft section had time to take to life rafts, but soon after they got into the water, there was a third, underwater, explosion (the crewmen thought it was her depth charges exploding as she went down; Parkin, p. 5), tossing the survivors back into the water. Still, the rafts may have saved some, since they weren't in the icy water as long as they would have been otherwise. The survivors were picked up by another destroyer, Niblack, which took them to Reykjavik; they were treated for their injuries and hypothermia and then sent back to the U.S. (Parkin, pp. 5-6; the Hilary P. Jones also was part of the search, according to Roscoe, p. 25).
Guthrie was (almost) correct in saying that 44 men were saved (give or take one), but since the ship's crew totaled 160 according to Williams, or 159 according to Paine, p. 430, (a very full complement; the ships were designed for a crew of about 100 in peacetime, 150-160 in wartime), the casualties actually totaled about 115, not one hundred. Observe that this means Reuben James had a full wartime crew aboard; she was not operating under peacetime conditions!
This is important because we need to keep in mind that the Reuben James was sunk five weeks *before* the United States officially joined the Second World War (Bruce/Cogar, p. 306). By this time, however, the U.S. Navy was unofficially escorting convoys to Britain. (Officially the navy was to take actions "short of war." But, as MorisonTwo observes on p.37, "'short of war' was not so very short for the Atlantic Fleet.") While U.S. ships normally did not sink submarines, they helped the British track them. What's more, the U.S.S. Greer had actually fired on a German submarine (U-652) on September 4 (MorisonTwo, p. 36) after pursuing her for at least six hours (Williams, p. 154). (This was an extraordinarily complicated case where it's hard to say who really fired first -- a British plane had gone after the Germans and contacted the Greer; MorisonAtlantic, pp. 79-81). Thus German action against U.S. ships was not unjustified. "Admiral Raeder [commander of the German navy]... told Hitler that the president of the United States had declared war on Germany: 'There is no longer any difference between British and American ships!'" (Snow, p. 137). But Hitler did not, yet, agree.
The Reuben James was not the first U.S. naval vessel to be attacked by the Germans in World War II. Apart from the incident between the Greer and U-652 (which, as Parkin points out on p. 3, could perhaps be justified because the Greer was another Clemson class ship, and so had the appearance of the many Clemson class ships the British were using), the destroyer U.S.S. Kearny (which could not be mistaken for a British ship) was badly damaged on October 17 (Snow, p. 138; the Greer was one of the ships that came to her aid; MorisonAtlantic, p. 93), and the oiler Salinas was torpedoed on October 30 (MorisonTwo, p. 37). When U-562 sank the Reuben James the next day, it was not really much of an escalation -- but it came as a shock to the American people.
The sinking of the Reuben James, we must emphasize, did *not* cause the U. S. to go to war (indeed, the U. S. didn't declare war on Germany; Germany declared war instead). Even if it had, Guthrie's confident prediction that American battleships would engage the Germans was short-sighted. Some people say falsely that battleships were useless in World War II -- but while they had their uses, fighting the German navy wasn't one of them. Battleships are useless against submarines, and at the time the Reuben James was sunk, there was not one American battleship fast enough to catch *any* of the handful of German surface ships. It wasn't until the 27.5 knot North Carolina finished fitting out some months later that the U. S. actually had a battleship "mighty" enough (read: fast enough) to fight even against German surface navy. The North Carolina was the first big ship of what Pratt, p. 218, calls the "Roosevelt Navy," which was already adding destroyers and cruisers to the fleet; had peace lasted, the Reuben James would probably have been retired in the next few years. The ironic bottom line: She was far more useful as a symbol of German aggression than as an actual warship.
Roscoe, p. 25, declares "One question... was definitely answered. The attacks on GREER and KEARNY might conceivably hae been the work of hotheaded submarine commanders. But the attack on REUBEN JAMES was obviously deliberate." In other words, an act of war.
That being said, her sinking did not produce as much outrage as one might expect. Wortman, p. 313, says of the public response, "Rueful memories of the U. S. entry into World War One, driven by the same drip-drip-drip of torpedoed ships sinking beneath the Atlantic waves, muted the public outcry for revenge. As with the Panay on the Yangtze, many Americans continued to fault their own nation for having placed American ships in harm's way."
Although the U. S. did eventually put fast battleships to sea, there was never a serious conflict between major units of the American and German navies. The Germans had only a handful of major warships: The battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, the panzerschiff Deutschland/Lutzow, Graf Spee, and Admiral Scheer, and the heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper, Prinz Eugen, and Blucher. (Two other cruisers of this class, Seydlitz and Lutzow, were not completed and never served in the German navy; Paine, p. 66). The British did most of the work of hunting them down. They sank the Bismark in 1941 before the Americans joined the war (Paine, p. 64). The British forced the Graf Spee to scuttle in 1939 (see "The Sinking of the Graf Spee").
The Tirpitz, Lutzow, and Admiral Scheer were destroyed by British aircraft (Paine, pp. 520, 314, 5). Gneisenau, mined and bombed by the British, was scuttled in 1945 (Paine, p. 211). A British fleet destroyed Scharnhorst in 1943 (Paine, pp. 463-464),
Of the cruisers, Hipper was sunk by British planes (Paine, p. 4), and Blucher was destroyed in the invasion of Norway (Paine, p. 66). Prinz Eugen was the only major German surface vessel to survive the war; it was used in the Bikini nuclear test, and eventually sank as a result of damage sustained (Paine, p. 407).
It is ironic to note that the Reuben James had been "sunk" by a submarine before the war even began, in a naval exercise in 1939 (Snow, p. 11).
Guthrie's original text was too long for singing, but might have made a decent epic poem; he not only listed every sailor, but described them, e.g.
There's Harold Hammer Beasley, a first rate man at sea
From Hinton, West Virginia, he had his first degree. (Snow, p. 141).
The last verse of this song as usually sung today ("Many years have passed...") was added by Fred Hellerman.
(And, sadly, we know the answer to Hellerman's question: The worst of men fight because it's an easy way to spread their genes.) - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Alden: John D. Alden, Flush Decks & Four Pipes, Naval Institute Press, 1965; revised printing with new preface and additional notes, 1989
- Bruce/Cogar: Anthony Bruce and William Cogar, An Encyclopedia of Naval History, 1998 (I use the 1999 Checkmark edition)
- Jane's: Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I (1919; I use the 1990 Studio Editions reprint with modern foreword by Captain John Moore, RN)
- MorisonAtlantic: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943 (being volume one of The History of United States Naval Operations in World War II), 1947, 1953 (I use the 2001 Castle Books reprint)
- MorisonTwo: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Parkin: Robert Sinclair Parkin, Blood On The Sea: American Destroyers Lost In World War II, 1995; I use the 1996 Sarpedon edition
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
- Preston: Antony Preston, Destroyers, Prentice-Hall, 1977
- Reilly: John C. Reilly, Jr. (edited by Frank D. Johnson), United States Navy Destroyers of World War II, Blandford Press, 1983
- Roscoe: Theodore Roscoe, Tin Cans (originally published as United States Destroyer Operations in World War II, 1953); I use the 1979 Bantam edition
- Snow: Richard Snow, A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, 2010 (I use the 2011 Scribner paperback)
- Williams: Andrew Williams, The Battle of the Atlantic: Hitler's Gray Wolves of the Sea and the Allies' Desperate Struggle to Defeat Them, Basic Books, 2003
- Worth: Richard Worth, Fleets of World War II, Da Capo, 2001
- Wortman: Marc Wortman, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
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