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: 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 one of the the four-stack destroyers built by the U.S. Navy in the period 1917-1920, and was of the class that was "lent" to Britain, although Reuben James was not one of the ships transferred. Most of them had gone into mothballs before World War II, and needed real work to get back into sailing shape (Snow, p. 94), but Britain had lost about half of the destroyers of its Home Fleet at Dunkirk; it needed ships desperately (Snow, p. 90).
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; Jane's says the class was 1215 tons as designed. All sources agree she 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 would of course have undergone some refits in the period between the two wars, and was almost certainly somewhat slower than her 1920 speed. She was named for the man who saved Stephen Decatur's life when both were serving on the Intrepid (Paine, p. 430).
In the period between the wars, she was frequently involved in United States interventions in Latin America (Paine, p. 430), then spent 1934-1939 in the Pacific before returning to duties in the Atlantic.
At the time of her sinking, she was commanded by Lt. Commander H. L. Edwards (Morison, p. 37). She was based at Hvalafjordur, Iceland, and she sank while escorting convoy HX-156 from Argentia, Newfoundland (Paine, p. 430).
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, says 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. "[t]he 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 mines, giving some of the men there the chance to escape into the winter sea" (Snow, p. 140).
Guthrie was 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 130), the casualties actually totaled about 115.
It will be noted 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 Morison 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 (Morison, p. 36) after pursuing her for at least six hours (Williams, p. 154). 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, the destroyer U.S.S. Kearny was damaged on October 17 (Snow, p. 138; the Greer was one of the ships that came to her aid), and the oiler Salinas was torpedoed on October 30 (Morison, 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.
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 4.0
- 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)
- Morison: 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
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
- 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
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