October 31 anniversaries: Remember the Reuben James


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

An encore post from 2008, mostly:

October 31 hosts several famous anniversaries. It is the anniversary of Nevada’s statehood (an October surprise by Lincoln for the 1864 campaign?). It is the anniversary of the cleaving of western, catholic Christianity, as the anniversary of Martin Luther’s tacking his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany in 1517, the formal start of the Reformation. Maybe the original Christian trick or treat.

U.S.S. Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941 - National Archives photo

U.S.S. Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941 - National Archives photo

October 31 is also the anniversary of the sinking of the World War I era Clemson-class, four-stack destroyer, U.S.S. Reuben James (DD-245), by a German U-boat. Woody Guthrie memorialized the sad event in the song, Reuben James, recorded by the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger (see also here, and here), and later a hit for the Kingston Trio. The Reuben James was sunk on October 31, 1941 — over a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Details via Wikipedia (just to make you school librarians nervous):

USS Reuben James (DD-245), a post-World War I four-stack Clemson-class destroyer, was the first United States Navy ship sunk by hostile action in World War II and the first named for Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James (c.1776–1838), who distinguished himself fighting in the Barbary Wars.

This history figures into the current presidential campaign in a small way: One of the internet hoax letters complaining about Barack Obama claims that the U.S. entered World War II against Germany although the Germans had not fired a single round against the U.S. The 115 dead from the crew of 160 aboard the James testify to the inaccuracy of that claim, wholly apart from the treaty of mutual defense Germany and Japan were parties to, which required encouraged Germany to declare war upon any nation that went to war with Japan (see comments from Rocky, below). After the U.S. declaration of war on Japan, Germany declared war on the U.S., creating a state of war with Germany.

This history also reminds us that many Americans were loathe to enter World War II at all. By October 1941, Japan had been occupying parts of China for ten years, and the Rape of Nanking was four years old. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing, and the Battle of Britain was a year in the past, after a year of almost-nightly bombardment of England by Germany. Despite these assaults on friends and allies of the U.S., and the losses of U.S. ships and merchant marines, the U.S. had remained officially neutral.

Many Americans on the left thought the sinking of the Reuben James to be the sort of wake-up call that would push Germany-favoring Americans to reconsider, and people undecided to side with Britain. The political use of the incident didn’t have much time to work. Five weeks later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and by the end of 1941, the U.S. was at war with the Axis Powers.

Letter to the U.S. Navy asking the fate of friends aboard the U.S.S. Reuben James, November, 1941

Letter to the U.S. Navy asking the fate of friends aboard the U.S.S. Reuben James, November, 1941

Telegram informing his family of the death of Gene Guy Evans, of Norfolk, Virginia, lost in the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Reuben James

Telegram informing his family of the death of Gene Guy Evans, of Norfolk, Virginia, lost in the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Reuben James

The Kingston Trio sings, as the names of the dead scroll:

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3 Responses to October 31 anniversaries: Remember the Reuben James

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Mike, remember, this is an “encore” post. In 2008, Obama had said that the war in Iraq was a “war of choice,” or something to that effect, and that Iraq had not taken any action against the U.S. — and therefore, a rational leader might have declined to go to war. The Limbaugh/Beck Brigade response was, “World War II was a ‘war of choice,’ too, because Germany had fired no bullet against the U.S. until after the U.S. declared war — and since that was a good war, so is Iraq.”

    As you know from history, Germany declared war on the U.S. first — and, of course, there was the sinking of the Reuben James and other attacks.

    I decided not to edit the post — probably should put the date in more prominently.

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  2. I am just curious about the e-mail letter you mentioned regarding Barack Obama. What is the connection between the president and the “unnecessary” war against the Nazis?

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  3. Porlock Junior says:

    Rocky’s comment on Hitler’s greatest error reminds me of my slightly different take on it: it’s half of the greatest blunder ever made by any human being in history. With a war going and well ahead in the scoring but no durable victory yet, Hitler managed within 6 months to put himself at war with the Soviet Union and the United States! Top that, I dare you.

    John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote of the declaration of war as he had seen it at the time. He and a lot of people in Washington knew that the US would need to take real action on behalf of the civilized part of Europe, or what was left of it. So when Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were despondent: now the country would take on Japan with full force, and largely abandon Europe. Imagine their relief when Hitler declared war.

    But wait, there’s more. At the end of the war he was in Europe with the Strategic Bombing Survey and was in contact with the people who were interrogating the surviving top Nazis. So he heard about a session with Ribbentrop, with a suitably high intelliegence officer asking questions and a very junior officer interpreting. They got to the declaration of war, and the official asked why on Earth they’d declared war on the US. Ribbentrop replied that they had to, under the treaty. (They were too dumb to understand it? I don’t know.) And the junior officer pipes up on his own, “Of all the treaties you broke, why would choose that one to honor?”

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