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