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
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 figured into the 2008 presidential campaign in a small way: One of the internet hoax letters complaining about Barack Obama claimed 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 encouraged Germany to declare war upon any nation that went to war with Japan. 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
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:
This is mostly an encore post from 2008. Brad DeLong at Berkeley is “live blogging” World War II, and referred to the 2008 post for his entry for October 31, which drove a little traffic this way and reminded me to memorialize the crew again — tip of the old scrub brush to Dr. DeLong
- Entry for USS Reuben James in the U.S. Navy’s Dictionary of American Fighting Ships:
- Reuben JamesReuben James was born in Delaware about 1776. During the Quasi-War with France, Boatswain’s Mate James participated in Constellation’s victories over the French ships L’Insurgente, 9 February 1799, and La Vengeance. During the Barbary Wars, he served aboard Enterprise and accompanied Stephen Decatur into the harbor at Tripoli on 16 February 1804, as Decatur and his men burned the captured American frigate Philadelphia to prevent Tripoli from using her in battle. In the ensuing skirmish, an American seaman positioned himself between Decatur and an enemy blade. This act of bravery was attributed to Reuben James and to Daniel Frazier. For the rest of the war, James continued to serve Decatur aboard Constitution and Congress. During the War of 1812, he served in United States, under Decatur, and in President. On 15 January 1815, however, President was defeated by the British and James was taken prisoner. After the war, he resumed service with Decatur, aboard Guerriere, and participated in the capture of the 46-gun Algerian flagship Mashoudaon 17 June 1815. After peace was made with the Barbary states, James continued his service in the Navy until declining health brought about his retirement in January 1836. He died on 3 December 1838 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.
(DD – 245: displacement 1,215; length 314’5”; beam 31’8”; draft 9’4”; speed 35 knots; complement 101; armament 4 4”, 1 3”, 12 21” torpedo tubes; class Clemson)
Reuben James (DD-245) was laid down 2 April 1919 by New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, N.J.; launched 4 October 1919; sponsored by Miss Helen Strauss; and commissioned 24 September 1920, Comdr. Gordon W. Haines in command.
Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, Reuben James sailed from Newport, R.I., 30 November 1920 to Zelenika, Yugoslavia, arriving 18 December. During the spring and summer of 1921, she operated in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean out of Zelenika and Gruz, Yugoslavia, assisting refugees and participating in postwar investigations. In October 1921 at Le Havre, she joined Olympia (C-6) at ceremonies marking the return of the Unknown Soldier to the United States. At Danzig, Poland, from 29 October 1921 to 3 February 1922, she assisted the American Relief Administration in its efforts to relieve hunger and misery. After duty in the Mediterranean, she departed Gibraltar 17 July 1922.
Based then at New York, she patrolled the Nicaraguan coast to prevent the delivery of weapons to revolutionaries in early 1926. In the spring of 1929, she participated in fleet maneuvers that foreshadowed naval airpower. Reuben James decommissioned at Philadelphia on 20 January 1931.
Recommissioned 9 March 1932, she again operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. From September 1933 to January 1934 she patrolled Cuban waters during a period of revolution. Sailing for the Pacific from Norfolk 19 October 1934, she arrived at her new homeport of San Diego, Calif., 9 November. Following maneuvers that evaluated aircraft carriers, she returned to the Atlantic Fleet in January 1939. Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, she joined the Neutrality Patrol, and guarded the Atlantic and Caribbean approaches to the American coast.
In March 1941, Reuben James joined the convoy escort force established to promote the safe arrival of war materials to Britain. This escort force guarded convoys as far as Iceland, where they became the responsibility of British escorts. Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, she sailed from Argentia, Newfoundland, 23 October 1941, with four other destroyers to escort eastbound convoy HX-156. While escorting that convoy, at about 0525, on 31 October 1941, Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U-562. Her magazine exploded, and she sank quickly. Of the crew, 44 survived, and 115 died. Reuben James was the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by hostile action in World War II.