Oct 31

This Day In History: The Sinking of the USS Reuben James (DD-245)

Thursday, October 31, 2019 11:45 AM

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Most of us tend to associate the start of America’s involvement in World War II with the tragedy that struck Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Technically, we aren’t wrong. The United States did in fact make the decision to officially enter the war following the events of that terrible day. However, the Attack on Pearl Harbor was not the first deadly attack against U.S. forces during the overall duration of the war, nor was it the first time a U.S. warship was ravaged by the Axis.

 

The story I am about to tell you may sound familiar to any Woody Guthrie fans out there. In 1942, Guthrie released a song entitled, “The Sinking of the Reuben James”, whose recognizable chorus reads,

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

Guthrie’s song recounts the fate which befell the Clemson-class destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245) on 31 October 1941, 78 years ago to this day, making her the first U.S. Navy ship to be sunk during World War II.

Ship’s sponsor, Miss Helen Strauss, at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey, 4 October 1919. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Named for a hero of the First Barbary War, Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James (1776 – 1838), the USS Reuben James (DD-245) was laid down on 2 April 1919 by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey. She was launched on 4 October 1919, where she was sponsored by Miss Helen Livingston Strauss, daughter of Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss. Almost a year later, on 24 September 1920, she was at last commissioned with Commander Gordon W. Haines in command. I will not regale you with the finer details of her service between 1920 and 1941, but suffice it to say her service history was an active one filled with Mediterranean patrols, postwar assistance to European refugees of the Great War, and the prevention of weapons sales to Nicaraguan revolutionaries in the mid-to-late 1920’s.

 

When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, the Reuben James became a part of President Roosevelt’s Neutrality Patrol, a combined air and ship patrol of the U.S. Atlantic coastline dedicated to reporting on any encroaching Axis activity and preserving the then-neutral status of the United States in the global arena. In early 1941, the aim of the Neutrality Patrol shifted slightly when Roosevelt created a protection-of-shipping task force, which the Reuben James became an official part of in March of that year. During this time, tensions between the United States and the Axis began to climb. In September of 1941, President Roosevelt warned any Axis ships to enter the neutrality zone at their own risk, and instructed U.S. ships to fire upon any vessels which posed a threat to their convoys. A handful of reasonably small skirmishes, some deadly in nature, did indeed occur. Up until this point, however, all U.S. vessels attacked by enemy forces pulled through to see service once again. This of course would not last.

A port side view of the USS Reuben James (DD-245). (Naval History and Heritage Command)

On 31 October 1941, the USS Rueben James (DD-245) was conducting business as usual, serving as an escort for a 42-ship convoy plowing through the icy waters of the North Atlantic, just off the coast of Iceland. Other escorts of the convoy included the USS Benson (DD-421), the USS Hilary P. Jones (DD-427), the USS Niblack (DD-424) (who took part in the first hostile action between the U.S. and Germany in April 1941), and the flagship USS Tarbell (DD-142). At 0530 hours, a lookout aboard the USS Tarbell (DD-142) came flying from his post to deliver troubling news to his ship’s quartermaster: he had seen a large flash of light and heard a bone-rattling explosion on the port quarter of the convoy. Reports of smoke rising from the sea, and the sounds of smaller explosions trickled in from other ships of the convoy over the next few minutes. At around 0540, the quartermaster of the USS Benson (DD-421) called all escort stations, and he received answers from all ships save for the Reuben James. When further calls to the ship continued to go unanswered, he knew there was trouble.

 

Two of the ships, the Benson and the Niblack, were instructed to investigate the mounting turmoil. At 0555, the Niblack called in to the Tarbell to report sightings of men swimming frantically towards their ship. After being pulled from the water, the convoy’s worst fears were confirmed: the men had escaped the flaming wreckage of the Reuben James. Though the specific of the attack were not yet confirmed, it was clear at this time that the Reuben James had been struck by torpedoes sent by an enemy vessel lurking in the deep. Rescue operations commenced almost immediately, though a number of factors did hamper the efforts from the get-go. Escorts near the wreckage reported a massive amount of oil surrounding the sinking vessel, and further sound contacts were reported necessitating the pursual of a possible Wolfpack. When all was said and done, 44 enlisted men were pulled from the water. The 7 officers and 93 other enlisted men serving aboard the ship were gone. On that day, 78 years ago, 100 total men lost their lives.

An art print depicting the sinking of the USS Reuben James (DD-245) created by Griffiths Bailey Coale, who witnessed the event firsthand. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Eventually, the official account of the loss of the Reuben James was pieced together. The Reuben James had been struck on the port side by two torpedoes sent from the German submarine U-552, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp. The Reuben James, knowing that a German Wolfpack was near, positioned herself between the enemy and a civilian ammunition ship. The torpedoes, meant for a merchant ship, struck her instead. The impact of the projectiles caused the ship’s magazine to explode, blowing her bow clean off. The ship began to sink immediately, staying partially afloat for a mere 5 minutes before going down entirely. Not enough time was had to declare abandon ship, and men took to bailing over the side with nothing more than their life jackets. Some were fortunate enough to make it onto one of the three lifeboats deployed during evacuation attempts. Upon sinking, at least two more depth charges exploded, stunning and killing many of the men trapped in the oil slick that had bloomed around the wreckage. According to the official report on the loss of the Reuben James, only two men, the helmsman and the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch, escaped from the forward part of the ship.

 

On 31 October 1941, the USS Reuben James (DD-245) became the first U.S. Naval ship to be sunk during hostile action in World War II, just over a month before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. She was struck from the Navy Register on 25 March 1942.

 

So, what were their names?

 

Lieutenant Commander Heywood Lane Edwards, U.S. Navy (Commanding)
Lieutenant Benjamin Ghetzler, U.S. Navy.
Lieutenant Dewey George Johnston, U.S. Navy
Lieutenant (junior grade) John Justus Daub, U.S. Navy.
Lieutenant James Mead Belden, D-V (G), U.S. Naval Reserve.
Ensign Craig Spowers, U.S. Navy.
Ensign Howard Voyer Wade, D-V (G), U.S. Naval Reserve.

BAUER, John Francis, Jr., Chief Radioman (AA) Class V-3, U.S. Naval Reserve.
BEASLEY, Harold Hamner, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
BENSON, James Franklin, Machinist’s Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
BIEHL, Joseph Peter, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
BOYNTON, Paul Rogers, Yeoman first class, U.S. Navy.
BRITT, Harold Lelie, Coxswain , U.S. Navy.
BURRELL, Herbert Ralph, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
BYRD, Hartwell Lee, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
CARBAUGH, Leftwich Erastus, Jr., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
VARUSO, Joseph James, Radioman second class, U.S. Navy.
CLARK, James Brantley, Fire Controlman second class, U.S. Navy.
COOK, Raymond, Mess Attendant first class, U.S. Navy.
COOPERRIDER, Carl Eugene, Gunner’s Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
COSGROVE, Lawrence Randall, Gunner’s Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
COUSINS, Alton Adelbert, Chief Machinist’s Mate (PA), U.S.N.R., Class F-4-C
COX, Charles Beacon, Chief Torpedoman (AA), U.S. Navy.
DANIEL, Dennis Howard, Yeoman third class, U.S. Navy.
DEVEREAU, Lawrence Delaney, Chief Boatswain’s Mate (PA), U.S.N.R., Class F-4-D
DICKERSON, Leonidas Camden, Jr., Storekeeper third class, U.S. Navy.
DOIRON, GIlbert Joseph, Water Tender first class, U.S. Navy.
DRINKWALTER, Karl Lee, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
DUNSTON, Nebraska , Mess Attendant third class, U.S. Navy.
DYSON, Corbon, Radioman third class, U.S. Navy.
EVANS, Gene Guy, Boilermaker second class, U.S. Navy.

EVANS, Linn Stewart, Fire Controlman third class, U.S. Navy.
EVERETT, Carlyle Chester, Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
FARLEY, Edwin Louis, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
FITZGERALD, John Joseph, Quartermaster third class, U.S. Navy.
FLYNN, William Aloysius, Torpedoman second class, U.S. Navy.
FRANKS, Hartley Hardy, Ship’s Cook second class, U.S. Navy.
FR ENC H, Ralph George, Chief Commissary Steward, U.S. Navy.
GASKINS, Lester Carson, Machinist’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
GREER, John Calvin, Chief Electrician’s Mate (PA), U.S. Navy.
GREY, Ernest Dwane, Jr., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
GRIFFIN , Arthur Raymond, Signalman second class, U.S. Navy.
HARRIS, Charles Waldon, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
HAYES, Charles Chester, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
HENNIGER, William Henry, Gunner’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
HOGAN, Francis Robert, Gunners’ Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
HOUSE, Hugh, Gunner’s Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
HUDLIN, Maurice Woodrow, Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
JOHNSON, Joseph, Mess Attendant first class, U.S. Navy.
JONES, Glen W., Chief Quartermaster (PA), U.S. Navy.
KALANTA, ANthony J., Boatswain’s Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
KAPP, Donald, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
KEEVER, Leonard A., Chief Machinist’s Mate (PA), U.S. Naval Reserve, F-4-C
KLOEPPER, Ralph W.H., Signalman third class, Class V-3, U.S. Naval Reserve.
LITTLE, Joseph Gustave, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
MAGARIS, Paul L., Radioman first class, U.S. Navy.
MC KEEVER, William James, Sean second class, U.S. Navy.
MERRELL, Windell Harmon, Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
MERRITT, Auburn F., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
MILLS, Gerald Edward, Seaman second class, Class V-1, U.S. Naval Reserve.
MONDOUK, Albert J., Chief Water Tender (PA), U.S. Naval Reserve, Class F-4-C.
MUSSLEWHITE, Edgar W., Machinist’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
NEELY, Kenneth Cecil, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
NEPTUNE, Aldon W., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
NEWTON , William Harding, Yeoman third class, U.S. Navy.
ORANGE , Harold J., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
ORTIZUELA, Pedro, Officer’s Cook first class, U.S. Navy.
OWEN, Benjamin T., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PAINTER, William H., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PARKIN, Joseph J., Chief Water Tender (PA), U.S. Navy.
PATERSON, William N., Coxswain , U.S. Navy.
PENNINGTON, BUrl G., Quartermaster second class, U.S. Navy.
POLIZZI, Joseph C., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PORTER, Corwin D., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
POST, Frederick R., Boatswain’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
POWELL, Lee P., Pharmacist’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
RAYHILL, Elmer R., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
REID, Lee Louis N., Torpedoman first class, Class V-6, U.S. Naval Reserve.
RESS, John R., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
ROGERS, James W., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
RYAN, John J., Jr., Coxswain , U.S. Navy.
RYGWELSKI, Clarence, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
SALTIS, Edward Peter, Boatswain’s Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
SCHLOTTHAUER, Eugene, Chief Water Tender (AA), U.S. Navy.
SETTLE, Sunny J., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
SORENSEN, Walter, Gunner’s Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
SOWERS, Wallace L., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
STANKUS, Anthony Gedminus, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
STELMACH, Jerome, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
TAYLOR, Wilton L., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
TOWERS, George F., Chief Gunner’s Mate (AA), U.S. Navy.
TURNER, Lewis Aubrey, Signalman third class, U.S. Navy.
VOILES, Loyd Z., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
VORE, Harold M., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
WEAVER, Jesse, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
WELCH, Chester L., Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
WHARTON, Kenneth R., Fire Controlman first class, U.S. Naval Reserve, Class F-4-C.
WOODY, George, Jr., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
WRAY, Edwin E., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy