It was a tragedy in 1941, but before the U.S. could develop a serious policy response to Germany’s action, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Within a week after that, our policy towards Germany was set by Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S.
It’s important history for a couple of reasons.
- The sinking was part of the massive, years-long Battle of the Atlantic, which the Allies won only by building ships faster than Germany could sink them. Had the Allies lost this battle, the war would have been lost, too.
- While the USS Reuben James was a Navy destroyer, the key weapons of the Battle of the Atlantic were Merchant Marine cargo ships, carrying goods and arms to Britain and other Allied nations. “Civilians” played a huge role in World War II, supplying the soldiers, armies, navies and air forces.
- Recently, politicians took to making claims that the U.S. declared war on Germany without any hostile action having passed between them, without Germany having perpetrated any hostilities toward the U.S. Look at the dates, it’s not so.
- Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the event, giving us a touchstone to remember.
Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub covered the event with longer, detailed articles in past years, including these, which you should see especially if you are a student in a history class or a teacher of one:
- “We remember: U.S.S. Reuben James sunk October 31, 1941”
- “Woody Guthrie’s ‘Sinking of the Reuben James'”
Europe has changed. The world has changed. The U.S. has changed. War has changed. We should remember, especially those people who died defending the merchants who defended the idea of the Four Freedoms.
Where did the ship get its name? From a Barbary War hero:
Reuben James was born in Delaware, Ohio about 1776. He joined the U.S. Navy and served on various ships, including the frigate USS CONSTELLATION. It was during the infamous Barbary Wars that the American frigate PHILADELPHIA was captured by the Barbary pirates. Having run aground in the pirate capital of Tripoli on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the crew had to abandon ship and formulate a plan of attack. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, along with a group of volunteers which included Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James, entered Tripoli harbor under the cover of darkness in an attempt to set the PHILADELPHIA to the torch so that the pirates could not make use of her.
The American volunteers boarded the PHILADELPHIA on 16 February 1804 and were met by a group of the savage Barbary pirates who were guarding their prize. A furious battle ensued, and during the bloody chaos of hand-to-hand combat, a villanous pirate made ready to end the life of Lieutenant Decatur. Reuben James, with both of his hands already wounded, in an act of selfless dedication and courage did throw his hand before the pirate’s cleaving blade! Willing to give his life in defense of his captain, Reuben James took the blow from the sword!
Having proved to the world over the courage and dedication of United States Sailors, Reuben James also hammered home the fact that US Sailors are undefeatable by not only surviving, but recovering from his wounds and continuing his career in the U.S. Navy! After spending many more years with Decatur, James was forced to retire in January 1836 because of declining health brought on because of past wounds. He died on 3 December 1838 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.
- Liveblogging World War II: October 31, 1941: The Torpedoing of the U.S.S. Reuben James (delong.typepad.com)
- This day in history for Oct. 31 (goerie.com)
- Divers locate Battle of the Atlantic lost shipwrecks from the Second World War (warhistoryonline.com)
- Book Review: Engineers of Victory, by Paul Kennedy (historynet.com)