I can say she was a proud lady. She carried no graceful lines and there was no poetry in her sweep. At three hundred fourteen feet she was longer than a foot ball field, but just thirty feet wide at the beam. She carried four 4 inch and one 3 inch gun, twelve mid ship torpedo tubes, a stern-mounted depth charge rack and assorted .50 caliber machine guns and small arms for her crew. Her four boilers fed two twenty-seven thousand horse power turbine engines driving two 9-foot screws which could send her one thousand one hundred and ninety tons and her one hundred and forty-nine human crewmembers slicing through the ocean waves at 35 knots. She was a ship of war, built to late for one and too early for the second.She was born on April 2, 1919 on the covered ways of the New York Ship Building Corporation on the eastern shore of the Delaware River, across from Camden, New Jersey. It was then the largest shipyard in the world, employing 19,000 workers.
Miss Helen Strauss christened her as the “United States Ship Reuben James” just six months later, on October 4. Her namesake had been a member of the boarding party from the frigate USS Constitution, who shielded his injured captain’s body with his own. At the graving dock the James was outfitted with guns and superstructure. And on September 24, 1920 she was handed over to the U.S. Navy as DD #245, a four piper flush deck destroyer.The James’ first serious duty was to accompany the cruiser USS Olympia to Le Havre, France to escort home the remains of America’s Unknown Soldier from the Great War. Nineteen twenty-six found her off Nicaragua, cutting off weapons shipments to rebels. In 1932 she was patrolling off Cuba during the Batista coup. And in 1941 she was assigned to President Roosevelt’s “Neutrality Patrol”, which escorted convoys from Newfoundland to 26 degrees west, where British escorts took over.Beginning in August the U.S. “Neutrality Patrols” sailed between Argentia, Newfoundland, and mid Atlantic, just at the limit of the James’ 375 ton fuel load. A refueling harbor was established in the shelter of the 18 mile long and 3 mile wide Hvalfjordur fjord just south of Reykjavík, where the James could pause after shepherding a convoy eastbound, and refuel to guard a deadheading convoy returning west.
It was a hard duty consisting of endless hours of mind numbing boredom, tossing in the fog shrouded North Atlantic, broken by unexpected moments of sheer terror. And the terror was real. On October 28, the destroyer Anderson (DD-411) while escorting convoy HX-156 dropped depth charges on a possible submarine contact. Her log reported a “considerable oil slick” observed after the attack. In the submarine war that was recorded as a “possible kill".
On October 30 the Reuben James, escorting the very same convoy, tracked a similar contact, detected by a sailor stationed below decks in the bow with a stethoscope pressed against the metal plating. It was a poor man’s sonar, used on ships built before such devices were even dreamed of, and before the Navy had the funds to install sonar systems in old hulls.
Having detected the suspected submarine the James made an attack run, and an “ash can” was rolled off the slanted rear rack. A metal flange on the rack was designed to catch the trigger of each depth charge and arm it just as it left the ship. The charge then sank to its assigned depth (in this case fifty feet) and exploded, hoping to crush the hull of a Nazi U-boat. But no oil slick was detected and the action was labeled as a “miss”. But it did leave an open a space on the rack. Rather than reload the heavy depth charges an inexperienced Ensign ordered the crew to simply tie “safety forks” to the arming pins and retreat from the frigid bare deck. This improvisation was to have tragic affects in just a few hours, as the Reuben James approached 51 degrees 59' Latitude North, 27 degrees 5' Longitude West.At 5:25 AM ship time, (8:25 hours GMT) a single torpedo struck the Reuben James on the port side about 200 feet from the bow. The six hundred sixty-one pound warhead vaporized the fire room, crumpled interior walls and sent a flash fire searching for anything to feed upon; furnishings or flesh. Almost instantly it found access to the forward powder room deep in the bowls of the James and in less time than it takes to suck in a breath it ignited the explosives stored there. In a great flash that split the Artic dawn the Reuben James was sundered in two. The 37 degree sea rushed in to fill the sudden vacuum. The integrity of the ship's water tight doors was overcome by the severity of her wound. Mercifully the forward section sank at once. Death came abruptly to over half the crew and all the ship’s officers but one as the bow went down. The stern section, being bigger, was able to float for a few moments longer. About seventy-five crewmen in the stern managed to scramble onto life rafts or into life vests. As they hit the frigid water they were they were instantly coated in a three to six inch layer of fuel oil. They sucked the poisonous sludge into their lungs. What was worse, they swallowed it. And as the stern dipped beneath the waves the depth charges began to slide off their rack. The safety forks could not hold them at the increased angle, and the armed charges fell free, one after the other, each to explode in their turn at fifty feet down. The carnage amongst the men struggling in the water was horrible.
Less than five minutes after being struck the only thing left of the Reuben James was forty-four men struggling to stay afloat in freezing waters. For a few brief weeks they were heroes . But withing five weeks their sacrifice was transformed into merely the first of a hundred thousand such sacrifices. The 115 dead from the Reuben James were the first Americans killed in World War II, 37 days before Pearl Harbor, on the Halloween dawn, 1941. “Well, many years have passed since those brave men are gone, and those cold icy waters are still and they’re calm. Many years have passed, but still I wonder why, the worst of men must fight but the best of men must die. Tell me, what were their names, tell me, what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”
- 30 -