On October 23, 1941, U.S. Navy destroyer USS Reuben James left Newfoundland to escort a convoy bound for Britain. Two days later, the German U-boat U-552 left the French port of St. Nazaire to prowl the North Atlantic on its sixth patrol.
The U.S. was not a belligerent in the war in Europe at the time, but Washington had set up neutrality zones in the Atlantic in which its ships would guard British and neutral merchant ships. U.S. ships would also notify convoys of U-boats' locations.
The James and the U-552 sailed a few weeks after a U-boat fired on the Navy destroyer USS Greer without hitting it. After that incident, President Franklin Roosevelt told the public that “if German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters, the protection of which is necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.”
In the early-morning hours of October 31, when the Reuben James and the U-552 crossed paths near Iceland, the de facto state of war between the U.S. and Germany in the Atlantic intensified.
The James and four other U.S. destroyers were escorting the more than 40 ships that made up HX-156, a convoy of merchant ships sailing from Halifax in Canada to Europe. At that time, U.S. warships would escort convoys to Iceland, where British ships took over.
As day broke on October 31, the Reuben James was sailing at about 10 mph on the left rear side of the convoy. Just after 5:30 a.m., the U-552 fired on the James, its torpedoes ripping into the left side of the destroyer.
“One or more explosions” occurred near the forward fire room, “accompanied by a lurid orange flame and a high column of black smoke visible for several minutes at some miles,” according to the Navy's Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
The ship's forward section was blown off, and it sank rapidly. Only two sailors on that part of the ship survived the blast. Others who made it out were sailors “berthed, or on watch, the forward fireroom.”
No official order came to abandon ship, but crew members launched three rafts and started to leap overboard as the sea swallowed the ship. The captain had issued life jackets to the crew and told them to have them on hand at all times, which meant many sailors were able to get to them as they fled the ship.
While many men made it off, a number of those in the water around the ship were killed or later drowned after at least two depth charges on the ship detonated as it sank.
The escort commander sent two destroyers to investigate. With a smooth sea and little wind, they were able to spot the James' sailors just before 6 a.m. and began rescuing them minutes later. The destroyers' crews used cargo nets, Jacob's Ladders, life rings, and lines to pull survivors, many covered in oil, out of the water.
Rescue operations were over by 8 a.m.; 44 of the crew were recovered, but 93 enlisted men and all the ship's seven officers were killed.
U.S. merchant ships had already been sunk in the Atlantic, and in mid-October, another U.S. destroyer was hit by a torpedo but made it to Iceland. But the James became the first U.S. warship sunk by the enemy in World War II.
“The news of the torpedoing of one of our destroyers off Iceland was the first thing that the President spoke of this morning, and that has cast a shadow over the whole day,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on November 1. “I cannot help but think of every one of the 120 men and their families, who are anxiously awaiting news.”
German Capt. Lt. Erich Topp and other crew members aboard the U-552 in St. Nazaire, France, October 6, 1942.German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons
Germany was unapologetic, saying U.S. ships were escorting British ships in a war zone and had fired on German vessels before. The U.S. didn't declare war, but the sinking drew the U.S. further into the conflict in Europe, which was already more than two years old.
On November 1, Roosevelt signed an executive order reassigning the US Coast Guard from the Treasury Department to the Navy. About two weeks later, under pressure from the president, Congress further amended the Neutrality Acts passed in the 1930s, revising them to allow U.S. merchant ships to be armed and to sail into war zones.
On December 8, the U.S. declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Three days later, Germany declared war on the U.S.
The James was stricken from the Navy's official register on March 25, 1942. The U-552 continued the fight. It joined U-boats that preyed on U.S. ships along the East Coast in 1942 but was later transferred to waters closer to Europe.
The U-552's success waned, as did that of the rest of the U-boat force, as the Allies improved their convoy and anti-submarine tactics and invaded Europe, recapturing ports. In early May 1945 — days before the surviving Nazi leadership surrendered in Berlin — the U-552 was scuttled in waters off the North Sea.
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