Way Before Pearl Harbor, America and Nazi Germany Were Locked Into a Naval War

Way Before Pearl Harbor, America and Nazi Germany Were Locked Into a Naval War

Yes, that is correct.

Roosevelt’s bottom line was blunt: “Our … vessels and planes will protect all merchant ships—not only American ships but ships of any flag—engaged in commerce in our defensive waters. They will protect them from submarines; they will protect them from surface raiders.”

The German attacks continued. On September 11, the same day Roosevelt made his fireside chat, a speech that became known as his “Shoot on Sight Speech,” the U.S-Panamanian freighter Montana, carrying lumber from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Reykjavik, was sunk by the German submarine U-105. Eighteen of her 25-man crew died. On September 17, five American destroyers began escorting convoy HX150 from Halifax. This was the first time the United States Navy escorted an eastbound British transatlantic convoy. On September 20, the U.S.-Panamanian freighter Pink Star, carrying general cargo from New York to Liverpool, was sunk by U-552. Thirteen out of the crew of 35 men died. On September 26, the U.S.-Panamanian oil tanker I.C. White was sunk by U-66 while sailing from Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean, to Cape Town, South Africa. Three men died in this attack. The tanker was unescorted, unarmed, and fully lit. On October 9, Roosevelt began his efforts to have the U.S. Neutrality Acts changed to allow for the arming of merchant ships.

So far, all the ships that had been torpedoed were merchantmen, but that was about to change. On October 16, 1941, the destroyer USS Kearny was part of an emergency rescue mission. Convoy SC-48, a 52-ship slow convoy moving through bad weather, was under attack by a submarine wolfpack. The convoy defenses were reinforced by five U.S. destroyers, Greer, Kearny, Plunkett, Livermore, and Decatur, but the rescuers made the mistake of bringing their ships too close to those they were trying to protect.

The wolfpack, taking advantage of this error, closed to torpedo range and fired salvo after salvo without interruption. Conditions were made worse for the destroyers when their captains ordered the firing of star shells and flares. The light that was generated dazzled the lookouts and greatly reduced their night vision, which, in turn, made it easier for the U-boats to strike again and again. In the resulting turmoil, the Kearny veered away to avoid colliding with a Canadian corvette and in doing so became a perfect target for the U-568. The submarine fired a spread of torpedoes, one of which struck the Kearny.

Ensign Harry Lyman, a Kearny survivor, later reported: “The U-boat fired three torpedoes at us. One went off the bow, one went off stern and the third hit us on the starboard side at the forward engine room.”

Lyman also reported hearing a terrible roar as the warhead tore through the Kearny’s armor. The resulting explosion killed seven men stationed in the forward boiler room. The force also ripped through the deck, destroying the starboard wing of the bridge. It slammed the forward stack back and cut the siren cord so that the siren could not be shut off. Four other men disappeared, probably blown overboard. In total, 11 men died and 22 were injured. The ship managed to limp to Hvalfjordur, Iceland. She arrived on October 19, escorted by the Greer. A cavernous hole and twisted, misshapen plating disfigured her starboard side below and aft of the bridge. After the repair ship USS Vulcanpatched the hole, the Kearny left Iceland on December 24, for Boston and permanent repairs. The Kearny was the first U.S. Navy casualty in the undeclared war in the Atlantic.

“They Can’t Do This to Us”

Two American ships were sunk during the attack on Convoy SC-48. On October 16, the Anglo-American Oil Co. tanker W.C. Teagle was sunk, and on October 17, the U.S.-Panama freighter Bold Venture was lost. The Teagle, carrying 15,000 tons of fuel oil and flying the British flag, was on a voyage from Aruba to Sydney, Nova Scotia, and then on to Swansea; she was torpedoed and sunk by submarine U-558. Though published figures vary slightly, it appears that 41 men on the ship died. Nine survivors were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Broadwater. However, all but one of these men died when the Broadwater was sunk the next day. The Bold Venture, which had left from Baltimore and was sailing for Liverpool with a cargo of cotton, iron, steel, copper, and wood, also suffered casualties.

On October 19, the U.S. freighter SS Lehigh was sunk. The Lehigh, sailing from Bilbao, Spain, to Africa was torpedoed by the U-126. The 4,983-ton freighter was unarmed, unescorted, and clearly marked as American. No one died in this attack. Sam Hakam, the radio operator on the SS Lehighdescribed what happened. “The torpedo struck without warning. There was a loud explosion followed by a towering plume of smoke and debris. My first reaction was, ‘This is just like you see it in the movies.’ … Utter astonishment and disbelief followed. Jimmy, the fireman on the 4 to 8 watch, stood on deck shouting, ‘They can’t do this to us,’ over and over … He had reason to shout. It was October 19, 1941. We were not in the war yet.”

Although there had been no declaration of war, the United States was at war. The oiler SS Salinas, sailing about 700 miles east of Greenland, was torpedoed on October 30. There were no casualties, and the damaged ship managed to make it safely to port.

“The Sinking of the Reuben James”

On October 23, 1941, the USS Reuben James sailed from Argentia, Newfoundland, with four other destroyers of the U.S. Escort Group 4.1.3. Its task was to escort convoy HX156. The Reuben Jameshad been positioned directly between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a German U-boat wolfpack. At 8:34 am, she was hit by a torpedo from submarine U-552.

The torpedo ignited the ammunition in the forward magazine. The resulting explosion tore the ship in two. The forward section sank immediately, taking all hands there into the icy water. As the stern sank, the ship’s depth charges exploded and killed survivors in the water. At that moment, Chief Machinist’s Mate William H. Bergstresser became the doomed ship’s commander. He was the only survivor among the Reuben James’s 20 officers and chief petty officers. The destroyer carried a crew of 144, of which only 44 survived. Aside from the friends and relatives of the dead sailors, few Americans appeared to be deeply moved.

Political activist and balladeer Woody Guthrie composed “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” a stirring and patriotic song, commemorating the tragedy. The Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, just over four months before the Reuben James went down. An ardent leftist, Guthrie had been composing and singing antiwar ballads for some time. Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union reversed all that. Great Britain and Soviet Russia were abruptly uncomfortable allies against Nazi Germany. Guthrie and other leftists made what conservatives and anticommunists ridiculed as “the great flip flop.”

The peace songs quickly vanished. Guthrie immediately composed a series of patriotic win-the-war ballads that were recorded and released soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Probably the most famous of these was “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” Whatever the reason for its writing, the song was certainly a patriotic call to arms:

“Have you heard of the ship called the good Reuben James?

Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame

She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free

But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea.”


“Tell me what were their names,

tell me what were their names?

Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

The Undeclared War Ends, the Official War Begins

The United States continued moving closer to war with Germany. A November 5, 1941, Gallup poll indicated that 81 percent of the American public favored arming merchant ships and 61 percent favored allowing these ships to enter war zones. On November 6, the German blockade runner Odenwald, carrying a cargo of rubber from Japan, was captured in the Atlantic near the equator. She was taken by the cruiser USS Omaha and the destroyer USS Somers.

While Roosevelt was successful in pushing through changes to the Neutrality Acts, the U.S. Congress remained hesitant. The new rules specified that merchant ships could be armed and that U.S. ships could enter both combat zones and belligerent ports. The Senate approved the revision on November 7, and the House of Representatives reluctantly agreed on November 13. Senate approval was 50-37, and House approval was 212-194. Nevertheless, on November 11, 1941, the submarine U-561 sank the 5,592-ton Panamanian freighter Meridian, and then the 2,939-ton Panamanian freighter Crusader on November 14. Both ships were part of convoy SC-53.

On December 2, 1941, the German submarine U-43 fired a torpedo at the unarmed and unescorted oil tanker SS Astral, which was traveling from Aruba to Lisbon, Portugal. The tanker was clearly marked as American; flags were painted on its sides. The torpedo missed, and the tanker began zigzagging in a desperate effort to survive. It was to no avail. The U-43 hunted her through the night and at 9:24 the next morning sent two torpedoes into her, one astern and one amidships. The tanker, carrying a crew of 37 men and 78,200 barrels of gasoline and kerosene, exploded and sank within minutes. There were no survivors. Gasoline and kerosene burned for an hour on the water after the ship went down. That same day the U.S. merchant ship SS Dunboyne received the first Naval Armed Guard crew.