The Kearny Incident 

US #940 honors all those who served in World War II.

On October 17, 1941, a US ship was attacked and damaged by the Germans for the first time during World War II.

In the months leading up to the event, America, who had claimed neutrality, was growing more and more involved in the war. In March, the US initiated the Lend-Lease program, sending money, munitions, and food to Britain, China, and later the Soviet Union.

That spring, German U-boats stepped up their attacks in the Atlantic, threatening to interrupt the trans-Atlantic supply line. The US was sending out “neutrality patrols,” which reported Axis ship and submarine sightings to the British and Canadian navies.  And starting in April, US Navy ships started escorting Allied convoys from Canada to the Mid-Atlantic Meeting Point where they met up with the Royal Navy to take them the rest of the way.

US #2559c from the 1941: World at War stamp sheet.

In June 1941, President Roosevelt worked out a deal with Prime Minister Churchill to send American forces to occupy Iceland to free up British forces for combat.  By August, the US Navy established its own base at Reykjavík.

Among the ships stationed at Reykjavík was the USS Greer.  On September 4, 1941, the Greer was fired upon, but not hit.  Upon learning of the incident, President Roosevelt addressed the situation in one of his fireside chats, saying, “The Greer was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits that it was a German submarine. The submarine deliberately fired a torpedo at the Greer, followed by another torpedo attack. In spite of what Hitler’s propaganda bureau has invented, and in spite of what any American obstructionist organization may prefer to believe, I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with the deliberate design to sink her.”

Iceland # 263-68 – Set of six Iceland stamps.

Roosevelt called this event “an act of piracy” by Germany and issued a “shoot-on-sight” order.  This gave American ships permission to fire on German ships, planes, and submarines as soon as they saw them, instead of waiting for them to strike first.

That October, the USS Kearny was docked at Reykjavík when a German wolf pack of U-boats attacked a British convoy nearby.  The Kearny and three other destroyers were called in to assist.  Once it reached the area of action, the Kearny dropped depth charges on the U-boats and would continue throughout the night.  The next day, October 17, one of the U-boats fired a torpedo at the Kearny, striking the starboard side.  The crew quickly confined the flooding to one area so they could move away from the fighting. The attack inflicted 11 American deaths and 22 injuries.

Item #M10935 honors the events of 1941, including the sinking of the Reuben James.

After this attack, Roosevelt again addressed the nation, saying, “America has been attacked.  The USS Kearny is not just a Navy ship.  She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this nation… Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American… The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas – to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.”

US #2559f commemorates the sinking of the USS Reuben James.

At the end of the month, a German U-boat would attack another US ship, the USS Reuben James.  The Reuben James was the first American ship sunk by the Germans during the war.  And America would be drawn into the war less than two months later.

US #2559f – Silk Cachet First Day Cover.

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  1. I had never heard this story before (thank you Mystic). Almost sounds like another “Gulf of Tonkin” story that got us into the Viet Nam conflict. Even though we more than likely would have gotten ourselves into war with the Germans anyway, providing escort to Allied convoys from Canada to the Mid-Atlantic Meeting Point where they met up with the Royal Navy to take them the rest of the way, sounds like America sort of bullied our way into yet another conflict (and a big one); especially since America up-to that-point had claimed that they were neutral. I wasn’t born yet, so I don’t know the whole story, but America sure does seem to poke their nose into things and has been doing it for a very long time. Remember this was before NATO, so their was no “an attack on one is an attack on all”.

    1. Freedom comes with responsibility, and no nation has been as blessed as America….”to whom much is given, much is expected.”–Jesus

    2. We were “neutral” only in the sense that we did NOT have combat troops helping
      Britain. However, there was no hiding the fact that we were indeed NOT neutral
      in other ways. We were supplying first Britain and the th Soviet Union BUT not
      any of the Axis powers. True Neutrals would be selling to BOTH sides, not just one.
      Most of the American Public were unaware of what was going on behind the scenes
      in Washington.

    3. Dennis, You didn’t have to have been born yet, just read some history and you’ll get it. Many Americans were against any foreign involvements and were ut-and-out isolationists because of the experiences in and the outcome of World War I. President Roosevelt and many leaders knew that if Hitler conquered Britain, Churchill and the whole government and the King and the British fleet would relocate to Canada and would never stop fighting Hitler and Nazi Germany. Germany then would have to attack Canada which would bring the war to America’s doorstep. It was imperative that Britain stay in the war not only for sentimental reasons toward our ally but strategic reasons to keep the war out of North America. Roosevelt couldn’t go too far too fast because of public opinion, but the Japanese aggressions in Asia and the Pacific and their attract on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the situation.

  2. Lend-Lease program was Roosevelt’s way of getting around the American isolationist mentality at the time. Roosevelt knew what Germany was up to and had not the US involvement occurred we might all be speaking German today. Poking the US nose into stuff has cost the US lots of lives and resources yet the Marshall plan for Europe rebuilding Japan we nose sticking that could have been avoided but chaos would have be the result. The US must look out for it’s interests in the world.

  3. Well said. I was a high school senior in 1941 and remember the lend-lease program versus the isolationists of the time. But in December Peaarl Harbor silenced them. A year later I joined the Navy.

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