Sinking of the USS Reuben James

US #2559f – from the 1941: World at War Sheet

On October 31, 1941, a German submarine torpedoed the USS Reuben James – the first US Navy ship destroyed during World War II.

The USS Reuben James was named after a naval hero who was born sometime around 1776.  James joined the US Navy and served on several ships. 

US #2559f – Classic First Day Cover

During the Barbary Wars, James was on the Enterprise with Lieutenant Stephen Decatur in the harbor at Tripoli.  They attempted to burn the captured American ship the Philadelphia.  When the brave sailors boarded the ship, they realized it was guarded by the pirates who had captured it.  During the fighting, James stepped between a pirate’s sword and Lieutenant Decatur and was wounded.  He survived the wound and continued to serve in the Navy in the War of 1812 and beyond.  He died in a Naval Hospital in 1838.

US #2559f – Fleetwood First Day Cover

The ship named in honor of this brave sailor was commissioned in September 1920.  The USS Reuben James sailed in the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas, assisting refugees from Yugoslavia.  In October 1921, the ship joined in ceremonies marking the return of the Unknown Soldier to the US.  After returning to American shores, the Reuben James patrolled the Nicaraguan coast to prevent weapons from being delivered to revolutionaries.  After more than a decade of service, the destroyer was taken out of commission in 1931.

US #2559f – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

The services of the Reuben James were needed again the next year to patrol the waters around Cuba.  When war began in Europe in September 1939, this ship guarded the Atlantic and Caribbean waterways as part of the Neutrality Patrol.  In March 1941, the destroyer was part of a convoy that brought war materials safely to Britain. 

Item #M10935 includes a stamp honoring the sinking of the Reuben James.

On October 23, 1941, the Reuben James sailed from Newfoundland with four other destroyers escorting a convoy.  In the early hours of October 31, the convoy encountered a German “wolfpack” – a group of submarines in position to attack the convoy.  The Reuben James positioned itself in front a merchant ship that one of the German U-boats was targeting. 

US #3213 – Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the event, titled “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

The U-boat fired its torpedo, which struck the Reuben James, exploding a magazine and blowing off the entire bow.  The bow immediately sank and the rest of the ship floated for about five minutes before sinking as well.  The ship had seven officers, 136 enlisted men and one passenger.  Of these, 100 were killed – only 44 enlisted men survived the attack.  The Reuben James was the first US Navy ship to be destroyed in World War II.

Item #55909 – Fleetwood First Day Proof Card

After this event, the US Navy was ordered to attack German and Italian war vessels in the Atlantic Ocean.  In December, the attack on American soil at Pearl Harbor would push the United States into full-scale war.

Click here to listen to Woody Guthrie’s “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Thank you for this story and many thanks for the link to Woodie Guthrie’s song!
    Long time since I heard that one- great trip down memory lane !

  2. I never knew of the Reuben James till today. The men on the ship, and the ship itself were heroes. I have always loved Woody Guthrie but never knew of this song. Also, the website plays the song by the Kingston Trio and lists the names individually of the men who perished on the ship. And shows pictures of them also. What a tribute to them. Thank you Mystic for making me aware of this piece of American history. Thanks to you it will never be forgotten.

  3. A tip of the hat to Woodie Guthrie as well. Although he opposed war, when the time came he did not shirk and hide, but served in the Merchant Marine where he placed himself in great danger to serve others. Thanks Mystic.

  4. Thank you so much for this story. I of course knew of the Reuben James, but never before knew of the many services she provided for our Country before WWII. And thank you so much for the link to the song – a real trip down memory lane. And the photos were fantastic. You always go the extra mile to provide us with an interesting experience ! Thank you Mystic !

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