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Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good
Reuben James?
—Woody Guthrie, 1941

Remembering Reuben James
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2015

When tragedy or atrocity strikes, particularly to military personnel, politicians and media have an almost uniform response: Their names shall never be forgotten and their sacrifice shall not have been in vain.

The reality is somewhat different. Yesterday’s heroes are yesterday’s news. They feed the worms, or the fishes, while we move on to the next crisis our leaders proclaim we shall never forget.

So it was on All Hallow’s Eve, 1941. On 11 September 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the U.S. Navy to open fire on any vessel threatening American shipping or ships under U.S. Navy escort. A week earlier, the American destroyer Greer had been attacked by a German submarine, and responded with depth charges. It was the first hostile action between German and American forces in the Second World War, and it infuriated the president. “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike,” he told the nation in a radio broadcast, “you do not wait until he has struck you before you crush him.”


A view held by many Americans in November 1941.

Not all Americans agreed. Charles Lindbergh fired back in a broadcast response that the United States must not fight a war for the sake of the world’s Jews. Roosevelt, he implied, was acting under Jewish influence and against American interests. “A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention,” the famous aviator said. “But the majority still do not. . . . We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we must also look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”

On 31 October, five American destroyers were escorting the east-bound Convoy HX-156 of 44 ships south of Iceland. They’d left Argentia, Newfoundland, eight days earlier. As they closed on the “switchover point” south of Iceland where a British escort group would take over the duty, an alert came that a German submarine wolfpack lurked nearby. Cdr. Heywood L. Edwards moved his destroyer between an ammunition ship and the U-boats’ supposed approach vector.


Reuben James in the Hudson River, April 1939.

Reuben James was a Clemson-class destroyer, laid down in 1919 and named for the naval hero Reuben James. James leaped in front of his commander, Stephen Decatur, during the storming of the captured frigate Philadelphia in 1804 and took a sword swipe to the head meant for Decatur. His namesake would make a similar sacrifice, but unlike James, the ship would not survive.

The destroyer commissioned in 1920 and served in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Atlantic in the 1920s and 1930s. She was one of the hundreds of “four stack” destroyers built for the First World War, with high speed (35 knots when new) and a heavy torpedo armament (12 tubes). At 1,300 tons and 310 feet long, they were big, modern boats for their time with good endurance. Reuben James spent five years with the Pacific Fleet starting in 1934, but when war broke out in Europe she returned to the Atlantic for service with the Neutrality Patrol. Though new destroyers were joining the fleet, Reuben James and many of her sisters were still considered front-line units.

In March 1941 she began escorting convoys in the western Atlantic, handing over her charges to British escort groups at a designated mid-ocean meeting point. It was this mission that brought Reuben James and Convoy HX-156 together. The trip had been uneventful, but that would soon change.

At 0525 on 31 October, Kapitän-Leutnant Erich Topp of U-552, well aware of the warship’s nationality, fired two torpedoes at the American destroyer. One of them struck her portside forward. The forward magazine exploded, and the destroyer’s bow section broke away and sank immediately. The remainder of the ship stayed afloat for about five minutes. One hundred and fifteen American sailors, including Edwards and all of his officers, died with their ship. The remaining American destroyers rescued 45 survivors.

“Whether the country knows it or not,” raged Adm. Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, “we are at war.” Roosevelt, stung by public support for Lindbergh’s craven cowardice, merely asked that the Neutrality Act be repealed, but even so could not overcome Republican opposition. Only some fairly mild measures could get through Congress. By a 50-37 vote the U.S. Senate allowed U.S. Navy gun crews aboard American merchant ships, and allowed such ships to call at British ports. Woody Guthrie wrote his ballad, but public outrage was muted.

Less than six weeks later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provided a provocation that even Lindbergh and his followers could not ignore. The United States declared war on Japan, and Germany eased Roosevelt’s political problems by declaring war on the United States. German submarines ravaged American shipping, as when Topp and U-552 spotted the coastal steamer David H. Atwater off Chincoteague, Virginia on 2 April 1942. Without warning, the submarine opened fire on the tramp. As the crew scrambled for the lifeboats, Topp’s gunners turned their machine guns on the crowded small craft. Twenty-four of the 27 sailors aboard were killed.

Topp would rise to admiral in the post-war West German Bundesmarine and become a minor celebrity in the decades following the war, writing his memoirs and meeting with U-boat buffs. A quick Internet search will show pictures of smiling American enthusiasts posing with him; if you're morally twisted enough you can even buy a coffee mug or t-shirt with his picture on it. Topp finally died on 26 December 2005.

I used to do quite a lot of work on computer wargames; the money was good and the projects interesting. While working on a script for a submarine game some years ago, the publisher was sold to new ownership who happily announced that they’d added Erich Topp to the project team as “historical consultant.” I really needed the job, but I walked out and never regretted doing so. Because someone should remember their names.

Lieutenant Commander Heywood Lane Edwards, U.S. Navy (Commanding)
Lieutenant Benjamin Ghetzler, U.S. Navy.
Lieutenant Dewey George Johnston, U.S. Navy
Lieutenant (J.G.) John Justus Daub, U.S. Navy.
Lieutenant James Mead Belden, D-V (G), U.S. Naval Reserve.
Ensign Craig Spowers, U.S. Navy.
Ensign Howard Voyer Wade, D-V (G), U.S. Naval Reserve.

BAUER, John Francis, Jr., Chief Radioman (AA) Class V-3, U.S. Naval Reserve.
BEASLEY, Harold Hamner, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
BENSON, James Franklin, Machinist's Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
BIEHL, Joseph Peter, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
BOYNTON, Paul Rogers, Yeomman first class, U.S. Navy.
BRITT, Harold Lelie, Coxswain, U.S. Navy.
BURRELL, Herbert Ralph, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
BYRD, Hartwell Lee, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
CARBAUGH, Leftwich Erastus, Jr., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
VARUSO, Joseph James, Radioman second class, U.S. Navy.
CLARK, James Brantley, Fire Controlman second class, U.S. Navy.
COOK, Raymond, Mess Attendant first class, U.S. Navy.
COOPERRIDER, Carl Eugene, Gunner's Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
COSGROVE, Lawrence Randall, Gunner's Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
COUSINS, Alton Adelbert, Cheif Machinist's Mate (PA), U.S.N.R., Class F-4-C
COX, Charles Beacon, Chief Torpedoman (AA), U.S. Navy.
DANIEL, Dennis Howard, Yeoman third class, U.S. Navy.
DEVEREAU, Lawrence Delaney, Chief Boatswain's Mate (PA), U.S.N.R., Class F-4-D
DICKERSON, Leonidas Camden, Jr., Storekeeper third class, U.S. Navy.
DOIRON, GIlbert Joseph, Water Tender first class, U.S. Navy.
DRINKWATER, Karl Lee, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
DUNSTON, Nebraska, Mess Attennndant third class, U.S. Navy.
DYSON, Corbon, Radioman third class, U.S. Navy.
EVANS, Gene Guy, Boilermaker second class, U.S. Navy.
EVANS, Linn Stewart, Fire Controlman third class, U.S. Navy.
EVERETT, Carlyle Chester, Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
FARLEY, Edwin Louis, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
FITZGERALD, John Joseph, Quartermaster third class, U.S. Navy.
FLYNN, William Aloysius, Torpedoman second class, U.S. Navy.
FRANKS, Hartley Hardy, Ship's Cook second class, U.S. Navy.
FRENCH, Ralph George, Chief Commissary Steward, U.S. Navy.
GASKINS, Lester Carson, Machinist's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
GREER, John Calvin, Chief Electrician's Mate (PA), U.S. Navy.
GREY, Ernest Dwane, Jr., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
GRIFFIN, Arthur Raymond, Signalman second class, U.S. Navy.
GUNN, Donald Knapp, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy
HARRIS, Charles Waldon, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
HAYES, Charles Chester, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
HENNIGER, William Henry, Gunner's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
HOGAN, Francis Robert, Gunners' Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
HOUSE, Hugh, Gunner's Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
HUDLIN, Maurice Woodrow, Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
JOHNSON, Joseph, Mess Attendant first class, U.S. Navy.
JONES, Glen W., Chief Quartermaster (PA), U.S. Navy.
KALANTA, ANthony J., Boatswain's Mate second class, U.S. Navy.
KEEVER, Leonard A., Chief Machinist's Mate (PA), U.S. Naval Reserve, F-4-C
KLOEPPER, Ralph W.H., Signalman third class, Class V-3, U.S. Naval Reserve.
LITTLE, Joseph Gustave, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
MAGARIS, Paul L., Radioman first class, U.S. Navy.
MC KEEVER, William James, Sean second class, U.S. Navy.
MERRELL, Windell Harmon, Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
MERRITT, Auburn F., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
MILLS, Gerald Edward, Seaman second class, Class V-1, U.S. Naval Reserve.
MONDOUK, Albert J., Chief Water Tender (PA), U.S. Naval Reserve, Class F-4-C.
MUSSLEWHITE, Edgar W., Machinist's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
NEELY, Kenneth Cecil, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
NEPTUNE, Aldon W., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
NEWTON, William Harding, Yeoman third class, U.S. Navy.
ORANGE, Harold J., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
ORTIZUELA, Pedro, Officer's Cook first class, U.S. Navy.
OWEN, Benjamin T., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PAINTER, William H., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PARKIN, Joseph J., Chief Water Tender (PA), U.S. Navy.
PATERSON, William N., Coxswain, U.S. Navy.
PENNINGTON, BUrl G., Quartermaster second class, U.S. Navy.
POLIZZI, Joseph C., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
PORTER, Corwin D., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
POST, Frederick R., Boatswain's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
POWELL, Lee P., Pharmacist's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
RAYHILL, Elmer R., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
REID, Lee Louis N., Torpedoman first class, Class V-6, U.S. Naval Reserve.
RESS, John R., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
ROGERS, James W., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
RYAN, John J., Jr., Coxswain, U.S. Navy.
RYGWELSKI, Clarence, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
SALTIS, Edward Peter, Boatswain's Mate first class, U.S. Navy.
SCHLOTTHAUER, Eugene, Chief Water Tender (AA), U.S. Navy.
SETTLE, Sunny J., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
SORENSEN, Walter, Gunner's Mate third class, U.S. Navy.
SOWERS, Wallace L., Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
STANKUS, Anthony Gedminus, Seaman second class, U.S. Navy.
STELMACH, Jerome, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
TAYLOR, Wilton L., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
TOWERS, George F., Chief Gunner's Mate (AA), U.S. Navy.
TURNER, Lewis Aubrey, Signalman third class, U.S. Navy.
VOILES, Loyd Z., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
VORE, Harold M., Fireman first class, U.S. Navy.
WEAVER, Jesse, Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
WELCH, Chester L., Fireman second class, U.S. Navy.
WHARTON, Kenneth R., Fire Controlman first class, U.S. Naval Reserve, Class F-4-C.
WOODY, George, Jr., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.
WRAY, Edwin E., Seaman first class, U.S. Navy.

Survivors:
APPLETON, Chrlie Edward, Jr. Fireman 2c, US Navy.
APPLETON, Parmie Glendon, Fireman 2c, US Navy.
BEASLEY, George Napoleon, Jr., Machinist's Mate 2c, US Navy.
BEGLEY, Claborn, Machinist's Mate 2c, US Navy.
BERGSTRESSER, William Henry, Chief Machinist's Mate (AA), US Navy.
BOYD, Solon Gescovy, Machinist's Mate 1c, US Navy.
BRIDGES, Brent Neil, Radioman 3rd class, US Navy.
BUSH, Roy Virgil, Fireman 2c, US Navy.
CARR, Robert James, Fireman 2c, US Navy.
COYLE, Floyd Bob, Fireman 1c, US Navy.
DEL GROSSO, Daniel Joseph, Seaman 1c, US Navy.
DELISLE, Gerald Joseph, Coxswain, US Navy.
ELNITSKY, Joseph Fedenich, Fireman 1c, US Navy.
GIEHR, George Frederick, Fireman 2c, US Navy.
GORZIZA, Arthur Emil, Machinist's Mate 1c, US Navy.
GRAHAM, Guy Shipp, Machinist's Mate 2c, US Navy.
HAJOWY, Joseph, Machinist's Mate 2c, US Navy.
HINGULA, Norman Francis, Fireman 1c, US Navy.
HOWARD, Robert Joseph, Torpedoman 3c, US Navy.
JACQUETTE, Charles Samuel, Jr., Fireman 1c, US Navy.
JAEGGI, Earl William, Shipfitter 2c, US Navy.
JAMES, Vance Turner, Metalsmith 1c, US Navy.
KAPECZ, Rudolph T., Gunner's Mate 1c, US Navy.
LONG, Gordon H., Watertender 1c, US Navy.
MOLNAR, Joseph, Fireman 1c, US Navy.
NAGLE, Earl G., Seaman 2c, US Navy.
NIECE, Delos, Seaman 2c, US Navy.
OAKS, Kenneth Courtland, Radioman 3c, US Navy.
OLEXA, Steve, Seaman 2c, US Navy.
PHALEN, Charles W., Fireman 2c, US Navy.
RICHARDSON, Lester E. Fireman 1c, US Navy.
ROBINSON, Clarence F., Seaman 1c, US Navy.
SILLS, Lawrence, Jr., Seaman 1c, US Navy.
SIMS, Lloyd E., Watertender 1c, US Navy.
STENCEL, Julius, Machinist's Mate 2c, F4D, US Navy.
STEWART, Aaron H., Gunner's Mate 3c, US Navy.
STEWART, Robert S., Seaman 2c, US Navy.
TATE, Cleophas, Electrician's Mate 3c, US Navy.
THOMPSON, James C., Seaman 2c, US Navy.
TURNBULL, Thomas P., Electrician's Mate 2c, US Navy.
TYGER, Leland E., Fireman 3c, US Navy.
WESTBURY, William C., Machinist's Mate 1c, US Navy.
ZAPASNIK, Fred F., Shipfitter 1c, US Navy.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.