140 Boatswains Mate Reuben James

Boatswains Mate Reuben James

(Oct. 29, 2021) Songster Woody Guthrie asked if, 80 years ago, this week, you had, “... heard of a 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 ...” Later in the song, Guthrie asked if you had, “... a friend on The Good Reuben James?”

Chances are that you didn’t have a friend on “The Good Reuben James.” It was a four-funneled Clemson-class destroyer, which was commissioned on Sept. 24, 1920. It was 314 feet long, weighed 1,190 tons and had a top speed of 35 knots. Its main armament was a 3-inch gun and four 4-inch guns, supplemented by 12 21-inch torpedo tubes.

By this time, 80 years ago, although the U.S. had yet to enter the war, the United States Navy was assisting its British cousins by convoying ships to Iceland, bound for Great Britain. Ostensibly, the supplies were for American troops stationed in Iceland.

At Iceland, British warships assumed escort duties. The convoy that the Reuben James was helping to escort was convoy HX156. HX indicated that the ships departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The other escorting ships for HX156 were the United States destroyers Niblack (which was the only ship equipped with radar), Tarbell, Benson and Hillary P. Jones. The convoy’s ultimate destination was Liverpool.

The “Rube” departed Naval Station Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada, with the other four destroyers, on Oct. 23, 1941, where it met the convoy, which topped 50 ships.

As Guthrie tells it, “`Twas the last day of October we saved the forty-four

From the cold icy waters off that cold icy Iceland shore.”

“It was there in the dark of that uncertain night that we watched for the U-boats and waited for a fight.”

The “Rube” had been ordered to investigate a faint radio transmission. Just as it was changing position, a torpedo fired from U-552, commanded by Kapitän Leutnant Erich Topp, meant for one of the merchantmen, struck the “Rube” in its forward magazine.

“Then a whine and a rock and a great explosion roared and they laid the Reuben James on the cold ocean floor.”

The bow section of the “Rube” was blown off and sank immediately, taking the captain, Lt. Commander Heywood L. Edwards, and all of the officers. Edwards, was a 1926 Naval Academy graduate and a member of the 1928 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.

The rest of the crew abandoned ship. But there had been no time to defuse the depth charges. When they reached a depth of 50 feet, they exploded. Surviving seaman, Fireman Second Class George Giehrl, recalled, “If it hadn’t been for those depth charges, we probably would have had another 40 or 50 survivors. Some were knocked unconscious. Others were torn apart.”

“When the good ship went down, only 44 were saved” (out of a crew of 159).

The following year, construction began on the “Rube’s” namesake, a destroyer escort which was commissioned on April 1, 1943. The most recent Reuben James was a guided missile frigate which was decommissioned in 2013. In July of 1943, construction began on the destroyer Heywood L. Edwards, which was launched from Boston Navy Yard in October and saw service in the Pacific.

After Pete Seeger and Guthrie sang Guthrie’s song on CBS Radio, the headline of one newspaper, the next day, read, “COMMIE FOLKSINGERS TRY TO INFILTRATE RADIO.”

Kapitän Leutnant Topp was already a recipient of the Knight’s Cross. U-552 was 13 months old. It had departed its base at St. Nazaire, in occupied France, on Oct. 25, 1941. The fatal torpedo was fired about 600 miles west of Iceland. U-552 was nicknamed “Roter Teufel” (“Red Devil”) because it sported a grinning devil painted on its conning tower. After 33 days, the Roter Teufel returned to base.

Although the U-552, and its captain, miraculously survived the war, both were involved in the controversial sinking of the SS David H. Atwater, under the command of William K. Webster, an unarmed coastal steamer, which was hauling coal to Massachusetts, from Norfolk, Virginia.

The attack occurred 10 miles off Assateague, Virginia, on the evening of April 2, 1942. The German submarine surfaced and pumped 50 shells into the small freighter from its deck gun. Even as it began sinking, the sub’s crew opened up with machine guns, striking the Atwater’s crew as they attempted to man the life boats.

When the Coast Guard cutter Leagre arrived, it found the life boats with dead crewmen riddled by machine-gun fire. There were three survivors from a crew of 27. The Leagre delivered the three survivors and four bodies to Chincoteague Coast Guard Station.

The rest of the bodies that were recovered were brought to Ocean City, where they were transported, in a pick-up, from the boat, to the Ocean City ice plant, then located on Philadelphia Avenue and Somerset Street. There they were iced for shipment to Norfolk.

Local resident George Bert Cropper was called to help in the preparation of the bodies. When asked if the cause of death was apparent, i.e., drowning or gunshot, he said that all died of gunshot wounds and that the bullet wounds were readily apparent.

Local resident Frances Mumford, whose brother-in-law, Allen Mumford, worked at the ice plant, remembers there being about a dozen bodies. Neither Capt. Topp, nor anyone else, was ever charged with the crime. Capt. Topp, the third most successful U-boat captain, later became a rear-admiral in the postwar navy of American ally West Germany.

The Reuben James had been named for boatswains’ mate Reuben James who was born in Delaware about 1776, and who served with Lt. Stephen Decatur during the famous raid to burn the Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, Libya, on Feb. 16, 1804.

During that engagement James positioned himself between Lt. Decatur and a sword-wielding Barbary pirate, taking the blow from the sword. He did survive, as did the lieutenant.

Reuben James continued to serve his country in the U.S. Navy, until January 1836, when he was forced to retire because of ill health. He died on Dec. 3, 1838, at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Twenty years after the sinking of the “Rube,” The Kingston Trio included Guthrie’s song on their album “Close-Up,” with slightly different lyrics. The album reached #3 on the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. Among other differences, the Trio noted that,

“Many years have passed since those brave men are gone,

Those cold icy waters, they’re still and they’re calm.

Many years have passed and still I wonder why the worst of men must fight,

And the best of men must die.”

In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp honoring the Reuben James.

“Now tonight there are lights in our Country so bright,

In the farms and in the cities they are telling of the fight.

And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main,

and remember the name of that good Reuben James.”

Next week: Parade Commemorating the Russian Revolution

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.