USS Reuben James (DD-245)

USS Reuben James (DD-245) was a Clemson class destroyer that became famous as the first US warship to be sunk by enemy action during the Second World War, several weeks before the official US entry into the war.

The Reuben James was named after Reuben James, who served in the US Navy during the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, where he was taken prisoner after the loss of USS President.

The Reuben James was laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Corp at Camden on 2 April 1919 and launched on 4 October 1919. She was sponsored by Miss Helen Livingston Strauss, the daughter of Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss. She was commissioned on 24 September 1920.

The Reuben James joined Flotilla Three, Squadron Two, Division Forty-one, part of the Destroyer Force of the Atlantic Fleet, but on 30 November 1920 she departed for European waters, reaching Zelenika on the coast of Yugoslavia on 18 December. She spent the spring and summer of 1921 operating in the Adriatic from bases at Zelenika and Gruz/ Gravosa. She was used to carry the US Ambassador to Italy from Naples to Venice in September 1921 and carried out a mix of patrols and humanitarian duties. In September she helped close down the US Naval Supply Base at Spalato/ Split, and took part in the ceremonies that saw Tug No.60 handed over to the new Yugoslavian Navy. She left Split on 29 September, the last US naval vessel to withdraw from the Adriatic.

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USS Reuben James (DD-245)
in the Culebra Cut

After leaving the Adriatic the Reuben James moved to Cherbourg, where she was caught up with the plan to bestow the Medal of Honor on the British Unknown Warrior. The date of the ceremony had been brought forward to 17 October 1921 to allow General John Pershing to present the medal before his departure for the United States, originally planned for 15 October. On 12 October the Reuben James embarked Vice Admiral Albert P. Niblack, who wished to get to London before the ceremony. Niblack was able to get permission for a delegation of US sailors to take part in the ceremony, although they came from the cruiser Olympia (CA-15).

The Reuben James then moved to Le Havre, where she took part in the ceremonies that marked the departure of the American Unknown Soldier for the United States. She then moved to the Baltic, spending the period from 29 October 1921-3 February 1922 at Danzig. While in the Baltic she worked with the American Relief Administration. She spent the last few months of her time in European Waters operating in the Mediterranean, before departing for the United States on 17 July 1922. 

The Reuben James settled into the standard pattern of US navy life for the period, with the summers spent operating along the US East Coast and the winters in the Caribbean. This was punctuated by a series of unusual activities.

In July 1926 she took part in a cruiser for members of the USNR’s Sixteenth Division, including a visit to Nantucket for a baseball game between the ship’s team and a local team, and exercises with other destroyers. After landing the reservists she acted as a ‘exhibition destroyer’ at Philadelphia during the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In October she took part in exercises with the steamship Leviathan helping to take moving pictures for the Fox News Agency.

At the end of January 1927 she passed through the Panama Canal to join the Special Service Squadron operating in the Gulf of Fonseca to try and prevent gun running during a civil war in Nicaragua. Anyone who landed in Nicaragua between 21 January-15 March 1927 qualified for the Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal. In March-April she took part in the Fleet Concentration in the Caribbean. In June she carried Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore D. Robinson during a visit to New London, Conn., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The Reuben James was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 20 January 1931.

The Reuben James was recommissioned on 9 March 1932 and resumed the previous pattern of life in the Atlantic and Caribbean, this time with the Scouting Force.

From September 1933-January 1934 she was used to patrol Cuban waters during a revolution on the Island.

On 19 October 1934 she left Norfolk to move to the Pacific, arriving at her new home port at San Diego on 9 November 1934. She spent the next five years operating off the west coast, carrying out a mix of training exercises and showing the flag visits.

Second World War

In January 1939 the Reuben James joined the Atlantic Fleet. On 29 August she was selected for conversion into a small seaplane tender (AVP-16), but that plan was cancelled after the outbreak of war in Europe at the start of September. The Reuben James was instead selected to form part of the first Neutrality Patrol, which had the task of watching the movement of any ships of the fighting powers in the approaches to the east coast and the Caribbean. The conversion was officially cancelled on 12 September, and the George E. Badger was chosen to replace the Reuben James. The Reuben James was allocated to Patrol Three, which was to operate from Chesapeake Bay, but then almost immediately moved to the Kew West Patrol.

On 28 October the Reuben James and the Gilmer (DD-233) replaced the Fairfax (DD-93) and Badger (DD-126) as plane guards for the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4), and the group then departed for Cuba, arriving on 3 November. The Reuben James then ran aground in the Old Bahama Channel on 30 November, and the Ranger came to her aid, using some of her fuel oil to create a slick around the destroyer to calm the seas. Three torpedoes, ammo and depth charges were then moved from the destroyer to the carrier to lighten her, and later on 1 December the Reuben James floated free. She then moved to Charleston, before heading to New York for repairs.

The Reuben James was able to rejoin the fleet on 3 June 1940, joining the Atlantic Squadron at Newport, but this appears to have been premature, as she had to return to the New York Navy Yard twice over the next few months, finally leaving for Cuba on 17 August. She spent the next few months operating along the east coast, seemingly moving somewhat at random between a series of ports.

On 1 March 1941 the Support Force, Atlantic Fleet, was formed to protect convoys in the North Atlantic, and the Reuben James was one of eighteen old destroyers allocated to the force. On 11 March the Lend-Lease act was passed, so the Support Force would soon be used to escort American arms as far as Iceland, where the Royal Navy would take over. This almost inevitable led to a series of clashes with German submarines, especially after the US Navy demonstrated that it was perfectly happy to depth charge any suspected submarines found near its convoys.

In May-August the Reuben James continued to work up and down the coast, visiting Newport, New London, Argentia and Casco Bay. On 6 September she finally headed out into the Atlantic, escorting a convoy heading towards Iceland as part of Task Force 15. During the voyage the Truxton (DD-229), MacLeish (DD-220) and Sampson (DD-394) all carried out depth charge attacks on a submarine that had been sighted on the surface close to the convoy. The force reached Iceland on 16 September.

The Reuben James returned to the east coast on 19 October, and then departed from Argentia on 23 October as part of the escort of Convoy HX-156 (along with the Niblack (DD-424), Hilary P. Jones (DD-427), Benson (DD-421) and Tarbell (DD-142)). On 25 October the Hilary P. Jones fired one depth charge at a possible contact, which probably turned out to be a school of porpoises. On 29 October she dropped two depth charges on another possible contact. On 30 October the Reuben James herself detected a probable submarine, and dropped two depth charges.

All of these incidents indicated that there were probably submarines in the area, and on 31 October one of them would account for the Reuben James. At 0534 U-552 (Kapitanleutnant Erich Topp), on her sixth war patrol, fired two torpedoes at the destroyer. They hit on the port side, causing explosions close to the forward fireroom. The explosions caused massive damage, killing all but two of the men in the forward part of the ship, and she immediately began to sink. It was quickly clear that the destroyer was doomed, and her crew managed to launch three rafts and abandon ship, although no formal order to do so was issued. The aft part of the ship soon sank, and tragically at least two of her depth charges exploded, killing some of the survivors. The Germans later claimed that Topp was actually aiming at an ammunition ship within the convoy rather than at the destroyer.

The attack happened at night, so the only way the convoy escort’s commander, Cmdr Richard E. Webb of the Benson was able to discover what had happened was to try and contact each destroyer. When the Reuben James failed to reply he sent the Niblack and Hilary P. Jones to search for her. The Niblack began rescue operations at 0600, while the Hilary P. Jones circled around the scene to guard against further attack. After just over an hour the two destroyers detected a possible submarine and the Niblack had to suspend her operations. She was replaced by the Hilary P. Jones.  By 0805 all 44 of the survivors had been rescued, but all seven of the ship’s officers and 93 enlisted men were killed in the attack.

Anyone who served on her between 22 June-13 July, 1-17 August or 8 September-31 October 1941 qualified for the American Defense Service Medal.

Displacement (standard)

1,190t

Displacement (loaded)

1,308t

Top Speed

35kts
35.51kts at 24,890shp at 1,107t on trial (Preble)

Engine

2-shaft Westinghouse geared tubines
4 boilers
27,000shp (design)

Range

2,500nm at 20kts (design)

Length

314ft 4in

Width

30ft 10.5in

Armaments

Four 4in/ 50 guns
One 3in/23 AA gun
Twelve 21in torpedoes in four triple mountings
Two depth charge tracks
One Y-Gun depth charge projector

Crew complement

114

Launched

2 April 1919

Commissioned

4 October 1919

Fate

31 October 1941

U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History, Norman Friedmann . The standard history of the development of American destroyers, from the earliest torpedo boat destroyers to the post-war fleet, and covering the massive classes of destroyers built for both World Wars. Gives the reader a good understanding of the debates that surrounded each class of destroyer and led to their individual features.
cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 October 2019), USS Reuben James (DD-245) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_USS_Reuben_James_DD245.html

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