Chief Petty Officer William Bergstresser was standing watch on Halloween night in the engine room of his ship, an old four-stack Clemson-class destroyer that had seen better days. It was 0525 and he was less than halfway into the morning watch when a violent explosion shook the ship and was followed almost immediately by an even greater detonation. The lights went out, but his experienced hearing told Bergstresser that the steam flow had been disrupted, and he was aware of “a sinking motion of the ship as if she were going down by the bow.” His senses were on the right track but only partially correct. Making his way upward to the main deck, he discovered that “the whole forward part of the ship, including the bridge [was] completely demolished and carried away.” Chief Bergstresser was no longer just in charge of the engine room—he was now in command of the ship—what was left of her. All of the destroyer’s commissioned officers had been killed, leaving only Bergstresser and 43 of his shipmates, from an original crew of 159.
It was evident that the remaining stern section was sinking fast, so Chief Bergstresser ordered the three remaining functional life rafts deployed. A quick scan of the horizon told him that there were no other ships visible—an unsettling sight as the men entered the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
While this was an experience few would like to share, such tales are not uncommon in the annals of naval warfare. But what made this particular ordeal unusual was that Chief Bergstresser’s nation was not at war! It was October 1941, and the USS Reuben James (DD-245) had been escorting Convoy HX-156 eastbound as part of the so-called “Neutrality Patrol,” a somewhat euphemistic sobriquet for various operations begun at the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, which included U.S. Navy ships escorting British transatlantic convoys as far east as Iceland. These duties had already proved hazardous for two other U.S. warships—a German submarine had fired a torpedo at the USS Greer (DD-145) two months earlier, and the USS Kearny (DD-432) had been torpedoed six weeks after that, losing 11 men.
Chief Bergstresser and the other survivors watched the remains of their ship swallowed by the churning waters of the Atlantic, and a foreboding sense of doom passed among them as they bobbed about in the frigid waters. But their despair turned to elation as another destroyer appeared out of the gloom and took them aboard.
Isolationism ran deep in America at that time, and even the sinking of an American warship with heavy loss of life could not stir the sleeping giant. Thirty-seven days later, the slumber ended as Japanese aircraft ravaged the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking or heavily damaging 18 ships. But it was the Reuben James that would have the distinction of being the first U.S. warship sunk in World War II—while the nation was technically at peace.
Moved by the loss of the ship’s 115 crewmen and fearing their names would be forgotten, singer Woody Guthrie began work on a song titled “The Sinking of the Reuben James.” The song’s chorus poignantly asks, “Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names. Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”
Note: The names of the lost crewmen, accompanied by the Kingston Trio singing “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” can be viewed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7jBbCQwJ0g