The United States was not yet at war with Germany even though it’s Navy was escorting convoys in the Atlantic. A series of incidents had showed that they were increasingly coming up against the German U-boats but until the 17th none had fallen victim to a torpedo:
With full left rudder, to avoid British corvette, commenced swinging ship to port in circling area on port quarter of convoy as this appeared to be a submarine area. It is probable that the KEARNY was silhouetted by the burning freighter to submarine to Northwest which was thus in a favorable attack position and not seen by KEARNY.
About 0010 torpedo struck the ship on starboard side at about the turn of the bilge between frames seventy and seventy four, in latitude 57-04 North, 23-00 West. At this time a second torpedo ran past the starboard side of ship on slightly converging coure and a third was noted crossing astern close abroad from starboard to port.
From the Action Report of LCDR. A.L. DANIS, Commanding Officer U.S.S. KEARNY DD-432, which can be found, along with much more about the ship at USS Kearney.
Eleven men died in the attack, it was one more incident hardening the attitude of the American people. Ten days later President Roosevelt was to address the nation:
America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a Navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman, and child in this Nation.
Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia — those are the home States of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American, whether he lives on our seacoasts or in the innermost part of the Nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world.
The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas — to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.
German newsreel footage of U Boat operations released on 17th October 1941: