USS Reuben James torpedoed in Atlantic

The United States destroyer was the first Naval ship lost to a U-Boat, even though America was not at war with Germany.

The USS Reuben James was one of 24 US Navy destroyers assisting with the escort of convoys in the western North Atlantic, between America and Iceland. There had been a [permalink id=14168 text=”growing number of incidents”] between US ships and U-Boats. Now the USS Reuben James became the first United States warship to be sunk as a result of hostile action in World War II. As dawn broke on the 31st she was torpedoed by U-552 commanded by Erich Topp, who was to become the third most successful U Boat captain of the war.

One of only 44 survivors out of the 159 man crew, Chief Petty Officer William Burgstresser, was later to tell the St Petersburg Times:

I was on watch in the engine room at 5:30 a.m. when we felt the impact. There were two explosions — one sounded like the magazine. Altogether there were eight men in both sections of the engine room.

The lights went out and the steam flow was interrupted. There was a sinking motion of the ship as if she were going down by the bow.

I went topside and found the whole forward part of the ship, including the bridge, completely demolished and carried away.

It was yet another provocation, but the United States was still not ready to go to war with Germany.

Erich Topp commander of U-552 pictured at the U boat base of St Nazaire in France, October 1941.
Erich Topp, commander of U-552 pictured at the U boat base of St Nazaire in France, October 1941. He survived the war and later served with NATO.

The men who were lost on the Reuben James are remembered to this day. In 2017 I was contacted by Mike Perry and I am honoured to be able to add this postscript to these events:

Telegram notifying loss of life in line of duty on USS Reuben James
I have posted this telegram my grandparents got at the start of World War 2 around Memorial day before. I think of it every Memorial day and I know my Mom did too. Parents of servicemen have gotten this news over the years in one form or another over the course of our country’s history. The price of freedom is so high sometimes.

5 thoughts on “USS Reuben James torpedoed in Atlantic”

  1. My father was in destroyers during WW II, in the Pacific TOA. We listened to the Kingston Trio’s version of the Woody Guthrie song “The Good Reuben James” Afterwards he recounted how they had heard about the sinking while sitting in Pearl Harbor. He said that many of the crew wanted to be in the Atlantic, instead of sitting tied up in Pearl Harbor. Less than two months later they would be bombed during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The closest to being hit was when a 500 pound bomb hit astern and between his ship and the tender they were tied alongside of. Their boilers were cold and they were getting power from the tender. The one boiler that was in working condition was fired up, but they did not get enough steam to get underway until after 15:00. Once they had power enough to turn her screws she got underway and took up a patrol position outside the harbor mouth. Where a Japanese sub fired a spread of three at her, but they were set to deep and passed under her keel. Dad’s ship would go into battle in all of the major Naval engagements until she was damaged during Typhoon Cobra in December 1944. Dad had earned enough points by then to get transferred back to the states while the Dewey was undergoing topside and boiler repairs.

    I would go on to join the Navy a few months before graduating from high school. Went active duty after my birthday and after graduating from high school. I would become a Hospital/Corpsman with a NEC of 8482/8404, a Pharmacy Tech and a Field Medical Tech. I would spend 8 years in a peace time Navy, while dad spent 6 years in a wartime Navy, mostly at sea escorting transports, cargo ships, aircraft carriers and fighting off the ever present Japanese bombers, torpedo bombers and fight aircraft, that seemed to buzz around them all the time, as dad once said. I spent one year in Japan and would send home pictures of the remains of the wartime bunkers, aircraft shelters and other remnants left over from the war years. Including a picture of a restored A6M Mitsubishi Navy Type 0 carrier fighter, or the Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen. Also known officially as a Zeke, by the allies, but would later adopt the designation of Zero given to it by those who fought against it.

  2. This information is extremely important. I have scoured the curriculum of “advanced placement’ (a joke I think) US History and the entire WWII subject is skewed by propagandizing facts which leaves young minds questioning American values. Our young ones are being dis-educated. This is a fantastic website. Thank you. My uncle lost his life at Guadalcanal.

  3. Interestingly, as I remember, polls showed at this time that Americans didn’t want to get involved in a European war, but were willing to go to war with Japan because of its war in China. So these continued provocations were not enough for Congress.

  4. That’s interesting. Did you know that Goðafoss was torpedoed and sank Nov. 1944, almost within view of Iceland?

  5. Thank you for this interesting blog, which I shall return to periodically. I was 10 years old and a passenger on the Icelandic freighter, SS Godafoss enroute from Reykjavík to New York. As a precaution, we were put into a lifeboat (not lowered), so we saw what was going on during the attack—I can still hear the whoop-whoop of sirens and the low rumble of exploding depth charges.

    It was only many years later that I learned what that big explosion we saw had been: it was the Reuben James.

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