ROOSEVELT—U-BOATS ARE “RATTLESNAKES OF THE ATLANTIC”

Washington, D.C. September 11, 1941

Starting on September 1, 1941, two years into the Battle of the Atlantic, U.S. war­ships began escorting con­voys of east­bound mer­chant­men from the North Amer­i­can coast. Con­voys departed from New­found­land, Canada, and ended in the mid-Atlantic at Ice­land, the half­way point to ports in the British Isles. Four days after initi­ating the escort ser­vice, the U.S. destroyer Greer was attached by a German sub 175 miles south­west of Ice­land and, in responding to the attack, damaged it. On this date in 1941 in Washing­ton, D.C., Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt called Nazi sub­marines and mer­chant raiders “rattle­snakes of the Atlantic” and issued a “shoot on sight” order. German or Italian ships entering Amer­i­can defen­sive waters did so at their own risk, and any of their ships that threat­ened the free pas­sage of U.S. mer­chant ships and U.S.-escorted ships risked attack.

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the Kriegs­marine, told Adolf Hitler that the U.S., though tech­nically still a neu­tral nation, had declared war on Germany: “There is no longer any dif­fer­ence between British and Amer­i­can ships.” Hitler stayed his hand for the moment against the U.S. Just over a month later a U‑boat wolf pack managed to torpedo six out of 50 east­bound mer­chant­men being escorted by U.S. and Cana­dian war­ships. On Octo­ber 17, 1941, the U.S. destroyer Kearny, which had been sum­moned to assist the belea­guered con­voy, was attacked by U‑568 north­west of Ice­land and damaged. Twenty-two American sailors were wounded and 11 killed, the first to die under their own flag in the European Theater since World War I.

Roosevelt’s response was prophetic: “We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And his­tory has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, how­ever, all that will matter is who fires the last shot.” But FDR kept his pis­tol holstered, even when U‑552 sank the first U.S. Navy ves­sel, the USS Reuben James, west of Ice­land with a loss of 115 crew­men. And that’s where things stood between the two powers until the Decem­ber 7, 1941, Japa­nese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. With­out tech­ni­cally being forced or even obli­gated by treaty to do so, Hitler declared war on the United States on Decem­ber 11 as a ges­ture of soli­darity with Japan, a coun­try on the other side of the world. The declara­tion was, Hitler told his for­eign minis­ter, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the “politically correct” thing to do.




The U.S. Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941

USS Kearny, November 1941 USS Reuben James, 1939

Right: USS Kearny at Reykjavík, Iceland, two days after the destroyer had been tor­pedoed by the U‑568. The USS Monssen is along­side. The torpedo hole is visible in the middle of Kearny’s star­board side. The Kearny, assisting three other U.S. destroyers, came to the rescue of a beleaguered con­voy whose Cana­dian escorts were being mauled by a U‑boat wolf pack when it came under attack. Casu­al­ties among Kearny’s crew included 11 dead and 22 injured. In FDR’s Navy Day speech on Octo­ber 27, 1941, the former Under­secre­tary of the Navy and now presi­dent announced, “The shooting has started and we Americans have taken our battle stations.”

Left: The USS Reuben James—a four-funnel, post-World War I destroyer—was sunk by U‑552 west of Ice­land as she escorted an east­bound con­voy sailing from New­found­land. A tor­pedo hit the for­ward sec­tion of the Reuben James. When an ammu­nition maga­zine exploded it blew off the ship’s entire bow, which sank imme­di­ately; the aft sec­tion sank five minutes later. Of the 159‑man crew, only 44 sur­vived. Counting the con­flict in China, the Reuben James was the second U.S. Navy ship sunk by hos­tile action in World War II. The river gun­boat USS Panay, serving in the U.S. Yangtze Patrol in China, was bombed, strafed, and sunk by Japa­nese air­craft on Decem­ber 12, 1937, with a loss of 4 dead and 43 sailors and 5 civilians wounded.

American Merchant Marine and Singer-Songwriter Woody Guthrie Performing His “Sinking of the Reuben James” to a Collage of Reuben James Photographs


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