Washington, D.C. · October 17, 1941
Starting on September 1, 1941, two years into the Battle of the Atlantic, U.S. warships began escorting convoys of Britain-bound merchantmen from the North American coast. Convoys departed from Newfoundland off the coast of Canada and ended in the mid-Atlantic at Iceland. Four days after initiating the escort service, the U.S. destroyer Greer, bound for Iceland with a load of mail, was attached by a German submarine 175 miles southwest of that island and, in responding to the attack, damaged it.
On this date in 1941 off the southwest coast of Iceland again, the Battle of the Atlantic escalated when a German U-boat torpedoed the U.S. destroyer Kearny as it came to the rescue of a Canadian-escorted convoy. Eleven U.S. crewmen were killed and twenty-two wounded. A British destroyer was also sunk in the same attack. The attacker, U-568, was a part of a wolf pack that had been harassing British and Canadian transatlantic convoys for some time. The USS Kearny, which had been launched only the year before, was the second U.S. Navy ship since World War I to be fired on and hit. (The U.S. river gunboat USS Panay, which served to protect American interests on the Yangtze River in China, was sunk off the Chinese capital of Nanking by Japanese aircraft in mid-December 1937 and may be considered the first U.S. naval casualty of World War II.)
Ten days after the Kearny attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that the country would not take the incident “lying down.” “America has been attacked,” the president said, but he didn’t seek an immediate declaration of war; instead, he asked Congress for authorization to arm American merchant vessels and allow them to enter combat zones, measures forbidden by U.S. Neutrality Acts that the U.S. Congress had passed in 1937–1939. In early November, after the old four-stacker USS Reuben James was torpedoed off Iceland on Octo¬ber 31, 1941, sinking in minutes with a loss of 115 lives, including all of its officers, Congress complied with the president’s request. The U.S. and Germany were now involved in an unofficial war at sea. And that’s where things stood between the two powers until Decem¬ber 11, 1941, when Germany declared war on the United States as a gesture of solidarity with its Axis-treaty partner Japan.
The U.S. Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941
Right: USS Kearny at Reykjavík, Iceland, two days after she had been torpedoed by U-568. The USS Monssen is alongside. Though hard to see in this photograph, the torpedo hole is in the 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 a 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 on the 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.
Battle of the Atlantic, 1939–1945