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 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.

U.S. Merchant Marine and Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941

Battle of the Atlantic: Panamanian-flagged freighter "Montana," sunk 9-11-41Battle of the Atlantic: U.S. Navy escorting transatlantic convoy, late 1941

Left: On September 11, 1941, the same day President Roose­velt made his fire­side chat, a speech that became known as his “Shoot on Sight Speech,” the unes­corted and neu­tral Pana­ma­nian-flagged freighter Mon­tana (former Danish name, Paula) was sunk by the German sub­marine U‑105. Owned by the U.S. Mari­time Com­mis­sion in Washing­ton, D.C., the ex-Danish ship was carrying lumber from Wil­ming­ton, North Caro­lina, to Rey­kja­vik, Ice­land’s capi­tal. Allied air­craft observed sur­vi­vors aban­doning ship in two life­boats, but the crew­men were never found. Nine days later the U.S.-Pana­ma­nian freighter Pink Star, carrying gene­ral cargo from New York to Liver­pool, England, was sunk by U‑552. Thir­teen out of the crew of 35 died. On Septem­ber 26 the U.S.-Pana­ma­nian oil tanker I.C. White was sunk by U‑66 while sailing from the Carib­bean island of Cura­çao to Cape Town, South Africa. Three men died in this attack. The tanker was unes­corted, un­armed, and fully lit. On Octo­ber 9, Roose­velt began his success­ful efforts to have the U.S. Neu­trality Acts modi­fied to allow for the arming of mer­chant ships. A Novem­ber 5, 1941, Gallup poll indi­cated that 81 per­cent of the Amer­i­can public sup­ported the Presi­dent’s posi­tion. On Decem­ber 2 the U.S. mer­chant ship SS Dunboyne received the first Naval Armed Guard crew. The crew was among the 144,970 enlisted men and officers who served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during World War II.

Right: On September 17, 1941, five American destroyers began es­corting convoy HX150 from Hali­fax, Canada. This was the first time the U.S. Navy escorted an east­bound British trans­atlantic con­voy. This photo from late 1941 shows a con­voy es­corted by U.S. war­ships leaving New York’s Brooklyn harbor bound for Great Britain via Halifax.

Battle of the Atlantic: USS Kearny, November 1941Battle of the Atlantic: USS Reuben James, 1939

Left: USS Kearny at Hvalfjordur naval base, Iceland, two days after the destroyer had been struck by one of three tor­pe­does fired by U‑568 on Octo­ber 17, 1941. USS Greer is port­side. The caver­nous tor­pedo hole is visi­ble in the middle of Kearny’s star­board side below and aft of the bridge. The Kearny, assisting four other U.S. destroyers, came to the night­time rescue of the beleaguered, slow-moving con­voy SC-48 whose Cana­dian escorts were being mauled by a U‑boat wolf pack when it came under attack in bad weather. Two Amer­i­can ships were sunk during the attack, causing dozens of casual­ties: the British-flagged Anglo-American Oil Co. tanker W.C. Teagle and the U.S.-Pana­ma­nian freighter Bold Venture sailing for Liver­pool, England, with a cargo of cotton, iron, steel, copper, and wood. Casu­al­ties among Kearny’s crew included 11 dead and 22 injured. In FDR’s Navy Day speech on Octo­ber 27, 1941, 6‑1/2 weeks before the coun­try was officially at war with Germany, the former Under­secre­tary of the U.S. Navy and now presi­dent announced, “The shooting has started and we Americans have taken our battle stations.”

Right: USS Reuben James—a four-funnel, post-World War I destroyer—was sunk on the night of Octo­ber 30/31, 1941, by U‑552 west of Ice­land as she and four other destroyers escorted HX156, an east­bound con­voy sailing from Argen­tia, New­found­land. A tor­pedo hit the for­ward sec­tion of the Reuben James. When an ammu­nition maga­zine exploded it blew off the entire bow of “Ol’ Rube,” which sank imme­di­ately; the aft sec­tion sank five minutes later. Of the 144‑man crew, only 44 sur­vived. Trag­i­cally, many of the crew­members were killed by the escort destroyer’s own unse­cured depth charges, which armed them­selves in frigid ocean water and exploded as the men treaded water (ship’s life­boats were rendered unusable). 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