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 the Danish depend­ency of Ice­land, the half­way point to ports in the British Isles. Four days after initi­ating the escort ser­vice, on Septem­ber 4, 1941, the escort destroyer USS Greer, steaming 175 miles south­west of Iceland, observed a British plane dropping four depth changes on an under­water object, later iden­ti­fied as U‑652. The Greer’s skipper, having made sound con­tact with the U‑boat, decided to shadow it after the British air­craft inex­plic­ably left the area. For what­ever it was worth, the Greer repeatedly radioed the sub’s posi­tion. Sud­denly, the U‑boat changed course, closed in on the Greer, and launched a tor­pedo at the U.S. destroyer, which it dodged. In retal­i­ation the Greer heaved eight depth charges, then eleven more over its sides, avoiding being struck by a second enemy tor­pedo. The Greer was the first Amer­i­can warship to be attacked in the unde­clared naval war between the neutral U.S. and Nazi Germany. (In a quid pro quo German air­craft sank an Amer­i­can mer­chant ship, a U.S. flag prom­i­nently painted on its side, in the Red Sea the very next day.)

In a radio broadcast on this date, September 11, 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. “If you see a rattle­snake poised to strike,” the presi­dent said, “you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” German and 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—including ships of other nations—risked attack. As proof of America’s commit­ment to pro­tect trans­atlantic shipping from Axis pre­da­tors, the U.S. Navy had autho­rized the con­struc­tion six months ear­lier (April 18, 1941) of two destroyer and several sea­plane bases on British soil. U.S. armed forces were now sta­tioned in Europe as first-line defenders without any declaration of war.

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 on Octo­ber 31, 1941, the day U‑552 sank the first U.S. Navy ves­sel, the USS Reuben James, west of Ice­land with a loss of 100 crew­men. Germany called the Reuben James fair game because the U.S. destroyer was escorting British mer­chant ships. So that’s where things stood between the two powers until Decem­ber 7, 1941, the date of the Japa­nese surprise attack on the U.S. fleet and air­fields at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With­out tech­ni­cally being forced or even obli­gated by treaty to do so, Hitler declared war on the United States four days later as a ges­ture of Axis soli­darity with Japan, a coun­try on the other side of the world. The Decem­ber 11 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 modify the U.S. Neu­trality Acts to allow the arming of mer­chant ships. A Novem­ber 5, 1941, Gallup poll indi­cated that 81 per­cent of the Amer­i­can public sup­ported the Presi­dent’s move. On Decem­ber 2 the U.S. mer­chant ship SS Dunboyne received the first Naval Armed Guard detach­ment. Its mem­bers were 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 near Reykjavik, Iceland, two days after the destroyer had been struck by one of three tor­pe­does fired by U‑568 on Octo­ber 17, 1941. Sister escort destroyer 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. war­ships, 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