The USS Reuben James was constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey and laid down on April 2nd, 1919. The four funneled Clemson-class destroyer was named after Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James (1776-1838). She was the first Navy ship sunk during World War II. On October 4th, 1919 she was launched, and she was put into commission on September 24th, 1920. Commander Gordon W. Hines was chosen to captain.
From 1921 until 1922, she was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Fleet. On November 30th, 1920, she made her way from Newport, Rhode Island to Zelinka, Yugoslavia. She arrived on December 18th and had duty in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas from the spring until the summer, in Gruz and Zelenika, Yugoslavia. Her duties there were to help with postwar investigations and assisting refugees. Upon the return of the Unknown Soldier to the U.S., she joined up with Olympia C-6 to take part in those ceremonies. She helped the American Relief Administration in Danzig from October 29th, 1921 until February 3rd, 1922, helping the poor and hungry there. She then made her way to the Mediterranean until July 17th, 1922.
Her new home base was at New York City. At the beginning of 1926, she patrolled the coast of Nicaragua to keep revolutionaries from getting weapons. Her next duty was to perform fleet maneuvers in the spring of 1929. On January 20th, 1931, she was put out of commission at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On March 9th, 1932, she was put back into commission for duties in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Her job there was to patrol during the coup by Fulgencio Batista in the waters of Cuba. In 1934, her new base became San Diego, California. She rejoined the Atlantic Fleet in January of 1939 after helping evaluate aircraft carriers.
Action in World War II
In September of 1939, after the war started in Europe, the USS Reuben James joined the Neutrality Patrol. Their job was to patrol the Caribbean and Atlantic approaches to the coasts of the United States. She was again put on escort duty in March of 1941 to help materials arrive safely in the U.K. Their route went all the way to Iceland, at which point escorts from Britain took over.
Her new base became Hvalfjordur, Iceland. From there, on October 23rd, 1941, she was sent with 4 other ships to escort the convoy HX-156. On October 31 at 5:25 in the morning, she was hit by a torpedo from the German sub U-552 near Iceland. This sub was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp. The Reuben James was guarding an ammunition ship when the torpedo struck her bow; it sunk very quickly. There were only 44 surviving crewmembers out of the 159 on-board.
Asbestos in Navy Ships
Although an essential component of the naval fleet, especially during World War II, naval destroyers also pose a lasting health risk to soldiers serving on them. Unfortunately, products containing asbestos were common, especially on older ships, because of the material’s high resistance to heat and fire. Despite its value as an insulator, asbestos fiber intake can lead to several serious health consequences, including mesothelioma, a devastating cancer without cure. Current and former military personnel who came into contact with these ships should seek immediate medical attention in order to detect possible health consequences associated with asbestos exposure.