Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James?

Woody Guthrie – The Sinking of the Reuben James

In the early 1800s, The United States built a number of powerful frigates to combat the pirates along the Barbary Coast. To ensure safe passage of their merchant ships, other nations, including the British, paid an annual ‘tribute’ to the ruling Beys who controlled the pirates. Americans were having none of this. Said President Thomas Jefferson, “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.”

In October of 1803, the US frigate USS Philadelphia, on station outside of Tripoli Harbor to interdict the Barbary Pirates, ran aground just outside the harbor and was herself seized by the pirates and the officers and crew became slaves of the ruling Bey.

The US Navy could not allow such a powerful warship to remain in the hands of the very pirates the navy was trying to kill. In February of 1804, a band of American sailors and US Marines, led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, USN, made a daring night raid and set the USS Philadelphia afire which destroyed the ship. (Hence the line in the Marine Hymn “…to the shores of Tripoli.”)

During the raid, the Americans and the pirates engaged in hand-to-hand fighting on the deck. As a pirate went to bring his sword down on Lt. Decatur, an American sailor interposed himself and took the blow, thus saving Decatur. Incredibly, the sailor, Rueben James, survived the fight and went on to serve in the US Navy for thirty more years.

Lt. Decatur went onto to win great fame in other engagements and became the youngest man ever made Captain in the history of the US Navy. Commodore Decatur built a beautiful home, designed by the celebrated architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, on Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House.

After just fourteen months of living in his gracious home, Decatur was mortally wounded on 22 March 1820 in a duel instigated by a rival officer of the US Navy. Decatur was taken to his home on Lafayette Square where he died two days hence. The home was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1956 and is open to the public. I have taken a tour of the home and it is quite fascinating. It is one of Washington’s unknown attractions. If you love the history of that era, you will enjoy a visit to Decatur House.

The bravery of the sailor Reuben James in saving Decatur’s life was not forgotten by the US Navy. In 1920, the Clemson class destroyer USS Reuben James DD245, was launched. This was the first American warship named for Reuben James.

In September of 1939, after the outbreak of World War Two with the British and the French fighting the Germans, President Roosevelt declared a “Neutrality Zone” in the Western Hemisphere from the coast of the United States to Iceland. American warships patrolled the Neutrality Zone and in time began actually escorting merchant convoys to Iceland.

On 31 October 1941 while escorting a convoy in the Neutrality Zone, the USS Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk by U-552, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp. This was six weeks before Germany declared war on the United States (which occurred on 11 December 1941). Of the one hundred sixty men aboard, one hundred fifteen were killed including all the officers.

Folk Singer Woodie Guthrie subsequently wrote the song, The Sinking of the Reuben James.

“Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?”

Several hours later, Topp, who thought he had sunk a Royal Navy destroyer, learned from radio reports that he had sunk an American warship.

“The tension a man endures when he thinks he is making history, however unintentional, is indeed enormous.” Erich Topp in his memoirs.

Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp wearing the Knights Cross with oak leaves awarded him on 11 April 1942. This photo was taken on or after that day. Later he was awarded the Knights Cross with oak leaves and swords, a decoration held by only 160 men in the German Armed Forces in World War Two.

Konteradmiral Erich Topp, Federal German Navy. He survived the war and after working as a deck hand on a fishing boat and later as an architect, he rejoined the German Navy in 1958. Topp spent four years in the US representing the German Navy on the Military Committee of NATO. In 1959 he was in Norfolk, VA to celebrate the tenth anniversary of NATO. Along with other members of the German delegation, he went aboard the American nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus. He offered to guide the wife of a German Embassy official through the USS Nautilus. She asked him “Captain, have you ever been on a U-Boat?” I can only imagine that those who heard the question had to bite their tongues to avoid laughing. Topp was the third highest scoring U-Boat ace in the U-Bootwaffe.

In 1962, when visiting San Diego, Topp talked with an American naval officer who had lost his best friend when the USS Reuben James went down. “What would have become of his best friend had he lived?” Topp wrote in his haunting memoir, The Odyssey of U-Boat Commander. “Perhaps he would have opened new dimensions in the ways we express ourselves so that our creative genius may better spread its wings and take the human soul on a lofty ride, if only for a while. Who will ever know? These were the thoughts that went through my mind.”

UPDATE 2010-06-04:

[Note from Charles: Lt. Joel Ira Holwitt, USN, added the following comment to my post on the USS Reuben James. It is a fascinating addition to the story and adds information few of us know, including your servant. One of the things that makes history so interesting to me is that often the standard version of a story people hear or read turns out to be wrong.

I post his comments with his permission. Lieutenant Holwitt is particularly qualified to make his comments since he is a submarine officer, currently assigned to Naval Submarine School in Groton, CT. He served as a division officer on board USS Houston (SSN 713), based out of Apra Harbor, Guam, from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 graduate of the US Naval Academy, he earned a Ph.D. in naval and military history from Ohio State University in 2005. He is the author of Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, published by Texas A&M University Press. I commend his book to you without reservation.]

“Charles, thanks for such an interesting post, as always. I think Erich Topp is one of the more fascinating submarine commanders in history.

Far be it for me to contradict the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, from which the Wikipedia article that you linked got most of its information, but the true facts of the heroism of Reuben James are actually more murky.

For one thing, the famous episode of hand-to-hand combat and Stephen Decatur’s near-death experience did not occur during the burning of USS Philadelphia. Because of how famous the USS Philadelphia‘s burning became, many of Decatur’s later heroics became associated with that event, and this was no exception.

In reality, this incident occurred 6 months later, during a furious battle between American and Tripolitan gunboats in Tripoli Harbor. Decatur personally captured 2 gunboats himself.

The battle was particularly fierce, with numerous incidents of hand-to-hand combat and bloody battle. Decatur’s brother, James, was killed during this battle by a gunshot to the head.

Stephen Decatur’s life was spared, as written above, by the intercession of one of his sailors, who interposed either his arm or his head between a plunging blade and Decatur’s skull. Exactly who that sailor was, however, is unclear. Somehow, significant controversy arose regarding the identity of this sailor, who was either Reuben James or Daniel Frazier. In fact, this was one of the historical controversies that split the first generation of naval historians, with James Fenimore Cooper and his adherents identifying the hero as Daniel Frazier, while Cooper’s nemesis, Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, fiercely maintained that it was Reuben James.

Faced with this confusion, the US Navy chose the best solution available. They named a destroyer after both men. Consequently, during World War II, there was both a USS Reuben James and a USS Daniel Frazier. Today, there is still a USS Reuben James, which is an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, based in Pearl Harbor. She appeared in the motion picture The Hunt for the Red October.”

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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