More on the USS Reuben James

This post is an update to Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James?

[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:

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