Reuben James
by sarAdora


Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?
She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free
But tonight she's in her grave at the bottom of the sea.


His orders had been delivered by a high-ranking officer... in person, a rare event under any circumstances and rarer still in times of war. The European conflict was escalating; soon the United States would join the war effort but until that time, they would remain neutral. Lieutenant Commander Heywood Edwards would captain the ship.

"Who sails with you?" his aide, Ensign Howard Wade asked, hoping to be part of the Commander's personal staff.

"You, of course," Edwards replied, "And Ben Ghetzler, Dewey Johnston, Johnnie Daub, Jimmy Belden and Craig Spowers.

The USS Reuben James (DD-245),
the first destroyer named for a Boatswain's Mate,
was laid down on 2 April 1919,
launched on 4 October 1919,
and commissioned on 24 September 1920
with Commander Gordon W. Hines in command.


Nineteen years later, she was captained by Hey Edwards and ordered to join the Neutrality Patrol. Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the ship and crew were needed to guard the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea approaches to the American coastline.

"Begging the Commander's pardon," Ensign Wade spoke as he stood next to his superior officer at the helm. "Do you suppose we'll see action in these waters, sir? It's a mighty cold sea out there."

"We remain neutral, son, but mark my words. I didn't agree to captain this ship just to be a target. War or no war, we fly the Stars and Stripes on our main mast and we'll fight if our lives are in danger."

In March 1941, The USS Reuben James joined the convoy escort force established to promote the safe arrival of war material to the United Kingdom. The escort force guarded convoys as far away as Iceland where they became the responsibility of British escorts.

"Bet a dollar to a doughnut I could drive this ship from Iceland to England with my eyes closed," Ben Ghetzler commented as the Reuben James ended its 8th trip crisscrossing the Atlantic. "Aye, aye, Lieutenant," Dewey Johnston smiled, cupped his hands under his chin and bowed his head in sarcastic reverence, his own rank the same as Ghetzler's.

"Don't you go sweet talkin me," Ghetzler chuckled, swatting his long-time friend on the shoulder. "I'm a married man, not one of your lady friends and completely immune to the look of contrived innocence on your face. You take the helm a minute. I need to stretch my legs, walk around a bit. Take care, mister. There's ice in these waters where you least expect them. Don't go bumping into them and stay clear away from the other boats. Twelve knots and holding, you hear?"

"Aye, aye Lieutenant."

There's war out there," Johnny Daub told his wife as he packed his sea bags. "Not sure where we stand in this mess but know damn well it's going to be a long voyage."

"You'll take a care, won't you?" his wife asked, placing a small hand on her husband's chest. "We need you home, Johnnie, and all safe and sound."

"You take care of you and the boys and I'll go to sea with a lighter heart. Remember I love you," Lieutenant John Daub told his wife.

"Not sure I can share these cookies," Jimmy Belden told his grandmother as he hugged her goodbye. "These are too good for Navy squids. Maybe you should of baked some of them vanilla things I could give away. Got to save these coconut bites for myself."

"Go on now," his grandmother chided. "And come back to us. We'll pray to the good Lord to keep you safe, James Mead Belden. Take a care and remember your prayers."

Craig Spowers leaned against the flowered wallpaper in his girlfriend's bedroom. She was still asleep and he had been watching her for the last half-hour or so. He decided not to wake her, tip-toed to the bed, dropped a kiss on her forehead and whispered he loved her. "After this tour, you and me are gonna get hitched. You dream on that, Bethany Louise. You dream on that."


Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, the USS Reuben James sailed from Newfoundland on 23 October 1941, with four other destroyers to escort an eastbound convoy. While escorting that convoy at about 0525 hours, 31 October 1941, the Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U 552 near Iceland.

TheReuben James had positioned herself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a German U-Boat Wolfpack. She was hit just below the bridge and her entire bow was blown off when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft section floated for a few minutes before going down.

In his evening news report,
Walter Winchell was quoted as saying:
"Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.
The USS Reuben James - DD-245,
a post- World War I four-stack Clemson-class destroyer,
is the first United States Navy ship
sunk by hostile action
in this war we call World War II.


Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?
She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free
But tonight she's in her grave at the bottom of the sea.


In true Navy tradition, all of the ship's officers, fighting to keep afloat and to see as many of their men safe as possible, lost their lives, and went down with the Reuben James.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Lost at sea...
U.S. Navy
Lieutenant Commander Heywood Edwards, Commanding Officer
Lieutenant Benjamin Ghetzler
Lieutenant Dewey Johnston
Lieutenant John Daub
Lieutenant James Belden
Ensign Craig Spowers
Ensign Howard Wade


The explosion flung the crew overboard into the icy, oily water. A flame of light, where the destroyer went down, illuminated the dark sea. The men found themselves in a cold ocean surrounded by oil and trying desperately to hold on and not be pulled down with the sinking ship. Of the crew, forty-four survived and one hundred died.

Johnnie, Harry and Jimmy hung onto the same oily plank, their voices stuttering in the icy air as they called their God, their wives and their mothers. Larry and Lee tried to swim toward them but the vortex caused by the sinking ship pulled at their numb bodies. Hypothermia in Iceland's waters was instant and deadly and in mere moments, they sank below the sea, hands frozen to each other. Dennis whispered that he loved his Molly... Carl asked Jesus to take him Home... Charles saw the other destroyers headed his way, rescue only seconds away but rescue came too late to save him.

One hundred men were drowned in that dark watery grave
When that good ship went down only forty-four were saved.
'Twas the last day of October we saved the forty-four
From the cold icy waters off that cold Iceland shore.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Johnnie Bauer... Harry Beasley... Jimmy Benson... Joe Biehl... Paul Boynton...
Harold Britt... Herb Burrell... Lee Byrd... Led Carbaugh... Joe Caruso...
Jim Clark... Ray Cook... Carl Cooperrider... Larry Cosgrove... Al Cousins...
Charles Cox... Dennis Daniel... Larry Devereau... Lee Dickerson...
Gil Doiron... Karl Drinkwalter... Neb Dunston... Corbon Dyson...
Gene Evans... Linn Evans... Carl Everett

As the Reuben James sank beneath the waves, the ammunition ship in the convoy continued to fire on the German U-Boat Wolfpack. Magazines exploded, some hitting targets, others lighting the dark oily sea when loud bursts of fire hit the waters. Men aboard ship shouted to those below them to hold on, that rescue was nearby, that help was on its way.

Glen and Tony saw death approach when a ball of fire landed in the water where they were desperately hanging onto the floating debris of the Reuben James. Bill and Hugh succumbed to the cold and sank beneath the waves just before the U-Boats crossed over them, their souls already lifted toward heaven before the heavy German armada touched their limbs.


It was there in the dark of that uncertain night
That we watched for the U-boats and waited for a fight.
Then a whine and a rock and a great explosion roared
And they laid the Reuben James on that cold ocean floor.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Ed Farley... John Fitzgerald... Bill Flynn... Hart Franks... Ralph French...
Les Gaskins... John Greer... Ernest Grey... Art Griffin... Charles Harris...
Charles Hayes... Bill Henninger... Frank Hogan... Hugh House...
Maurice Hudlin... Joe Johnson... Glen Jones... Tony Kalanta... Don Kapp...
Lee Keever... Ralph Kloepper

The Musslewhites held a prayer vigil, stunned that their Ed was lost in a sea battle and in a war that wasn't yet ours. They held out hope that he was one of those rescued and if he wasn't, they wanted the good Lord to know that their son was a good man.

Al Neptune's wife gathered her children to her breast, hugging them harder now that she was both mother and father and breadwinner. She wasn't sure how she was going to make ends meet but this was 1941 and times were hard. Other families made it; she'd do whatever she had to do to keep her children fed.

The Polizzi sisters were too grief stricken to speak of their brother's death. With Joe gone, there was no one left to carry on the proud family name.

John McKeever wept into his tankard of ale at the local bar when he got the news. "Bill," he whispered, toasting his brother.

Now tonight there are lights in our country so bright
In the farms and in the cities they are telling of the fight.
And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main
And remember the name of that good Reuben James.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Joe Little... Paul Margaros... Bill McKeever... Win Merreill... Auburn Merritt...
Jerry Mills... Al Mondouk... Ed Musslewhite... Ken Neely... Al Neptune...
Will Newton... Harold Orange... Pedro Ortizuela... Ben Owen... Will Painter...
Joe Parkin... Bill Patterson... Burl Pennington... Joe Polizzi... Corwin Porter...
Fred Post... Lee Powell

The United States officially entered the war shortly after the Reuben James went down. Thousands lost their lives. They came from the land of the brave and the free and they came from so many other countries. They had a lot in common - they fought for a cause - on one side or another and they had families and friends left behind to mourn them.

The Rygwelski family asked the parish priest to remember their son at mass. The Schlotthauer's celebrated their brother's life every October on the anniversary of his untimely death. Maude Wiles made sure her children knew everything there was to know about the father they lost when they were too young to remember him. Against his mother's will, Billy Woody followed his father to sea when he reached his majority. Cynthia Reid read and re-read all the letters her Lee had sent home that year and wept for the life they lost.

Well, many years have passed since those brave men are gone,
And those cold icy waters are still and they're calm.
Many years have passed, but still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight and the best of men must die.

Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?

Elmer Rayhill... Lee Reid... John Ress... Jim Rogers... John Ryan...
Clarence Rygwelski... Ed Saltis... Gene Schlotthauer... Sunny Settle...
Walt Sorensen... Wallace Sowers... Tony Stankus... Jerry Stelmach...
Wil Taylor... George Towers... Lew Turner... Lloyd Wiles... Harold Vore...
Jesse Weaver... Chester Welch... Ken Wharton... George Woody... Ed Wray

There were forty-four survivors of the USS REUBEN JAMES disaster of October 31st, 1941.

Charlie Appleton... Parmie Appleton... George Beasley... Clay Begley...
Will Bergstresser... Solon Boyd... Brent Bridges... Roy Bush... Bob Carr...
Floyd Coyle...Dan Del Grosso...Gerry Delisle... Joe Elnitsky... George Giehr...
Art Gorziza... Guy Graham... Joe Hajowy... Norm Hingula... Bob Howard...
Charles Jacquette... Earl Jaeggi... Vance James... Rudy Kapecz... Gordon Long...
Joe Molnar... Earl Nagle... Delos Niece... Ken Oaks...Steve Olexa...
Charles Phalen... Les Richardson... Clarence Robinson... Tal Rodgers...Charles Rose...
Larry Sills... Lloyd Sims... Julius Stencel... Aaron Stewart... Bob Stewart...
Cleo Tate... Jim Thompson... Tom Turnbull... Lee Tyger... Will Westbury... Fred Zapasnik

Memorial Day is one more day we take the time to honor our fighting forces. Freedom isn't free. For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know. This is Memorial Day. Remember those who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice to give us the freedoms we enjoy.

~ End ~

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