By Robert J. Cressman, Naval History and Heritage Command Historian
Popularized for many Americans by the Woody Guthrie song, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” USS Reuben James (DD-245) was the first U.S. Navy ship to be sunk by enemy action during World War II. Month’s before America officially entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Reuben James Sailors paid the ultimate price. The story of these Sailors should not be forgotten.
USS Reuben James (DD-245), with Lt. Cmdr. Heywood L. “Tex” Edwards in command, steamed at roughly 8.8 knots in her night cruising position on the port quarter of convoy HX-156 on October 31, 1941. Life aboard for the 146 people – 145 officers and men in the ship’s company and one solitary passenger — proceeded quietly. The sea was calm, the wind, gentle. Men stood watches at key points aboard, at the guns on the galley deckhouse, at the Y-Gun [depth charge projector] near the fantail and in the engineering spaces.
In keeping with the typical ship behavior, the commanding officer often let extra men on watch take a turn at the helm. For that reason, on that night, Fireman 2nd Class Parmie G. Appleton stood at the wheel in the pilot house. He had reported aboard Reuben James, along with his brother Fireman 2nd Class Charles E. Appleton, on March 26, 1941. As he stood at the helm, Appleton heard a report come in over the low frequency voice radio of contacts picked up by another escort – on her port beam to port quarter, and on her starboard bow.
Lt. Cmdr. Edwards, who had been in the emergency cabin, soon arrived in his bathrobe and told Yeoman 3rd Class Dennis H. Howard, to try and pick up the contact on the port quarter, and told Lt. j.g. James M. Belden, USNR, the officer-of-the-deck, to “come left.” Howard immediately began “pinging” with the sound machine to pick up the contact. Edwards then told Belden that he was going below to get dressed. Appleton heard someone call down to the wardroom to summon Lt. Benjamin Ghetzler, the executive officer. Belden, writing up the radio report, asked Appleton for the time. Looking at the bridge clock, he responded: “0549.” Tex Edwards left the bridge, and Belden stepped toward the helmsman, most likely to give him the order to swing Reuben James to port. It was an order, however, that he would not give.
At roughly that moment, a torpedo from the German submarine U-552, with 27-year old Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp, commanding, less than a week out of St. Nazaire, France, on her sixth war patrol, punched into Reuben James’s port side, roughly below the after end of the bridge. The explosion hurled Appleton from his feet. His head hit the overhead, he then bounced off the after bulkhead, toward the wheel. He had no sooner grabbed the helm when the second torpedo from Topp’s U-boat struck, projecting the Sailor upward through a hole in the overhead. He landed in the water near the bow, and soon found himself being pulled down by the suction, struggling mightily to reach the surface. Ultimately, the Appleton brothers would survive the horrible ordeal as would 43 of their shipmates and the solitary passenger. Tex Edwards did not, however. He went down with his ship and 99 other Sailors.