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Undeclared War in the Atlantic: The U.S. Navy Versus the U-boats

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In October 1941, the United States was the only major industrial power still neutral. But that status was becoming increasingly tenuous. Off its east coast, America sailed a dangerous diplomatic course between two belligerents involved in a shooting war in the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s situation off the west coast was little better; there the question of shooting began with the interrogative adverbs “when” and “where,” not the conjunction “if.” In early 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Adm. Ernest King commander in chief of the newly organized Atlantic Fleet. When informed of his appointment, King said, “When they get into trouble they send for the sons of bitches.” King would need every bit of his celebrated intestinal fortitude, because he was preparing to fight with no fleet auxiliary vessels and, with the exception of his few aircraft carriers, mostly obsolete warships designed to fight the Battle of Jutland, not the modern one unfolding before him.

“Whether the country knows it or not, we are at war.”

—Adm. Harold Stark, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations

In July 1941, in a top secret memo to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark, President Roosevelt authorized the Atlantic Fleet to change from defensive to offensive operations, writing, in part, “…the presence of any German submarine or raider should be dealt with by action looking to the elimination of such ‘threat of attack’ on the lines of communication, or close to it.”

USS Kearny (DD 432)

USS Kearny (DD 432) lies alongside USS Monssen (DD 436) off of Iceland after being torpedoed. The hole caused by the torpedo lies on the Kearny’s starboard side beneath the forward funnel. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

On Sept. 1, 1941, King issued Operation Plan 7-41. Stamped “Secret,” it was distributed to the ten task forces and four patrols under his command and contained the unconditional order to “destroy hostile forces that threaten shipping…” Four days later, the USS Greer, a World War I-era destroyer, narrowly escaped being torpedoed by U-552 off the coast of Iceland. Roosevelt issued a public warning to Nazi Germany and Italy: “If German or Italian vessels of war enter the waters . . . necessary for American defense, they do so at their own peril.”

King followed up the president’s warning with orders authorizing Atlantic Fleet warships to escort convoys from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Great Britain. The United States was neutral, but given such pronouncements and actions, it was sure being belligerent about it. And, indeed, King was spoiling for a fight. In a September memo to the president, King wrote, “Whatever we do I am anxious that our first real shooting contact with the enemy be successful. Particularly would I like to get Tirpitz if the opportunity comes our way. Early victory would breed confidence and be a wonderful stimulant.”

“Whatever we do I am anxious that our first real shooting contact with the enemy be successful. Particularly would I like to get Tirpitz if the opportunity comes our way. Early victory would breed confidence and be a wonderful stimulant.”

On Oct. 15, 1941, the new destroyer USS Kearny was hit by two torpedoes fired from U-56, and managed to steam into port in Iceland. Among its casualties were eleven dead. Two weeks later, on October 31, the Reuben James was torpedoed by U-552 and sunk off the coast of Iceland. Of the 159-man crew, only 44 were rescued.

In between these two events a top secret mission was launched that, if successful, would create a casus belli that would bring America into the war. Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt was ordered to form Task Force 14, composed of the aircraft carrier Yorktown, World War I-era battleship New Mexico, light cruisers Savannah and Philadelphia, and nine destroyers, and escort Convoy WS12X which was about to leave Halifax. The convoy contained British troops bound for Singapore, though Hewitt’s orders only had him escorting the convoy as far as the Persian Gulf. The fact that Hewitt’s task force was providing escort to troop ships was reason enough for the secrecy, because such an action was in violation of the Neutrality Act. But there was an even larger reason for the secrecy. The task force, the most powerful one yet assembled by the U.S. Navy, was gunning for the enemy; specifically a surface action with capital ships like the Tirpitz. Shortly after Task Force 14 departed from Portland, Maine, Hewitt issued his orders to his ship captains: “The task of this Group is to safeguard the convoy. The three general Courses of Action for accomplishing this Task are: 91) to destroy, (2) to repel, and (3) to cripple threatening raiders.”

USS Reuben James (DD 245))

USS Reuben James (DD 245), shown here in 1939, was sunk by a German U-boat in 1941. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

As it turned out, the voyage was uneventful and Hewitt discharged his duty without incident. Had the task force encountered any German surface warships, the United States would have entered the war shooting, instead of suffering as it did on December 7. As for the British troops, their voyage lasted about three months and they arrived in Singapore after both the United States and Japan had entered the war. Instead of fighting in defense of Singapore, a few days after they disembarked the garrison’s commander, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, surrendered to the Japanese and the troops spent the rest of the war as POWs.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

  • One of the things I enjoy about Zimmerman’s writing style is his talent for finding the human core of these stories that turn even short pieces into more than just a recitation od events.

  • OF events. Typos. Hate ‘Em.