Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Kearny, Torpedoing of (17 October 1941)

The destroyer Kearny was the first U.S. warship to be torpedoed in World War II, bringing the United States, which was not a combatant at the time, one step closer to joining the conflict. Under her captain, Commander A. L. Danis, the Kearny was one of a number of destroyers on Atlantic convoy duty as part of the Northeastern Escort Force assigned to escort convoys as far east as Iceland and as far west as the United States. A new Benson-class destroyer, the Kearny had been completed only in 1940; with a displacement of 1,630 tons and a main armament of 4 x 5-inch 38 caliber guns, along with 4 x 40-mm Bofors and 7 x 20-mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns, she was capable of 36.5 knots of speed.

The Kearny was at Reykjavik, Iceland, with a destroyer division that had just made the run from the United States when news arrived of attacks by German U-boats on convoy SC.48, consisting of 50 merchantmen, about 400 miles west of Iceland. On 15 October, a German wolf pack had sunk 3 of the merchantmen. The Kearny was one of a half dozen escorts dispatched to SC.48's assistance. The Kearny and 4 other destroyers from Iceland joined up with the convoy about 350 miles southwest of Iceland early on 16 October and immediately took up station screening it. Unfortunately, they were only 1,000 to 1,500 yards from the convoy, and the German submarines were able to take up longer-range firing positions undetected.

That night, in three separate waves of attacks, the German wolf pack struck again, sinking 7 more merchant ships. In the last of these attacks, around 2:00 a.m. on 17 October, the Kearny was searching for U-boats on the surface when she herself came under attack by U-569, which fired three torpedoes against her. One of the torpedoes struck home, hitting the Kearny on her starboard side amidships. Through valiant effort, the crew managed to save their ship, although 11 sailors had been killed and 24 wounded. Miraculously, given the extensive damage and the hole in her side, the Kearny made it to Iceland under her own power, escorted by the destroyer Greer. Eventually, she rejoined the fleet.

The attack came in the middle of debate over the repeal of the Neutrality Act in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the airwaves, telling the American people, "We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history will record who fired the first shot." A few days later, a German submarine torpedoed and sank the destroyer Reuben James, also on convoy duty in the Atlantic. By then, it seemed as if U.S. entry into the war had become only a matter of time, although Americans were shocked to see the final provocation come from another quarter—the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, halfway around the globe.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939–1941: The Partnership That Saved the West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Roscoe, Theodore. United States Destroyer Operations of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953.

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