On the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939, the Reuben James was assigned to patrol duty off the East Coast of the United States. In March 1941, the Rube joined Squadron 31 in the Atlantic, where it was part of the Northeastern Escort Force assigned to escort convoys as far east as Iceland and as far west as the United States.
On 31 October 1941, the Reuben James (under Lieutenant Commander H. L "Tex" Edwards) was some 600 miles west of Iceland, with 4 other destroyers escorting 44 merchantmen in the eastbound convoy HX.156. She was steaming on the port beam of the convoy abreast of the last ship in the column that morning when she was hit without warning on the port side by a torpedo fired by the German U-552. Evidently, the torpedo explosion touched off ammunition in the destroyer's forward magazine and split the ship in two. The stern remained afloat for about five minutes, and then it, too, sank. Only 45 men, including a chief petty officer, survived; 115 others, including Edwards and all the other officers, went down with the ship.
Within days, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred the Coast Guard to the U.S. Navy. The next week, Congress amended the Neutrality Act by authorizing the arming of American merchantmen and removing restrictions that denied European waters to U.S. shipping. The U.S. Navy could now convoy Lend-Lease goods all the way to British ports. The Reuben James was the only U.S. Navy ship lost to the German navy before the United States entered World War II. Spencer C. Tucker
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.
Spencer C. Tucker