“Reuben James”


Describes the sinking of the destroyer "Reuben James" by submarines off the coast of Iceland, the loss of 100 men [and the rescue of 44]. Chorus: "What were their names, tell me what were their names/Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?"


There is some dispute over the authorship of this song; most alumni of the Almanac Singers say that Guthrie wrote the verses, Seeger added the chorus, but Seeger insists that other members of the group also contributed lyrics. - PJS

The _Reuben James_ was one of the the four-stack destroyers built by the U.S. Navy in the period 1917-1920, and was of the class that was "lent" to Britain. At the time of her sinking, she was based at Hvalafjordur, Iceland, and she sank while escorting convoy HX-156 from Argentia, Newfoundland.

The ship was a member of the _Clemson_ class, which (according to _Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I_) were 310 feet long, 31 feet wide. Figures as to her displacement vary; the most widely-accepted figure seems to be 1091 tons. She was initially fitted with four 4" guns and four 21" torpedo tubes; her speed when new was 35 knots. She would of course have undergone some refits in the period between the two wars, and was almost certainly somewhat slower than her 1920 speed. She was named for the man who saved Stephen Decatur's life when both were serving on the _Intrepid_.

It will be noted that the _Reuben James_ was sunk *before* the United States officially joined the Second World War. By this time, however, the U.S. Navy was unofficially escorting convoys to Britain. While U.S. ships normally did not sink submarines, they helped the British track them. What's more, the U.S.S. _Greer_ had actually fired on a German submarine (U-652) on September 4. Thus German action against U.S. ships was not unjustified.

The _Reuben James_ was not the first U.S. naval vessel to be attacked by the Germans in World War II. Apart from the incident between the _Greer_ and U-652, the destroyer U.S.S. _Kearny_ was damaged on October 17, and the oiler _Salinas_ was torpedoed on October 30. When U-562 sank the _Reuben James_ the next day, it was not really much of an escalation -- but it came as a shock to the American people.

Guthrie was correct in saying that 44 men were saved, but the ship's crew totaled 159 (a very full complement; the ships were designed for a crew of about 130), so casualties actually totaled 115.

The sinking of the _Reuben James_ , we must emphasize, did *not* cause the U. S. to go to war (indeed, the U. S. didn't declare war on Germany; Germany declared war instead). Even if it had, Guthrie's confident prediction that American battleships would engage the Germans was short-sighted. Some people say falsely that battleships were useless in World War II -- but while they had their uses, fighting the German navy wasn't one of them. Battleships are useless against submarines, and at the time the Reuben James was sunk, there was not one American battleship fast enough to catch *any* of the handful of German surface ships. It wasn't until the _North Carolina_ finished fitting out some months later that the U. S. actually had a battleship "mighty" enough (read: fast enough) to fight even against German surface navy.

The last verse of this song as usually sung today ("Many years have passed...") was added by Fred Hellerman. - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct. 31, 1941 - U. S. destroyer Reuben James, an old 4-stacker, is the first American ship sunk in World War II.

Cross references


  • Woody Guthrie, "Sinking of the Reuben James" (on AmHist2)
  • Pete Seeger, "Reuben James" (on PeteSeeger41)
  • Pete Seeger & Sonny Terry, "Reuben James" (on SeegerTerry)


  1. PSeeger-AFB, p. 84, "Reuben James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, PSAFB084


Alternate titles: “The Sinking of the Reuben James”
Author: Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger w. the Almanac Singers
Earliest date: November, 1941
Found in: US