USS Reuben James
This was another of those unfortunate stops at which a dissapointing number of local residents did not know of this monument when I asked directions. Perhaps I am correct in assuming that the Woody Guthrie ballad, "The Sinking of The Reuben James," is more memorable and revered than the ship itself.Like most Americans, Guthrie lamented the loss of the ship that "flew the stars and stripes of the land of the free..." The summer of 1941 was a dangerous time for US Navy sailors involved in the Battle of The Atlantic. The USA was officially neutral, a non-combatant state. Yet, it was obvious where our support was going to be, with England. The old destroyer USS Reuben James was one of the escort ships of an Atlantic convoy when a German submarine put her down, with 100 men blown apart by the torpedo or drowned in the cold ocean.
During the early war years the story of the Reuben James was well known and used as a rallying cry of sorts. After the war ended, after so many ships had been sunk and so many crews lost, the Reuben James was made popular by Guthrie's folk song. First "The Weavers" covered it, and they were followed by dozens of other artists and groups. The most famous of these was The Kingston Trio, who had the ballad in their act up through the 1970's. But, do YOU know the men of the good Reuben James?
Guthrie's original draft of his song included the individual names of the lost. It was cumbersome and somewhat tiring, but he felt the men deserved to be remembered. A story floats around that Pete Seeger urged Guthrie to drop the gold star list and concentrate of the tune, not the commemorative aspects. It was good advice, but ignored the best intent of the song - to honor one hundred men lost at sea.
They are listed here, along with a much longer list of Maine natives that perished on World War II vessels. Navy sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Merchant Mariners are hailed for the courage they had. Courage? What courage does it take to walk aboard a ship and sail the ocean blue? Well, as one who has sailed the cold Atlantic in all sorts of bad weather I can attest to what it takes to return to sea after the first patrol. On the first patrol everything is new. The bow rises and falls and the deck rolls port to starboard, with each movement testing the resolve of the stomach.
Green water coming over the bow in heavy weather can be terrifying. The prow of the ship stuffs itself into the waves which are sometimes taller than the main mast. As the waves crest tons of water falls to the foredeck and sweeps aft, carrying along anything not proper secured. Men on watch siimply hang on to anything solid near their work station. Those off duty struggle to find a comfy spot to sleep in a wary slumber that expects the noises of gear flying through the compartment and men shouting their disgust. Life at sea is not the romantic experience the landlubber thinks it is.
Navy and Coast Guard sailors are taught how to stay alive, how to survive a sinking. And we all train to acquire and practice the required skils. But at the start and end of each training session we are informed, again, that smaller vessels will not last more than a few minutes after taking a torpedo, hitting a mine or suffering a shell hit. Five minutes. That, if the sailor is lucky, is all the time given to prepare for the moment when the ship is abandoned. And what lies ahead? Is the sea surface covered by fuel oils? The thick oil immediately coats the body wiith a heavy slime. It is impossible not to inhale and swallow the noxious mixture of oil and sea water. At that point the odds are really against the unlucky survivors plucked from the ocean. The oil has coated the lungs. Death won't come by drowning in the sea, it comes as pneumonia. The chest burns with each breath and the heart struggles to contiinue life's steady beat. The only thing that works efficiently is the brain, and it can't stop the sounds of the screams and the final thoughts of loved ones and home. Home, where the dinner table doesn't sway with the sea and the floor is always steady.
Are all sailors courageous? No. But we are all filled with a resolve to complete the patrol and return to a port that welcomes our ship as its own.