The USS Reuben James (DD-245) was the first United States Navy ship that sank in the European Theater of World War II by a German U-Boat.
Shortly after it’s sinking, Woody Guthrie wrote the song, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” and performed the tune with Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers. The song featured the line “tell me what were their names,” referring to the 100 men killed on the boat.
Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center board member Pat Stewart, who now lives in Florida, noticed a life-preserver from the ship at a pawn shop in the Sunshine State and was able to get it donated to the museum.
“It was the first ship sank in World War II, but we weren’t in the war yet,” Center Director Michael Sinks said. “It happened on Halloween before Pearl Harbor. We weren’t actively in the war yet. The ship was transporting convoys, materials and troops to England. There were 30 ships in this convoy.”
The Reuben James was named after a man who saved his captain during the War of 1812 by jumping in front of a sword. The ship itself was sank off the coast of Iceland while escorting the aforementioned convoy and was hit by a torpedo meant for a merchant ship. Of the seven officers, enlisted passenger and 136 enlisted crew men, 100 were killed.
After Guthrie read about the sinking in a newspaper, he wrote a song about it in hopes of bringing attention to the incident while America was still in the isolationist mood.
“He wanted to include all 100 sailors names (who perished) in the song,” Sinks said. “He took it to the Almanac Singers the next day and he said, ‘It’s time to quit the peace songs, it’s time to start the war songs. We’ve got to start writing songs about defeating Hitler and Fascism.”
While they weren’t able to include all 100 sailors, Guthrie wrote the line, “Tell me: what were their names? Tell me: what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”
Subsequently after the sinking, Guthrie also wrote “This machine kills fascists” on his guitars.
“Before we entered the war, he had already started putting it on his guitar,” Sinks said. “At the time Hemingway had been writing about fascism in Spain and Steinbeck had been writing extensively about fascism. I’m sure Woody being the veracious reader he was read what his peers had been writing.”
Sinks would like to start gathering donations for a display and plaque for the life-preserver.
The Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center is wear Guthrie bought his first guitar and has recently been visited (along with the Freedom Museum USA and White Deer Land Museum) by 583 elementary students from around the Texas Panhandle through a partnership with the Window on a Wider World. They hold jam sessions every Friday night from 6 to 8:30 p.m.