A “Neutral” Power? – American Involvement in WW2 Before Pearl Harbor

The USS Reuben James was destroyed by a Nazi U-boat in October of 1941, more than a month before the the United States and Germany were at war. It wasn't the only time the U.S. and the Axis would trade blows prior to America's official entry into the war.

The USS Reuben James was destroyed by a Nazi U-boat in October of 1941, more than a month before the the United States and Germany were at war. It wasn’t the only time the U.S. and the Axis would trade blows prior to America’s official entry into the war.

“Despite Washington’s official position of neutrality, in the weeks and months leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, American forces clashed with the Germans and Japanese.”

THE JAPANESE SURPRISE attack on Pearl Harbor may have officially propelled America into the Second World War, but it would be a mistake to think that the United States wasn’t already fighting in the then 26-month old conflict. Despite Washington’s official position of neutrality, in the weeks and months leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, American forces clashed with the Germans and Japanese. Here are the details of these early encounters (in reverse chronological order).

Five weeks before Pearl Harbor and Washington’s subsequent declaration of war on Japan, the German U-boat U-522 torpedoed and sank the American destroyer USS Reuben James in the North Atlantic. The American vessel was steaming from Newfoundland towards Iceland on Oct. 31 1941 when the British convoy she was escorting came under attack by a pack of German subs. Just before dawn, the Reuben James was herself hit near the forward magazine by a torpedo. The ensuing blast tore the bow section right off the World War One vintage Clemson-class destroyer. She sunk in minutes, taking 115 of her crew down with her. Forty-four survived the attack.

Torpedo damage to the USS Kearney. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Torpedo damage to the USS Kearney. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Two weeks prior to the incident, another American destroyer operating from Reykjavik, Iceland, suffered damage from a German torpedo. On Oct. 17, the USS Kearny along with two other vessels left their anchorage to assist a squadron of Canadian warships struggling to defend a convoy from a concerted U-boat attack. In the ensuing action, the U-568 fired on the Kearny’s starboard side, damaging the vessel and killing 11 crewmen. The ship limped back to port for repairs.

A month before the Kearny incident, a shore party from the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Northland knocked out an unmanned German weather station located on Greenland*. It would be the first time in the war that American forces destroyed German military equipment. In April of 1941, the Northland very nearly was sunk, but not by the Axis. While patrolling off Greenland, the cutter strayed within six miles of the German battleship Bismarck. The British mistook the American vessel as an enemy escort and came dangerously close to firing on her. After the war, the Northland was donated to Israel, where she served as the flagship for the state’s nascent navy.

The U.S. Navy’s first clash with the Kriegsmarine occurred in April of 1941 when the USS Niblack attacked a Nazi U-boat off the coast of Iceland. After departing its base in Newfoundland as part of a mission that would see American troops occupy the mid-Atlantic island nation, the Niblack broke from formation to respond to a distress call from a torpedoed Dutch cargo vessel. While bringing aboard survivors, sonar operators aboard the warship detected an unidentified submarine moving in for the kill. The Niblack attacked the sub with depth charges. Although the weapons failed to damage the U-boat, the encounter represented America’s first hostile action of the Second World War.

A German air raid on Norway killed an American military attache in 1940. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A German air raid on Norway killed an American military attache in 1940. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The first American military death of the Second World War didn’t happen at sea, but during the Battle of Dombas, Norway in April of 1940. Following an unsuccessful airborne assault, the German high command ordered bombers to level the city. A military attaché with the American consulate was killed during the raid. Capt. Robert Losey, a U.S. Army meteorological officer, died while evacuating American diplomats and their staff to a railway tunnel. A monument was erected to Losey in the town.

The USS Panay.

The USS Panay.

Japan’s first blow against the United States fell a full four years before Pearl Harbor and two years prior the outbreak of war in Europe. In late 1937, the U.S. Navy gunboat Panay was moored in Nanking harbour. Although Japan was at war in China at the time, the United States was officially neutral. Despite this, the 190-foot-long vessel was strafed and bombed by Japanese bi-planes for two hours on the afternoon of Dec. 12. A dozen Imperial fighters attacked even though the vessel flew several U.S. flags and had an enormous stars and stripes painted on the ship’s deck. The USS Panay sank in the Yangtze River with the loss of three crew members. Forty-five were injured in the attack. Japan apologized for the incident and paid the United States $2 million, but relations between the two powers were strained in the wake of the bombing. For more about the incident and to see American newsreel footage of the actual attack, visit: usspanay.org/newsreels.shtml

This unmanned weather station was secretly placed on North American soil by the crew of a German u-boat. It wasn't recovered until 1981.

This unmanned weather station was secretly placed on North American soil by the crew of a German u-boat. It wasn’t recovered until 1981.

SIDEBAR:
The Axis in North America — Hitler’s Secret Weather Stations

GERMANY PLACED 14 automated weather stations at various locations across the North Atlantic during the Second World War.

The battery-powered sensors and radio transmitters were secretly deployed in Greenland, Iceland, Norway and elsewhere by U-boat crews. Once up and running, the stations relayed a steady stream of weather data to radio listening posts in Europe.

A 28-hour land operation to erect a camouflaged station on a remote stretch of coast in northern Labrador, Canada marked the only official German military operation on North American soil in World War Two.

In order to mask the true origins of the installation from any nearby inhabitants, the U-boat crew scattered American cigarette cartons around the site and marked the sensor containers with the words “Canadian Meteor Service”.

While the majority of Germany’s weather stations were located and destroyed by the Allies throughout the course of the war, the Labrador transmitter, codenamed “Kurt” went undiscovered for the duration of the conflict.

In the 1970s, an employee of the German firm that manufactured the stations, Siemens, uncovered some forgotten documents about the Kurt installation and relayed them to Canadian authorities. The equipment was recovered in 1981 and is now on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

18 comments for “A “Neutral” Power? – American Involvement in WW2 Before Pearl Harbor

  1. 9 January, 2013 at 3:04 am

    Reblogged this on Simon Sundaraj-Keun.

  2. 9 July, 2013 at 11:01 am

    The causes of the attack on Pearl Harbor stemmed from intensifying Japanese-American rivalry in the Pacific. Japan’s imperial ambitions had been evident from as early as 1931, when she invaded Manchuria. The conquered region’s bountiful resources were then used to supply Japan’s war machine.

  3. 8 August, 2013 at 4:38 am

    の人気

  4. 9 September, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Will you be writing eventually on HOW the last Japanese mini-sub ended up being dumped out of Pearl and how possibly it could have been forgotten until just recently? I’d be very curious to learn about that… 🙂

    • 9 September, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      I seem to recall one being discovered near the mouth of the harbor in 1998 or 1990. Is that the one?

  5. 10 February, 2014 at 2:08 am

    I came back to your story by chance and re-read it. I am now curious as to why Chenault and his force of volunteers in P-40s are excluded. Was it because the pilots were volunteers?

    • admin
      10 February, 2014 at 8:10 am

      That was my thinking.

    • Rodney Boudreaux
      24 September, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Koji, My father was in the Army Air Corps in Doom Dooma India moving supplies to China before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

  6. 18 March, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    ENGLISH and American colonialism were and are AND WILL BE the major causes of BOTH WORLD WARS, INCLUDING THE NEXT one . . . . the third!!!
    what are called wars for Democracy (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya …) are PURE COLONIALISM. with ONU the arm of american bullying
    excuse-me for little english, but you understand certainly

    • Veritas
      28 May, 2014 at 1:17 am

      You are mistaken. Bolvian donuts will be the immediate cause of the next war. They are a crime against humanity, second only to Peruvian flute music.

      • admin
        28 May, 2014 at 9:04 am

        We had no idea!

  7. 18 March, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    american neutrality was the same of german and italian intervent in espana in 1937
    the same, with american activity of navy in escort of an ally

  8. Blake Scanlen
    1 August, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Hi, does anyone have any information on the photos of The USS Reuben James and the USS Panay e.g name of photographer, place taken and date taken. As I need this info for a social studies project, thanks!

  9. Veritas
    12 September, 2014 at 12:35 am

    FDR did all he could to steer the US into WW2. The PBY that spotted the Bismarck was not an RAF craft but a US patrol plane. It broadcast the position of the Bismarck in clear violation of neutrality. In the same way Roosevelt occupied Iceland, neutral territory. Against Japan FDR froze their assets, a virutual declaration of war.

    It is interesting to note that the American public didn’t care about the sinking of American ships by Germany, they didn’t want any part of Europe’s war.

    It took Japan’s attack and Hitler’s declaration of war to get FDR what he wanted so badly.

    • admin
      12 September, 2014 at 8:18 am

      I was not aware of the US tie in with Bismarck. Thanks for contributing.

    • U.K.K.
      2 May, 2017 at 4:52 pm

      Wrong. The Catalina in question was indeed U.S. made, and it was piloted by an American volunteer, but it belonged to an RAF Coastal Command squadron.

      • Trevor
        28 July, 2017 at 9:01 am

        A bunch of American barnstormers went to Britain mostly by way of Canada and swore allegiance to King George VI and joined the Royal Air Force to fly against the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Joining a foreign military was against US Law but FDR pretended that he didn’t know these pilots were over there, and when the RAF had so many American pilots that they formed Eagle Squadrons made up entirely of Americans and the media started reporting on their exploits he looked the other way and ignored the fact that they were violating US law.

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