Saturday, July 20, 2013

‘Did You Have a Friend on the Good Reuben James?’

by Bill Doughty
Woody Guthrie wrote “Sinking of the Reuben James” in 1942, a poetic ode to a mighty destroyer, the first American ship sunk in World War II.  

Guthrie’s song concludes with this verse, showcasing the resolve of the Navy and nation during the war:

Now tonight there are lights in our country so bright
In the farms and in the cities they're telling of the fight.
And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main

And remember the name of that good Reuben James.
The refrain: “What were their names, tell me, what were their names?  Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

Guthrie’s song, about the sinking of the original USS Reuben James (DD 245) by a German submarine (just weeks before Imperial Japan’s attack of Oahu, Hawaii) was also performed by the Kingston Trio, the Highwaymen and Johnny Horton (of “Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismark” fame), among other performers.  

With the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James, the Navy lost 115 Sailors, with only 44 survivors.

That original USS Reuben James had been first commissioned in 1919 and served with the Atlantic Fleet.  The ship was decommissioned in 1931 but was recommissioned 13 months later to serve in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean, before being assigned to fateful duty escorting war materials to Britain in WWII.

In song, film and books, USS Reuben James has captured the imagination of artists and the public.

It started with the ship’s namesake.  

James saves Decatur in an engraving by Alonzo Chappel, 1858.
Boatswain's Mate Reuben James was a hero aboard the American frigate Philadelphia in the Barbary Wars against piracy, putting his body in harm’s way to protect Lt. Stephen Decatur.  He served in the War of 1812 and aboard early frigates including USS Constitution and USS Constellation.  Taken prisoner, James was released after the war and went on to serve again with Captain Decatur, aboard the Guerriere.

When Woody Guthrie, who hated fascism in all forms, sang about mighty “battleships” steaming the bounding main, we can imagine not only the surface forces and actual battleships (BBs) but also the American submarines, air power and ground forces and other warfighters that came back with a vengeance to win peace and freedom 70-plus years ago.

“Back with a Vengeance” is the motto of the “world-famous” recently decommissioned guided-missile frigate USS Reuben James (FFG 57).  The latest of three ships to bear the proud name of the boatswain of two centuries ago, the frigate Reuben James made its own mark in the history books. 

Its first mission was Operation Earnest Will, in which the Navy provided protection to Kuwaiti oil tankers threatened by attack during the Iran-Iraq War.  The “Fightin’ 57” had a key role at the end of the Cold War, provided maritime security in the 80s and 90s, and deployed to provide extended support in Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom in the 21st century.  

From its homeport of Pearl Harbor, Reuben James operated forward to build partnerships, trained with international navies including in RIMPAC, provided humanitarian assistance, interdicted drug smugglers, and protected fishing areas alongside the U.S. Coast Guard.

USS Reuben James has been featured in novels (and movies) including Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” and “Hunt for Red October.”

Nonfiction and fiction writers have included references to the original Reuben James destroyer and now decommissioned frigate in their works.  These include, “Blood on the Sea” by Robert Sinclair Parkin, “Chosin File” by Dale Dye, “The Malacca Conspiracy” by Don Brown, “Battle for the North Atlantic” by John R. Bruning, “The USS Reuben James,” by Harold Charles, “Shepherds of the Sea” by Robert F. Cross, “Ghosts of the USS Yorktown,” by Bruce Orr, “Turning the Tide” by Ed Offley, and “Linebakers of the Sea” by Ray Lubeski.

The older frigates are leaving the Navy as littoral combat ships (LCS) such as USS Freedom (LCS 1) with near shore capabilities, are now operating forward.  

Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class William Shammas, one of the crew members at the decommissioning ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam this past week, said he’s sorry to see the frigates retire from service.

USS Reuben James (FFG 57) CO Cmdr. Dan Valascho speaks at the July 18, 2013 decommissioning.
“The U.S. Navy’s real first ships were frigates,” Shammas said.  “The first one, and the oldest ship in the United States Navy is a frigate -- the USS Constitution,” he observed.

The Reuben James was the first guided-missile frigate homeported in Hawaii, and the last to be retired there, leaving 17 frigates operating in the Navy.  The crew is transferring to other ships on the waterfront; their ship will transfer to the inactive ships list, gone for now.

Perhaps someday another USS Reuben James will be called to sail the world’s oceans and “steam the bounding main” -- "back with a vengeance" to confront new threats from piracy, terrorism or fascism.

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