USS Salinas (A0 19), the first USN ship hit by German torpedoes in WWII on October 30, 1941. Thirty-eight days prior to Pearl Harbor, the men of the Atlantic Convoys were already at war.
I feel like a fraud. I’m trying to talk knowledgeably about ‘a day which will live in infamy‘. Nobody in my father or mother’s side of the family served in the Big One. I had great uncles who were too old to go and both grandfathers were exempted for family reasons. I had a great uncle (John) by marriage who had a rough go of things as an infantryman in Europe. The one story he’d admit to was finding a cache of wine in a French farmhouse and then (a few hours later) he and the rest of his squad waking up in the middle of the day staring up at the sky over the field they were in. A German fighter plane was circling above, probably trying to figure out if he should strafe them. He (the pilot) decided not to, probably confused by the fact that only one or two of the GI’s were moving. My uncle John knew how to enjoy himself regardless of surroundings.
But I’m working on a project about the men who ran the cargo routes during World War Two. This project has had me looking at all kinds of archives about the sailors on those routes. It means I had to read lots of literature about those men (fiction for the that part of the war seems to begin and end with Tom Heggens’ MISTER ROBERTS). But for the seamen in the North Atlantic, the war had already begun over a month before the first Japanese bombs pierced the deck of the USS Arizona. In October 30 1941, my father-in-law was on a tanker ship returning from Britain, the USS Salinas, which was torpedoed by the Germans. He was lucky. One of the torpedoes didn’t detonate, and the other struck the ship next to an empty fuel storage tank filled with wood. As the water rushed in, the wood kept the ship afloat until it could limp back to Argentia, Canada. The Salinas was big news in the US for about 12 hours. And then it was replaced when U-Boats sunk the USS Reuben James, an old US destroyer making the convoy trips to take war materials to Britain, then in an existential fight against the Nazis.
You might have heard the song that Woody Guthrie wrote about the sinking of the Reuben James. Later versions would include a verse about the worst of men who’d fight and the best of men who’d die. Give it a listen.
Anyway, per my project, I’ve been thinking a lot about the men (and women, my mother-in-law served as an Army nurse in India) of World War Two. And it seems appropriate to put this post up to remember them.
By the way, if you have any doubts of what utter sh*t the men of the convoys experienced, I would strongly recommend you take a look at this BBC documentary recounting the slaughter of the PQ 17 convoy from Iceland to Murmansk in June of 1942. There are probably worse ways to die in combat than being thrown into icy water in the Arctic with your hair and clothing on fire, but I’m not sure I want to read about it.