Reuben James was born in Delaware, Ohio about 1776. He joined the U.S. Navy and served on various ships, including the frigate USS Constellation. During the Barbary Wars, the American frigate USS Philadelphia was captured by the Barbary pirates when it ran aground in the pirate capital of Tripoli, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, along with a group of volunteers that included Boatswain's Mate Reuben James, entered the harbor of Tripoli under the cover of darkness in an attempt to burn the Philadelphia so that the pirates could not make use of her.
The American volunteers boarded the Philadelphia on 16 February 1804 and were met by a group of Barbary pirates who were guarding their prize. During the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, Reuben James, with both of his hands already wounded, positioned himself between Lieutenant Decatur and a swordwielding pirate. Reuben James, willing to give his life in defense of his captain, took the blow from the sword but survived and recovered from his wounds.
Reuben James continued his career in the U.S. Navy, including many years with Decatur. James was forced to retire in January 1836 because of declining health brought on because of past wounds. He died on 3 December 1838 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.
(DD-245: dp. 1,190; 1. 314'5" b. 31'8" dr. 14'1"; s. 35 k.; cpl. 144; a. 4 4"/50, 1 3"/23, 12 21" tt.; cl. Clemson)
The first Reuben James (DD-245) was laid down on 2 April 1919, launched on 4 October 1919, and commissioned on 24 September 1920 with Commander Gordon W. Hines in command. DD-245 was a post-World War I four stack destroyer with a crew of 101, capable of 35 knots, and a main armament of four 4 inch guns, a single 3 inch gun, and twelve 21 inch torpedo tubes.
Assigned to the Atlantic fleet, Reuben James saw duty in the Mediterranean from 1921 to 1922. Based then at New York, it patrolled the Nicaraguan coast to prevent the delivery of weapons to revolutionaries in early 1926. DD-245 was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 20 January 1931.
Recommissioned on 9 March 1932, the ship again operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, patrolling Cuban water during the Cuban revolution. It transferred to San Diego, California in 1934. Following maneuvers that evaluated aircraft carriers, Reuben James returned to the Atlantic Fleet in January 1939. Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, it joined the Neutrality Patrol, and guarded the Atlantic and Caribbean approaches the American coast.
In March 1941, Reuben James joined the convoy escort force established to promote the safe arrival of war material to Britain. This escort force guarded convoys as far as Iceland, where they became responsibility of British escorts. Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, it sailed from Argentia, Newfoundland, 23 October 1941, with four other destroyers to escort eastbound convoy HX-156. While escorting that convoy at about 0525, 31 October 1941, Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U-562. [sic--should be U-552] The ship had postured itself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a German U-Boat Wolfpack. Its magazine exploded, and the ship sank quickly. Of the crew, 44 survived, and 100 died. Reuben James was the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by hostile action in World War II.