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4 times the U.S. fought in World War II before Pearl Harbor

The U.S. officially joined World War II after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but the U.S. knew that it would likely get dragged into the war in Europe and Asia for years before that.


For the last few months of 1941, America was preparing for an open conflict and the U.S. Navy was looking for a fight. At least four times before Dec. 7, both the Navy and the Coast Guard engaged in combat with German forces, capturing a vessel, threatening U-boats, and suffering the loss of 126 sailors.

1. The destroyer USS Greer duels with U-652 on Sept. 4, 1941.

The USS Greer as she appeared in 1941, the year the crew engaged in what was likely the first American military action of World War II. The Greer engaged in a 3.5-hour fight with a German sub. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The U.S. destroyer USS Greer was officially delivering mail to Argentia, Newfoundland, on Sept. 4, 1941. A British anti-submarine plane signaled the Greer that it had just witnessed a German submarine diving 10 miles ahead of the Greer.

Greer locked onto the German submarine U-652 and began following it.

The British airplane fired first. It was running low on fuel and dropped its four depth charges and flew away. The Greer, still in sound contact with the sub, soon had to dodge two torpedoes from U-652. Greer answered with eight depth charges after the first torpedo and 11 more after the second.

Neither vessel was damaged in the 3.5-hour fight.

2. Coast Guardsmen capture a German vessel and raid a signals post in Sept. 12-14, 1941.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

On Sept. 12, the USCGC Northland and USCGC North Star, Coast Guard cutters assisting in the defense of Greenland, spotted a suspicious Norwegian vessel, the Buskoe, operating near a cache of German supplies that the Coast Guard had recently seized.

After questioning the men aboard the vessel, the Northland crew learned that the ship had landed two groups of "hunters" on the coast. On Sept. 13, the North Star sent a crew to take over the Buskoe while the Northland crew dispatched a team to search for the Norwegians.

The Norwegians were discovered with German orders and radio equipment on Sept. 14.

Since the U.S. was not technically at war and could not take prisoners, the men were arrested as illegal immigrants. The Buskoe spy ship was the first Axis vessel captured by Americans in World War II.

3. U-568 hits USS Kearny on Oct. 17, 1941.

The USS Kearny suffered extensive damage from a September 1941 German torpedo attack. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Just after midnight on the morning of Oct. 17, 1941, a British freighter of convoy SC-48 was struck by a German torpedo and began burning in the night. The USS Kearny, assigned to a task force guarding the convoy, dropped depth charges and moved to protect the convoy from further attack.

Just a few minutes later, the sub fired a spread of three torpedoes, one of which hit the Kearny near an engine room and crippled the ship. Despite the damage and the loss of 11 of the crew, the Kearny was able to navigate to Iceland under its own power.

After the first 14 hours, the USS Greer (yes, from #1 above) rendezvoused with the ship and established an anti-submarine screen.

Bonus: The Navy looks for a fight with the legendary Tirpitz in the Atlantic in October 1941.

The German battleship Tirpitz was massive and the U.S. hoped to fight it in October 1941, but couldn't draw it out for the fight. (Photo: U.S. Naval Intelligence)

The Navy's Task Force 14 was launched in October 1941, with the purpose of guarding a British troop convoy headed to Singapore, a violation of the Neutrality Act.

The task force consisted of an aircraft carrier, battleship, two cruisers, and nine destroyers ,and was likely the most powerful U.S. task force assembled up to that point in history.

Atlantic Fleet Commander Adm. Ernest King wrote a memo to President Franklin Roosevelt saying that he hoped to fight an enemy capital ship like the German Tirpitz, one of the strongest battleships of the war.

Unfortunately for King, the Tirpitz didn't take the bait and Task Force 14 found no enemy ships during its patrol.

4. USS Reuben James is sunk by U-552 on Oct. 31, 1941.

The USS Reuben James, a destroyer and the first U.S. ship lost in World War II, sails the Panama Canal in this undated photo. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The USS Reuben James, a destroyer escorting a British convoy, was struck by at least one German torpedo that inflicted severe damage at approximately 5:30 in the morning on Oct. 31, 1941.

According to Chief Petty Officer William Burgstresser, one of only 44 survivors, the entire front section of the ship was torn off.

It quickly sank, becoming the first U.S. ship lost in the war and killing 115 crew members, including all officers onboard.

Just over a month after the sinking of the Reuben James, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor finally propelled America into the war.

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