September 4, 1941: The First American Ship to Fire on a German Ship in World War II (The Greer Incident)

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A Brief History

On September 4, 1941, US Navy destroyer USS Greer was attacked by German submarine (U-boat) U-652, and returned the compliment by depth charging the German sub.  Although the battle did not result in either ship being damaged, and no sailors were killed, the “Greer Incident” assumed enormous political proportions as the German and American governments scrambled to gain political advantage from the confrontation at sea.  The incident could have easily resulted in outright hostilities and a declaration of war between the US and Germany, but as each country was not quite ready to take that final plunge, the result was the “Shoot on sight” declaration by the United States claiming the right to fire upon any German U-boat or ship “…in any waters which America deems vital to its defense constitutes an attack. In the waters which we deem necessary for our defense, American naval vessels and American planes will no longer wait until Axis submarines lurking under the water, or Axis raiders on the surface of the sea, strike their deadly blow—first.” (Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States.)

Digging Deeper

Far from just minding her own business, on September 4, 1941, the Greer was on her way to Iceland when she was advised of a U-boat about 10 miles directly ahead of her.  Greer began a search pattern with her underwater detection equipment (sonar).  Greer’s soundmen detected the sub and the destroyer began following the predatory craft, radioing its position to American and British ships.  A British anti-submarine patrol plane dropped 4 depth charges in accordance with the directions from Greer, which is why the U-boat captain must have thought the Greer was attacking his boat.  The U-boat fired a torpedo at the destroyer, and then another before Greer began a depth bombing campaign in an attempt to sink the submarine that now posed a deadly threat to the ship.

USS Greer (DD-145)

The incident spawned a diplomatic furor, with the aggrieved Germans complaining that the American destroyer had attacked a German submarine without provocation.  Of course, the Americans countered that the U-boat had fired torpedoes in 2 separate attacks on the Greer.  While the incident did not result in a declaration of war between the United States and Germany, it did result in the previously mentioned “Shoot on sight” order.  Not long after the Greer Incident, the USS Reuben James DD-245, another destroyer, was sunk by U-552 on October 31, 1941, while escorting a convoy to Britain.  Reuben James had positioned herself to block any torpedoes aimed at an ammunition carrying cargo ship when she was struck by a torpedo meant for the ammunition carrier.  Reuben James sank quickly after her forward magazine blew up, leaving only 44 survivors of the 144 people aboard.  None of the 7 officers aboard survived.  Reuben James was the first US Navy ship sunk during World War II, about 5 weeks before the US entered the war.

The Greer was a Wickes Class destroyer, commissioned in 1918.  Smaller and more lightly armed than the Fletcher Class of destroyer (175 built from 1941 to 1945) made famous during World War II, Greer was the old “four stacker” variety, capable of a highly respectable 35 knots top speed, but displacing only 1165 tons with her 314 foot length and 31 foot beam.  She was armed with 4 X 4 inch guns along with a single 3 inch gun and 12 torpedo tubes, as well as being capable of dropping depth charges.  The Fletcher Class destroyers were bigger (twice the displacement at 376 feet long and 39.5 foot beam) and slightly faster (36.5 knots top speed) and much more heavily armed, with a main battery of 5 X 5 inch guns, up to 10 40mm automatic anti-aircraft cannons, up to 12 automatic anti-aircraft 20mm cannons, 10 torpedo tubes, and 6 depth charge projectors to go along with the 2 depth charge racks.

USS Wickes

Questions for students (and subscribers): Do you agree with the US policy of escorting convoys headed to Britain before the US was officially involved in World War II?  Should the US have simply declared war on Germany (the Axis) and joined Britain?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Offley, Edd. Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic. HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books, 2011.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. On the Greer Incident (September 11, 1941). BN Publishing, 2015.

The featured image in this article of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Greer (DD-145) is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.  As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.