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Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Greer Incident, September 4, 1941

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Today in 1941, the destroyer USS Greer became the first American ship to fire on a German vessel during the Second World War, three months before the United States officially entered the conflict. This incident demonstrates how precarious the American position of neutrality had become by that point in the war.

The USS Greer was built for service during the First World War, but was commissioned too late to see any action. She would be decommissioned and recommissioned twice before her final recommissioning in October, 1939 as part of the Neutrality Patrol. The Neutrality Patrol's primary mission was to track the actions of any belligerent nations in the waters of the Western Hemisphere. To accomplish this task, the US Navy took 77 destroyers and minelayers out of mothballs and assigned crews to them. Since the United States was a neutral country during the first two years of the Second World War, these warships were not to fire on any German or Italian vessels or assist British Royal Navy vessels in doing so.

As the war raged on into the first two years of the 1940's, President Roosevelt slowly allowed the Navy to take more and more offensive action in the North Atlantic. By early 1941, US destroyers were escorting convoys to what was known as the MOMP, or mid-ocean meeting point. There, the freighters were handed off to Royal Navy escorts. This freed up ships of Royal Navy for other duties, but it was a highly suspect operation for a nation which claimed to be neutral. By the summer of 1941, US ships were actively searching for German U-Boats and relaying their positions to the Royal Navy.

On the morning of September 4, 1941, the USS Greer was steaming towards Iceland, carrying mail for the Marines stationed there. At 0840, a British plane signaled the destroyer that a German U-Boat had been spotted some ten miles ahead. The ship's sonar operators picked up the sub less than an hour later and began to track her. Soon thereafter, one of the Greer's lookouts spotted the U-boat about 100 yards away making radical turns. A few minutes later, air bubbles on the surface told the lookouts that the Germans had fired at least one torpedo at the destroyer. The ship's captain, Commander J.J. Mahoney ordered flank speed and a hard turn to port. The torpedo passed 100 yards astern of the ship, but the situation was now clear: the Greer had been fired upon and could, according to the prevailing rules of engagement, return fire.

The Greer changed course and headed in the direction from which the torpedoes had come. She dropped eight depth charges, which had no apparent effect. The U-boat fired again, this time missing the destroyer by 300 yards. After this, the Greer lost contact with the sub for more than two hours.

After that time, the destroyer reacquired the sub and laid down 11 depth charges, none of which brought anything to the surface. At this point, she broke off and continued on her course to Iceland. The Greer had tracked the U-boat for over 3 hours, dodged two torpedoes and dropped 19 depth charges. American neutrality in the North Atlantic had suddenly become a phrase without meaning.

President Roosevelt wasted no time in calling the U-boat attack on the Greer an act of piracy. He also announced a radical change in US rules of engagement:

" 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."

Although the declarations would not come for another three months, the United States was at war.

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