United States Neutrality Patrol
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseThe first week of September 1939 saw Germany's invasion of Poland that was quickly followed by Britain and France's declaration of war with Germany. It appeared the conflict would widen across Europe in a very similar manner to the opening stages of the First World War. Once again, Britain, France, and their allies would undoubtedly depend on the United States for materiel support which could only get to them by crossing the Atlantic. As they had in World War I, Germany would surely try to stop those shipments, probably by U-boat and surface raider attacks. All indications were that the Atlantic would again be a significant battleground. This scenario would certainly jeopardize the neutrality of the United States, and President Franklin Roosevelt directed the Navy to take quick steps to minimize the threat.
ww2dbaseThe United States established Neutrality Zones that included the whole Gulf of Mexico, the entire Caribbean Sea, and extended 200 to 300 miles into the Atlantic from North American and South American shores. Then almost in the same breath, the United States declared its intention to patrol well beyond the boundaries of these Neutrality Zones in order to properly monitor the approach of any belligerent shipping. And that is what they did. Aviation squadrons were mobilized and repositioned. Battleship, cruiser, and destroyer screens were established and plans were made to recommission older destroyers for these patrols.
ww2dbaseThe Neutrality Patrols were just one component of Roosevelt's overall intention to support Britain as much as he possibly could while still maintaining (or at least claiming) America's global neutrality. The other components of this effort included the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, an early form of Lend-Lease, and robust "trading" with Britain. The "trade" with Britain meant many ships crossing the Atlantic while the ocean was actively prowled by German submarines. It fell to the Navy's Neutrality Patrol to safeguard these American business interests on the high seas and so by the spring of 1941, a practice was developing that was beginning to look a lot like armed convoy escorts. To go along with that, by 1941 the Atlantic Neutrality Zone was extended eastward to include 75% of the ocean's width and southward nearly to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In many of Roosevelt's memoranda and many of the Navy's orders, the zone was referred to as "the western hemisphere."
ww2dbaseIn May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck engaged British Royal Navy warships HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales in the Denmark Strait and then disappeared. Surface ships of United States Navy Task Force 2 and American long range patrol aircraft then began a special effort to locate and shadow the Bismarck. In a way, it was fortunate for the United States that the reports from these sweeps all reported in the negative since to provide Britain with information of an actual sighting during what was arguably a running battle on the far side of the Atlantic would have been hard to explain away as neutral shipping observations. What's more, the ships of Task Force 2 (Wasp, Quincy, Livermore, and Kearny) were given secret orders that, if Bismarck were to be sighted, they were to engage and sink her. During the critical air search, an American plane did not spot Bismarck but a US Navy pilot did. Ensign Leonard B. Smith flying as pilot/advisor in a PBY Catalina of the British Coastal Command was first to spot the German battleship. Two other American "advisors" flying British PBYs helped track Bismarck the rest of that day. This sighting allowed British capital ships to converge on the Bismarck before she could reach the French coast.
ww2dbaseIt was only a matter of time before US destroyers escorting convoys through combat zones found themselves in the thick of the shooting war. By the fall of 1941, US escorts from Newfoundland to Iceland were fully implemented and US Navy ships were dropping depth charges on sound contacts on a fairly routine basis, but usually with unknown results. On 4 Sep 1941, USS Greer and U-652 engaged one another without causing any harm to the other in what would become a highly politicized encounter. One week later, based on the Greer-incident, President Roosevelt issued a declaration that Axis ships entering the neutrality zone did so at their own peril and he ordered the US Navy to attack any vessel threatening ships under American escort. This became known as Roosevelt's "shoot-on-sight" order. On 17 Oct 1941, a U-Boat wolfpack attacked a convoy escorted by Canadian corvettes southwest of Iceland and US destroyers came to their assistance. The U-568 fired a torpedo that struck USS Kearny amidships, killing 11 men and injuring 22. Kearny remained afloat and was able to make it to Reykjavík, Iceland under her own power. Then on 31 Oct 1941, U-552 torpedoed and sank the destroyer USS Reuben James, making Reuben James the first United States ship sunk by hostile actions in the European theater in World War II. 116 officers and men were killed. In both the Kearny and Reuben James cases, the American ships dropped depth charges before the Germans fired their torpedoes. In the Greer-incident, the question of who fired first was disputed by both sides and the truth of it has been lost in the ensuing politics.
ww2dbaseThe Neutrality Patrols continued through 1941 but were rendered moot by Germany's declaration of war on the United States on 11 Dec 1941. As part of Germany's justification for declaring war, they made specific mention of the Greer, Kearny, and Reuben James incidents, describing them as flagrant violations of any supposed neutrality.
ww2dbaseThe Neutrality Patrols were controversial at the time and remain controversial still. Roosevelt's own Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, believed the patrols were belligerent acts and he advocated Roosevelt to openly say so. Between one another, Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox agreed that the President's reasoning in justifying the Neutrality Patrol was "tortured." Immediately following the end of the war, historians were denied access to US records relating to the Neutrality Patrols because, it was felt, they would damage America's position in what was by then a Cold War world. Years later, in 1999, faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law made a legal analysis of President's Roosevelt's "Role in Coaxing the U.S. into WWII" as part of an online case study of international law.
Brian F. Hussey Jr.; "The Neutrality Patrol"; US Naval Academy, 13 May 1991
William E. Scarborough; "US Neutrality Patrol, Parts I & II"; Naval Aviation News, 1990
Peter Sharp; "The Departure from Isolationism"; University of Virginia, 1999
Jerome O'Connor; "FDR's Undeclared War"; Naval History magazine (U.S. Naval Institute), 1 Feb 2004
Sixtant: World War II in the South Atlantic
Last Major Update: Oct 2016
United States Neutrality Patrol Interactive Map
United States Neutrality Patrol Timeline
|5 Sep 1939||President Franklin Roosevelt issued two Neutrality Proclamations. Roosevelt also ordered the Navy to perform a neutrality patrol to track any belligerent naval force approaching the US's Atlantic coast or the West Indies.|
|6 Sep 1939||US Navy's Neutrality Patrol for Atlantic Ocean was formed under Rear Admiral A. W. Johnson, Commander Atlantic Squadron.|
|8 Sep 1939||US President Franklin Roosevelt declared a limited state of emergency. One of his orders of the day was to increase the US Marine Corps enlisted strength to be increased from 18,325 to 25,000, partially to be achieved by authorizing the recall of officers and men from the Marine Corps retired lists.|
|17 May 1940||US President Franklin Roosevelt announced the plans for recommissioning 35 additional flush deck destroyers to meet the requirements of fleet expansion and the Neutrality Patrol.|
|29 May 1941||US Navy extended its boundaries of Neutrality Patrol to North and South Atlantic. On the same day, a joint US Army-US Navy plan was drafted to occupy the Portuguese Azores islands with 14,000 Marines and 14,000 troops; the proposed commanding officer was US Marine Corps Major General Holland M. Smith.|
|4 Sep 1941||American destroyer Greer pursued German submarine U-652 for 2 hours 190 miles southwest of Iceland; the two ships attacked each other but no damage was inflicted on either side. The torpedoes fired at USS Greer represented the first German attack on a US warship.|
|16 Sep 1941||5 PBM Mariner aircraft and 1 PBY Catalina aircraft received radar to help these American aircraft conduct their neutrality patrols.|
|17 Sep 1941||British eastbound trans-Atlantic convoys were escorted by the United States Navy for the first time.|
|17 Oct 1941||American destroyer USS Kearny, escorting Allied convoy SC-48, was damaged by a torpedo from German submarine U-568 off Iceland, killing 11. On the same day, U-432 and U-558 each sank three freighters in this convoy.|
|31 Oct 1941||German submarine U-552 attacked Allied convoy HX-156 725 miles west of Iceland at 0834 hours, sinking American destroyer USS Reuben James (100 killed, 45 survived); USS Reuben James was the first American warship lost in the Atlantic Ocean in WW2.|
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939