Although I dodn’t know “her” name at the time, one of the ships that was frequently seen on the Delaware River by my family, during WWII years and on through the 1960s, was a Coast Guard Cutter named “Lilac.” This vessel was often seen performing service work on the general aids to navigation on the Delaware River. The vessel was responsible for maintaining those aids from Edgewater and Gloucester City, down to the open roads at the mouth of the river where my family lived. This little cutter was based out of Edgemoor, just above Wilmington, Delaware, after entering service in 1933. When the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, she became a Coast Guard Cutter, and her homeport remained Edgemoor. During her years of service “Lilac” was frequently called on to assist during search and rescue missions on the river. During the war “Lilac” was an armed vessel, but she never saw any combat. The river was a dangerous place during those war years. Many ships designed for the war effort were built in shipyards in Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. About 35% of all ships constructed in the US during WWII came from shipyards on the Delaware River. That ship construction and the heavy ship traffic on the river did not go unnoticed by the enemy. The mouth of the Delaware Bay became a prime hunting area for prowling U-boats.
The USS Reuben James, built in 1919 at a Bethlehem Steel yard on the Delaware River, was sunk by a German U-boat on October 31, 1941. She was the very first United States Navy ship lost to hostile action in WWII. The story of her sinking inspired Woody Guthrie to write a song about her. While escorting a convoy, the Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U-552 near Iceland. The Reuben James had positioned herself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a “wolfpack.” Reuben James was hit forward by a torpedo and her entire bow was blown off when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft-section floated for five minutes before going down. Of the crew, 44 survived, and 115 died. It was a preview of things to come!
Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?
She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free
But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea. Lyrics by Woody Guthrie