Two hundred miles southwest of Reykjavik, U.S.S. Greer knifed through the cold and grey Atlantic. As on every U.S. warship in those waters her men were standing special watches, with crews at guns, depth-charge and torpedo stations. The men of the Greer were going through the fatiguing routine of taking the mail to Iceland.
Then suddenly it happened. To the old 1918 destroyer refurbished for a new war the thing had happened, the thing for which the whole U.S. Navy had waited breathlessly with infinite vigilance. There was no time to think now what it meant.
The white wake of a torpedo was streaking toward the ship.
The little destroyer lurched as her helm was put over and the engine-room annunciator called for full speed ahead. Her alarm gongs clanged "General Quarters." Before the clangor had subsided, the men off watchtin-helmeted officers, sailors, messboyshad reached their stations.
By the grace of God the Greer was not hit. Had a torpedo struck her fragile steel plates (just thick enough to keep fish out) the Greer, commanded by Lieut. Commander Laurence H. Frost, might have been sunk without a trace. But already she was racing up the torpedo tracks, her mechanical ears searching for the submarine. When they indicated that the U-boat was directly underneath, depth charges began to drop overboard from the Greer. The U.S. Navy was engaged.
They sank with a sullen splash, seconds passed and suddenly the destroyer shook from stem to stern. More depth charges followed and a second convulsion. By that time the Greer was beginning to turn. Minutes later she was back over the spot and more explosions shook the sea. For several hours the Greer quartered that sector of the sea releasing charges at the slightest suspicion of any underwater object.
Three thousand miles away, in Washington, Navy Department officials listened to the Greer's report, made their official announcement, declared: "Results are not known."
What had happened? About the circumstances of the attack there was little but conjecture. A German U-boat had made the attack that fact was apparent because the Germans said that one of their U-boats had been attacked by an unknown destroyer. Apparently, too, the U-boat had escaped location of the because the encounter Germans which gave the would have been a giveaway if they were bluffing.
Had the U-boat known it was attacking a warship flying the U.S. flag? The evidence for it was that the Greer had been altered in appearance so that she does not closely resemble the 50 destroyers traded to Britain (see cut, p.11), that British destroyers are not apt to be found roaming the ocean alone they have convoy work to do. But the attack took place at noon. Since destroyers are submarine-killers, a submarine would be loath to attack at midday unless there was fog or storm (common in those waters). If visibility was low the U-boat commander may not have recognized the ship.
Two things were certain: 1) Although the Nazis insisted that the Greer had been the aggressor, they did not mind having it known that a U-boat had tangled with the U. S. Navy perhaps they thought the news would give the U.S. pause. 2) The U.S. Navy, which has long had warheads on its torpedoes, will not, next time if it can help it, wait to be attacked before attacking.