Given the shifting winds of international affairs, Congress reversed course somewhat and passed the Neutrality Act of 1939. This legislation permitted “all aid to the Allies short of war.” The U.S. began the sale of arms to Britain, France and China, and started to transfer surplus military materiel to the U.S. allies. However, the authority in the 1939 Neutrality Act was insufficient to meet the needs of those fighting the Axis; so Roosevelt proposed a bill that would allow the president to sell, exchange, or lease arms to any country whose defense appeared vital to U.S. security. He called it the Lend-Lease Act. It was passed by Congress in March 1941.
The Lend-Lease Act gave Roosevelt virtually unlimited authority to direct material aid such as ammunition, tanks, airplanes, trucks, and food to the war effort in Europe. The U.S. did not ship military goods right away; it took months for American industry to get up to speed. On October 23, 1941, the Senate passed a $5.98 billion supplement to the Lend-Lease bill.
Great Britain and later Russia were the primary recipients of lend-lease supplies. Congress authorized the United States Merchant Marine to sail fully armed while conveying lend-lease supplies. By the end of the war, the United States had extended $49.1 billion in Lend-Lease aid to nearly 40 nations. Germany countered with convoying busting submarine warfare.
Woody Guthrie spent most of 1943 in the Merchant Marines, sailing with Cisco Houston, a singing buddy of his, on board the William B. Travis. “Talking Merchant Marine” (also known as “Talking Sailor”) (1944) recalls his experiences on board the Travis. Sung by Woody Guthrie (https://youtu.be/z9za2QG-gfI)
In bed with my woman, just singin’ the blues,
Heard the radio tellin’ the news:
That the big Red Army took a hundred towns,
And Allies droppin’ them two-ton bombs.
Started hollerin’, yellin’, dancin’ up and down like a bullfrog!
Doorbell rung and in come a man,
I signed my name, I got a telegram.
Said, “If you wanna take a vacation trip,
Got a dish-washin’ job on a Liberty ship.”
Woman a-cryin’, me a-flyin’, out the door and down the line!
‘Bout two minutes I run ten blocks,
I come to my ship, down at the dock;
Walked up the plank, and I signed my name,
Blowed that whistle, was gone again!
Right on out and down the stream, ships as fur as my eye could see, woman a-waitin’.
Ship loaded down with TNT
All out across the rollin’ sea;
Stood on the deck, watched the fishes swim,
I’se a-prayin’ them fish wasn’t made out of tin.
Sharks, porpoises, jellybeans, rainbow trouts, mudcats, jugars, all over that water.
This convoy’s the biggest I ever did see,
Stretches all the way out across the sea;
And the ships blow the whistles and a-rang her bells,
Gonna blow them fascists all to hell!
Win some freedom, liberty, stuff like that.
Walked to the tail, stood on the stern,
Lookin’ at the big brass screw blade turn;
Listened to the sound of the engine pound,
Gained sixteen feet every time it went around.
Gettin’ closer and closer, look out, you fascists.
I’m just one of the merchant crew,
I belong to the union called the N. M. U.
I’m a union man from head to toe,
I’m U. S. A. and C. I. O.
Fightin’ out here on the waters to win some freedom on the land.
In late October 1941, an American destroyer, The Ruben James, accompanying a convoy of merchant ships bringing supplies to England was sunk off the coast of Iceland by a German U-Boat, killing 86 and wounding 44. (Jones, p. 151.) Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the event called “The Ballad of the Reuben James” (1941). (https://youtu.be/ICy5P1pKy5A) About this song Woody is quoted as saying: “Most songs that last the longest are ballads that tell you a story about the news of the day…. But, I can do my little job which is to fix the day’s news up to where you can sing it. You’ll remember it lots plainer if I can make it easy for you to sing the daily news at your job or else at your play hours…. Such as the Nazi torpedo that blew up this famous American ship before we declared war on Hitler and Mussolini….” (Woody Guthrie, as quoted in Robert Shelton (ed.) Woody Guthrie, Born to Win, p. 73.)
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.
Tell me what were their names, tell me what were their names,
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?
What were their names, tell me, what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James
Well, a hundred men went down in that dark watery grave
When that good ship went down only forty-four were saved.
‘Twas the last day of October we saved the forty-four
From the cold ocean waters and the cold icy shore.
It was there in the dark of that uncertain night
That we watched for the U-boats and waited for a fight.
Then a whine and a rock and a great explosion roared
And they laid the Reuben James on that cold ocean floor.
Now tonight there are lights in our country so bright
In the farms and in the cities they’re telling of the fight.
And now our mighty battleships will steam the bounding main
And remember the name of that good Reuben James.