Just finished watching History Channel's Deep Sea Detectives.
At first they thought they were diving on a coal fired merchantman named Hermes sunk off the Dry Tortugas, Florida. Instead they found they were diving on a Hamburg-American ship named Rhein which sank on Dec 11, 1940. Their investigations showed this merchantman had been bottled up in Tampico Mexico but decided to try and break the British/Dutch blockade to get back to Germany.
At a time when the United States was officially neutral, President Roosevelt made no bones that his sympathies lay with the United Kingdom.
It seems that the US destroyer McCormick DD-223 shadowed Rhein as she left Tampico. Meanwhile USS McLeish DD-221 set sail, redevoused with the Dutch warship Van Kinsbergen, and they both started sailing west into the Gulf of Mexico. On the 11th all four ships rendevoused and Van Kinsbergen fired a shot across Rhein's bow. Rhein's captain ordered the ship scuttled and they then started to abandon ship. Then a Royal Navy warship arrived and opened fire on the Rhein, after 21 rounds the Rhein un-ended and sank in 240ft of water. One of the people interviewed by the show's hosts mention on Dec 11th, 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States, the sinking of the Rhein was given as one of the reasons.
What is interesting is I have an abridged copy of Theodore Roscoe's Tin Cans[Feb 1960], which is considered one of the definitive histories of US destroyer actions in World War II. and there is no mention of this action. There is the May, 1940 appeal by Churchill for destroyers. Then the book jumps to early 1941 where American military leaders are discusing short of war tactics with British counterparts. Roscoe then recounts German attacks on USS Greer DD-145, followed by the later sinking of USS Reuben James DD-245 in October, 1941. He even mentions the capture of another Hamburg-American ship Odenwald while it flew American colors as SS Willmoto in November 1941 by TG 3.6 USS Omaha and USS Somers. The twist of the Odenwald story was how her capture was reported, she was reported as a 'suspected slaver' and then on Monday December 8, 1941 Secretary Hull was pictured in Newsweek accepting the Nazi ensign captured from Odenwald. Rhein on the other hand was reported in American papers as being sunk south of Cuba.
This show raised many questions, almost as many as the hosts answered. One has to wonder if the sinking of Rhein was America's first short of war action and how far up the chain of command it was authorized. Another question that was not addressed was the fate of the Rhein's crew, the hosts left the viewer with the impression the survivors were not picked up.
So in the parlance of the modern liberal when did Roosevelt know prisoners were left to die or even perhaps murdered? I doubt I will get any answer since this is an event 65 years in the past and it is very doubtful it can really be answered. Just as a ship history of USS McLeish makes no mention of her encounter with Rhein. Though a ship history of USS McCormick includes an email that states the crew of McCormick refused to pick up survivors while another ship history makes no mention of the incident. A ship history for the Dutch warship Van Kinsbergen glosses over her service in World War II just saying she served well.
Still the whole incident shows how Roosevelt fought a semi-secret war against Nazi Germany in support of the United Kingdom; risking American lives, ships, and the fate of the country. Every American should be thankful Hitler was not bright enough to declare war on the US in December, 1940 over Rhein's sinking because it would have been a neat turn around from the Lusitania sinking in WWI since it would have cast America as the out of control warmongering country attacking the shipping of a country it was not at war with. The political face of the whole world would have been radically different if Hitler had declared war then.