Americans remember December 7, 1941, as the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killed 2,403 U.S. military personnel, and drew the United States into World War II. It, without a doubt, is one of the most horrific and important dates in our nation’s 244-year history.
However, other events reflect a much different and earlier timeline for U.S. military involvement that began many months before Congress formally declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy within four days of the Pearl Harbor attack. Two important and connected events come to mind, the second occurring 79 years ago today.
First, on March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act. It gave him the authority to sell, lend, or lease military and other equipment to Great Britain and other nations, without immediate payment, in order to protect U.S. interests at home and abroad.
When a fleet of 200 PBY Catalina airplanes arrived in Great Britain, the deal covertly included three Navy pilots to train the British on the aircraft. Roosevelt said that if Congress learned he included the U.S. pilots, “I will be impeached,” he said.
One of those pilots, Navy Ensign Leonard “Tuck” Smith, spotted the German monster battleship Bismarck on May 26, 1941, confirming its presence and position for the British Navy, which sank the Bismarck a day later and dealt the Germans a huge blow.
Smith later received the Distinguished Flying Cross but because the mission was top secret and the U.S. remained neutral at the time, he kept silent for many years about how he earned the medal. In fact, Smith became the first American to fight in World War II, the first American to participate in a World War II naval battle – all of this occurring just over six months before Pearl Harbor.
Despite the sinking of the Bismarck, German U-boats continued to devastate British and other ships in the Atlantic as Germany sought to dominate the seas and expand its control of the region.
That led to the second most important day in U.S. pre-war involvement – July 7, 1941. Seventy-nine years ago today, U.S. Marines arrived in Iceland to take over a garrison from the British.
Just a month earlier, after the Germans sank an American merchant ship, Roosevelt countered by booting German and Italian diplomats from the U.S. He also froze all assets from those countries. American ships escorted convoys to protect them from the German subs, while the Marines went to protect Iceland from German occupation, which would have given the Nazis control of the Northern Atlantic.
It also meant American boots were on the ground in a friendly country to protect it from an aggressor, and months before the formal declarations of war.