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Aldon Wendel Neptune

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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Aldon Wendel Neptune
1921-1941

“Tell me, what were their names?
Tell me, what were their names?
Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?”

Woody Guthrie

Navy Seaman First Class Aldon Wendel Neptune was born in 1921 in Marion County, West Virginia, to Lou Daisy Wetzel Neptune and Amos Neptune. He had brothers and sisters: Garnett, Auble, Louis, Gene, and Amos Jr. The 1930 Federal Census shows that the family was living close to Mannington in 1930. Amos Neptune Sr. was a tool dresser in the oil field industry. Most of their neighbors were also working in the oil industry. Aldon was eight years old and known by his middle name, Wendel. Some documents spell his name Wendell, but Wendel will be used throughout this biography as that is the spelling on his cenotaph.

By 1940, Amos Neptune was still the head of his household in Marion County, with only his wife and children Gene and Amos Jr. living at home. The 1940 census finds Wendel in Virginia, living with men from many states. He was on a naval base. During the previous February, on Valentine’s Day of 1940, Wendel had joined the Navy in Baltimore, Maryland. The muster roll and records of change for the ships on which Wendel Neptune served show that he first joined the crew of the USS McCalla in July of 1940, having transferred from the Navy Yards in New York, New York, as a seaman second class.

In September 1940, the USS McCalla was decommissioned. By October 31, 1940, Wendel Neptune was received aboard the USS Reuben James from the USS McCalla. Report of changes for the month ending November 19, 1940, indicate Wendel Neptune’s movement from Houston, Texas, to Cristobal, Canal Zone (Panama), a date of sailing, and then a transfer to Norfolk, Virginia, for course instruction. Wendel Neptune was in Elementary Torpedo School. The muster roll ending on the last day of March 1941 says that Wendel Neptune was on board the Reuben James, and that the day he was first received on board was October 31, 1940. (Source: National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 - 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 - 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135.)

Wendel Neptune was a seaman first class by May 1941, according to the record of changes for the ship. The muster roll for the month ending September 30, 1941, place Wendel Neptune on board the Reuben James, and the report of changes say that on September 4, 1941, Wendel Neptune re-enlisted on board. He was retained for duty as a torpedoman’s mate third class. The USS Reuben James was named for a man born in Ohio around 1776. He joined the U.S. Navy and served on various ships. He was involved in many adventures and was wounded severely, but lived and retired from the Navy due to declining health in 1836. Reuben James died in 1838. (Source: “Origins of Ship Names,” accessed 11 May 2016, http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/reuben_james.htm.) The article regarding the Reuben James continues:

The first Reuben James (DD-245) was laid down on 2 April 1919, launched on 4 October 1919, and commissioned on 24 September 1920 with Commander Gordon W. Hines in command. DD-245 was a post-World War I four stack destroyer with a crew of 101, capable of 35 knots, and a main armament of four 4 inch guns, a single 3 inch gun, and twelve 21 inch torpedo tubes. Assigned to the Atlantic fleet, Reuben James saw duty in the Mediterranean from 1921 to 1922. Based then at New York, it patrolled the Nicaraguan coast to prevent the delivery of weapons to revolutionaries in early 1926. DD-245 was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 20 January 1931. Recommissioned on 9 March 1932, the ship again operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, patrolling Cuban water during the Cuban revolution. It transferred to San Diego, California in 1934. Following maneuvers that evaluated aircraft carriers, Reuben James returned to the Atlantic Fleet in January 1939.

Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, it joined the Neutrality Patrol, and guarded the Atlantic and Caribbean approaches [to] the American coast. In March 1941, Reuben James joined the convoy escort force established to promote the safe arrival of war material to Britain. This escort force guarded convoys as far as Iceland, where they became responsibility of British escorts. Based at Hvalfjordur, Iceland, it sailed from Argentia, Newfoundland, 23 October 1941, with four other destroyers to escort eastbound convoy HX-156.

A year to the day after Wendel Neptune boarded the USS Reuben James, the mighty ship was sunk by a torpedo.

While escorting that convoy at about 0525, 31 October 1941, Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U-562. The ship had postured itself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a German U-Boat Wolfpack. She was hit forward by a torpedo and her entire front end was blown off when a magazine exploded. She floated for 5 minutes before going down. Of the crew, 44 survived, and 100 died. Reuben James was the first US Navy ship sunk by hostile action in World War II. Within 36 hours of this attack the American Congress authorized transfer of the Coast guard to the US Navy. (Source: “Origins of Ship Names,” accessed 11 May 2016, http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/reuben_james.htm.)

Aldon Wendel Neptune was aboard the USS Reuben James when it sank.

USS Reuben James

USS Reuben James (DD-245), Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo # NH 66334

Although America seemed to ignore this prelude of the war that was to come, American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the sinking of the ship. Family and friends of those thought to be aboard wrote letters to the Navy, pleading for word whether their loved ones survived. (Source: “Prelude to War: The U.S.S. Reuben James,” A People at War, accessed 11 May 2016, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/a_people_at_war/prelude_to_war/uss_reuben_james.html.)

A Charleston newspaper article dated November 15, 1941, identifies West Virginia sons aboard the boat: Harold Beasley, Hinton; Leftwich Carbaugh, Princeton; Dennis Daniel, Jesse, Wyoming County; Edwin Farley, Hurricane; Aldon Neptune, Mannington; Sunny Settle, Charleston; Chester Welch, Cabin Creek; Marvin Wilson, Gassaway; and George Woody Jr., Accoville, Logan County. In the chaos that ensued, some casualties were misidentified. One family produced a letter that was mailed by their son after the boat sank. Others mourned their losses, more than a month before America would officially join the war.

gravestones

Gravestones for Amos, Daisy, and Wendel Neptune, Beverly Hills Cemetery. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Tablets of the Missing

Tablets of the Missing, Cambridge American Cemetery. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Wrote Woody Guthrie in his song: “Tell me, what were their names?” Now we know one of their names: Aldon Wendel Neptune. His body was never recovered, but he is memorialized with a cenotaph in the Beverly Hills Cemetery in Morgantown, West Virginia, and on the Tablets of the Missing in the Cambridge American Cemetery in England.


Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens with editorial assistance from Patricia Richards McClure
May 2016

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Aldon Wendel Neptune

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.


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