Japanese attack USS Panay

Japanese attack USS Panay

Dennis F. Casey

During the early 20th century, China stood as a country that for American businessmen represented significant opportunity but also significant risk. Parts of the country were ready for economic growth and willing to entertain foreign investment in some industries. This was particularly evident in some Chinese urban areas. In many rural zones, however, lawlessness prevailed. For the long-term investor, domestic political circumstances made things highly unlikely for any sustained economic growth. Local unrest persisted throughout China.

In the late 1920s five small shoal-draft river gunboats were built for patrolling the Yangtze River to protect American commerce and American nationals. By their design, the boats proved to be ideal for their intended purposes. The beginning of the civil war in China when local guerrilla bands populated many rural areas and attempted to gain influence made the mission for boats like the USS Panay all the more important. The Japanese invasion of China in 1931 intensified this environment of uncertainty.

On November 21, 1937, as Japanese forces were approaching Nanking, China, Chiang Kai-shek’s foreign office sent word to the American Embassy that it would be wise to close its doors and evacuate all personnel. Chinese officials stressed that the poorly equipped and inadequately supplied Chinese Army simply could no longer hold back the advancing Japanese forces. The following day the American ambassador and most of the personnel from the embassy boarded the USS. Luzon and headed for safety. The rest of them made the decision to remain for another week and then boarded the USS Panay. American ambassador Joseph Grew informed the Japanese government of the American evacuation on Dec. 1.

Ten days later on December 11, the gunboat left with American officials and civilians and started up the Yangtze River, escorting three standard oil barges that the company wanted out of harm’s way. Two British gunboats and other small British craft followed the same course.

For two miles the American flotilla sustained fire from Japanese shore batteries. The intent of the Japanese was to provoke the United States into a declaration of war. Militarists close to seizing full control in Japan hoped that a declaration of war by the United States would give them the final push needed to eliminate civilian influence in their government.

Japanese military goals, they thought, could be more easily obtained without resistance from civilian Japanese governmental officials. The shelling was so inaccurate that the Panay and the barges, even going against the current at slow speeds, were able to pull away without damage. Communications to the Panay on Dec. 11 indicated that Chinese troops were fleeing the capital and that a Japanese takeover of the entire country could not be far off. By all accounts the Panay needed to press forward and get away from the advancing Japanese.

At 11 a.m. on Dec. 12 the Panay and the three oil barges, Mei Ping, Mei Hsia and Mei An were anchored near Hoshien, located upstream from Nanking. American flags were hoisted on the masts and painted on the awnings and topsides so Japanese forces would be able to distinguish between them and Chinese vessels.

As it was a Sunday, time was taken out for all aboard the Panay to have their dinner. None of the craft’s guns were manned and the day was clear, sunny and still. All seemed peaceful despite what was happening ashore several miles away. Just after 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon, three Japanese naval aircraft flew overhead and released 18 bombs. One of the bombs disabled the Panay’s forward three-inch gun and wrecked the pilothouse, the sick bay and the fire room.

The captain of the Panay, Lieutenant Commander J.J. Hughes, and several others were wounded. Immediately after the first assault, 12 more planes dive-bombed and nine fighters strafed the barges and the Panay. The fighters made several runs over the vessels. The American crew fought back with .30-caliber machine guns on the ship but the outcome looked bleak. Just minutes after 2 p.m. with all propulsion lost and the main deck awash, Captain Hughes ordered the ship abandoned.

The attack, however, continued. Japanese planes then attacked the lifeboats on their way to shore. The fighters even strafed the reeds along the riverbank where the wounded were trying to get ashore or hide temporarily. Two of the three oil barges were destroyed. The Mei An captain, Carl H. Carlson, and several dozen of his crew perished when their barge sank. Twenty minutes after the first explosion, the 450-ton Panay with its 55-man crew and passengers began to sink. Finally at 3:54 p.m., the ship flooded and then rolled beneath the water. Two were dead and 48 were wounded, some seriously. The survivors of the attack cared for the wounded and assisted in getting word to the commander of the USS Oahu. Two days later the USS Oahu and the HMS Ladybird picked up the survivors.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, several Americans including Joseph Grew felt a declaration of war would be forthcoming quickly. Much to his surprise, the apparent sincerity with which the Japanese government and people apologized and expressed the willingness to make reparations muted Mr. Grew’s rising wrath. The official Japanese inquiry produced the explanation that the attack was an unfortunate mistake and that the ships painted with American flags had been mistaken for Chinese vessels. Lieutenant Mastake Okuyama, who led the attack confirmed that his orders were to sweep clear the Yangtze River of all shipping.

A United States Naval Court of Inquiry in Shanghai submitted evidence that the sinking was deliberate. With negotiations between the United States and Japan at a critical stage and focused on issues relating to control in the Pacific and events in China, the last thing the Roosevelt administration wanted was a war in the Pacific; and with isolationism riding high in Congress, a declaration of war would not likely have been in the cards.

When the Roosevelt administration accepted the official explanation, a collective sigh of relief swept over the country. In a poll taken in 1937, voters favored a policy of complete American withdrawal from China to include all military personnel, missionaries and medical missions. When the Japanese government later paid the indemnity of $2,214,007.36 asked by the U.S. Government, the issue seemed officially closed.

What interested Ambassador Grew and other American State Department officials was that letters of regret came into the American Embassy from all over Japan.

Factory workers, school children and individual families sent letters and cards expressing how sorry they were for the mishap. Many of the letters included money. Visitors and delegations of Japanese citizens visited the embassy in Tokyo and expressed their shame and offered apologies for the behavior of their navy. In one letter Japanese sailors living in Yokohama apologized and sent along a check for $87.19 for the bereaved families of the Panay.

Ambassador Grew certainly felt that the Americans were receiving mixed messages from Japan. On the one hand the embassy in Tokyo and American consulates in other parts of the country were witnessing a groundswell in apologies. On the other hand, the day after the Panay sank, Japanese General Iwane Matsui sat atop a white horse and led his troops into Nanking on the heals of Chiang Kai-Shek’s retreating army.

General Matsui proclaimed that the “Japanese Imperial way was shinning through.” General Matsui and some of his subordinates would face charges for crimes against humanity at the end of the war for what would be called the rape of Nanking. German army observers reported to their superiors in Berlin how shocked they were at the brutality of the Japanese soldiers. Indeed, Japanese soldiers murdered over 250,000 Chinese men, women and children mostly by beheading and bayoneting.

The reaction to the attack in Washington came quickly. Secretary of State Cordell Hull denounced the sinking of the Panay as the handiwork of “wild and half-insane” Japanese admirals and generals. President Franklin Roosevelt, who watched newsreel film shot from the deck of the Panay by Norman Alley of Universal News, ordered parts of the film showing the faces of Japanese pilots censored.

The president wanted to avoid war with the highly prepared and combat tested Japanese military, especially given the knowledge that the American military at this time was grossly unprepared after more than a decade of miniscule defense budgets. Many senior American military officials felt that the Japanese had carefully planned, coordinated, and executed the assault on the Panay. Others accepted Japan’s official explanation.

Regardless of one’s view at the time, Japanese-American diplomatic relations would be strained to the limit for the next four years. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, confirmed what some people felt that the Panay incident had been a prelude of events to come.

By Dr. Dennis F. Casey

Air Intelligence Agency History Office

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Air Intelligence Agency

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning