Japanese Attack on the USS Panay (1937)


Figure 1.--

American involvement in China did not begin with the Japanese invasion and the Roosevelt Administration. American naval vessels began cruises on the Yangtze River in 1854. The mission of these early cruises was to show the flag and support American consular officers. The naval mission grew ever more complex as the authority of the Imperial Government deteriorated in the late 19th century and became an important instrument of American foreign policy. Operations included putting landing parties ashore on occassion to protect U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy after the turn of the 20th century began to conduct the patrols in a more organized fashion. The Navy deployed purpose-built gunboats and began coordinting operations with the Britidsh Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy was also deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the Chinese coast. Japnese forces were moving up the Yangtze River toward the Chinese capital which had been evacuated from Peeking to Nanking. Two U.S. Navy gunboats were at Nanking, the U.S.S. Luzon and the U.S.S. Panay. Chinese officials notified the American Embassy on November 27, 1937 that it must evacuate. The Ambassador and most of the Embasy personnel departed the net day on the U.S.S. Luzon. The rest of the Embassy staff remained another week. Ambassador Grew notified the Japanese government on December 1 that the U.S.S. Panay would be departing. Panay took on Embassy officials and some civilians and began upriver. It escortied three Standard Oil barges. Two Royal Navy gunboats and some other British boats followed. A Japanese artillery position commanded by a Colonel Hashimoto fired on the ships, hoping that it might precipatate a war with America and end civilian influence in the Japanese Government--finalizing the "Showa Restoration." Panay flew an American flag as well as had Americn flags painted on the awnings and topsides. December 12 was a clear, sunny day with perfect visability. At about 1330, three Japanese Navy bombmers attacked Panay followed by 12 more planes that dive-bombed and 9 fighters that strafed. The attack was deliberate lasting over 20 minutes. As Panay began sinking, the Japanese sraffed the lifeboats and river bank. Two sailors and civilian were killed. there were 11 sailors seriously wounded. passenger died of their wounds; eleven officers and men were seriously wounded. [Morrison, pp. 16-18] There was no outcry in America for war. The Japanese Government which had not ordered the attack, promtly appolgized and offered compensation. The attack was, however, coordinated by military officers. Both the American public and the Roosevelt Administration were releaved that war could be overted. [Freidel, pp. 290-291.] The Japanese when they arrived in Nanking proceeded to conduct one of the greatest attrocities in their campaign in China--known to history as the Rape of Nanking". The Panay was also involved in intelligence collection. The Admistration for a while considered economic sanctions against the Japanese. The Navy gunboats missions continued through 1941 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carfully avoided any further incidents. The Japanese officers responsible, however, got what they so ardently desired nearly 4 years later.

Historical Background

American involvement in China did not begin with the Japanese invasion and the Roosevelt Administration. American naval vessels began cruises on the Yangtze River (1854). This became known as China Station. The mission of these early cruises was to show the flag and support American consular officers. The naval mission grew ever more complex as the authority of the Imperial Government deteriorated in the late 19th century and became an important instrument of American foreign policy. Operations included putting landing parties ashore on occassion to protect U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy after the turn of the 20th century began to conduct the patrols in a more organized fashion. The Navy deployed purpose-built gunboats and began coordinting operations with the Britidsh Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy was also deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the Chinese coast.

Japanese Invasion of China (July 1937)

After seizing Manchuria and establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo (1931), the next taarget was China itsekf. The Japanese launched an invasion of China proper, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War. (July 1937). The Japanese Kwantung Army turned a small incident into a full-scale war. Chinese forces were unable to effectively resist the Japanese. The Japanese military was not only better armed and organized, they were also incredibly brutal as they moved into China.

Nanking

As the Japanese approached Peeking, the Chinese Government moved inland to Nanking. After seizing Peking and Shanghai, the Japanese pushed up the Yangtze Valley toward the new capital. Chinese officials notified the American Embassy on November 27, 1937 that it must evacuate.

American Convoy

Two U.S. Navy gunboats were on the Yangzee River at Nanking, the U.S.S. Luzon and the U.S.S. Panay. The was a riverine gunboat not intended to have to confront air attack. The heaviest anti-aircraft weapon was an outdated .30-caliber Lewis Gun from World War I. The Ambassador and most of the Embasy personnel departed the next day on the U.S.S. Luzon. The rest of the Embassy stff remained another week. Ambassador Grew notified the Japanese government on December 1 that the U.S.S. Panay would be departing. Panay took on Embassy officials and some civilians (corespondents and a Universal newsreel photographer) and began upriver. It escortied three Standard Oil barges. Two Royal Navy gunboats and some other British boats followed.

Japanese Attack

A Japanese artillery position commanded by a Colonel Hashimoto fired on the ships, hoping that it might precipatate a war with America and end civilian influence in the Japanese Government--finalizing the "Showa Restoration." Panay flew an American flag as well as had Americn flags painted on the awnings and topsides. December 12 was a clear, sunny day with perfect visability. At about 1330, three Japanese Navy bombmers attacked Panay followed by 12 more planes that dive-bombed and 9 fighters that strafed. The attack was deliberate lasting over 20 minutes. [Morrison, pp. 16-18] As Panay began sinking, the Japanese sraffed the lifeboats and river bank. After the Panay was founderng, the Japanese pilots went after Standard Oil tankers. They left two buring and the third beached.

Casualties

Two sailors and a civilian were killed. The civilian was an Italian correspondent. In addition to the captain of ine of the tankers. There were 11 sailors seriously wounded, including te captain of the Panay. In all 74 people were wounded.

Japanese Government

The Japanese Government had not ordered the attack. Japanese Foreign Minister Koki Hitota personally delivered appologies to Ambassador Joseph C Grew at the Embassy in Tokyo. And the Japanese naval commander in Shanghai accepted responsibility for the attack. The Japanese Government assured the State Department that it has been a tragic error. They insisted that the pilots were flying at such altitude that they could not make out the American flags. The President and the State Department knew that this was unture. We do not know who responsible for this falsehood. Surely it was the military, but at just what level the attack was ordered and the Japanese Government's awarness of this lie surelly provided by the military is unknow. There is no doubt, however, that it was a lie. The attack was coordinated by military officers in the full knowledge that they were attacking an American vessel. I know of no Japanese account that clearly determined wjo actually ordered the attack, We know that the Japanese military was aware that the Panay was American because Universal photographer Norman Alley remained on the deck photographing the attack. He took 5,000 ft of film, in fact more film than exists for the Pearl Harbor attack. And the film cklearly shows the Japanese planes attacking just over masthead of the Panay. [Davis, pp. 157-158.] Given the attack lasted over 20 minutes, it was impossible not to see the flags, one flown and a larger one draped over the top deck. The President ordered the State Department to deliver a message to the Japanese Ambassador expressing his shock to the Emperor and he "hoped", rather a mild term under the circumstances, that the Japanese Government would provide an explanation, compensation, and take measures to prevent a recoorance of the attack. For some tome the President ws concened about the Japanese response. The official Japanese reply contained an appolgy and repeated the claim that the mistake was made because of the altitude (December 24). The American officials made it clear to the Japanese that they knew this to be untrue. The Japanese indicated that the pilots would be punished. I doubt that this occurred, but have no details. The Japanese assured the United States that the attacks would not be repeated. And they overcompensation. Months later a check for $2.2 million was received from the Japanese Government. [Davis, pp. 156-58.]

Public Reaction

There was an immediate outcry in America for war. Navy Secretary Swanson insisted that the United States should declare war. There were some strident newspape articles, but there was no ground swell for war. The prevailing isolationist sentiment in America was not an enviroment in which war talk has resonance. There were no war resolutions submitted by Congressmen and Roosevelt loyalist in the Senate informed the President that no one senator favored war. Isolationist sengimen in merca was too strong to pemit any griundswekk for war. Nor did the President want a war. In gfact he asked Universal to withhold some of the most inflamatory footage of the attack, fearing that it would outrage the public. The prompt Japanese policy gave the President sufficient justification for taking a more belicose position. Both the American public and the Roosevelt Administration were actually relieved that war could be overted. [Freidel, pp. 290-291.]

Rape of Nanking

The Japanese when they arrived in Nanking proceeded to conduct one of the greatest attrocities in their campaign in China--known to history as the Rape of Nanking". Killing of Chinese civilians by the Japanese military was routine. Often they occurred after taking a city or as reprisals for gureilla activity. Japanese soldiers as a reward for taking a cHinese town were normally given 3 days to do as they please, including rape and pillage. The most notorious incident was the Rape of Nanking (1937-38). Another major incident was wide-scale killings after the Doolittle Raid (1942). There is a long list of other terrible incidents. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and Chinese war historians estimate that the Japanese killed outright or were indirectly respnsible for 10-30 million deaths in China. Some even belive the total was higher. These deaths resulted from massacre by the Jpanese army, bombing of civilian populations, mistreatment of slave labor, starvation and germ and chemical warfare. The single most horendous incident was the Rape of Nanking. Many other Chinese cities suffered greviously.

Gun Boat Missions

The Panay was also involved in intelligence collection. The Admistration for a while considered economic sanctions against the Japanese. The Navy gunboats missions continued through 1941 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carfully avoided any further incidents. The Japanese officers responsible, however, got what they so ardently desired nearly 4 years later.

Sources

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (Random House: New York, 1993), 691p.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Rising Sun in the Pacific" History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Vol. 3.






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Created: 7:02 AM 2/2/2005
Last updated: 4:32 PM 7/3/2006