- Historic Sites
Rehearsal For World War II
Life aboard the gunboat Panay was an idyl, and its crewmen were the envy of the fleet. Then, without warning, Japanese bombs started to fall.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
But the men who had been bombed and machine-gunned didn’t close the books so quickly, and neither did their country. Dr. Grazier and twenty-two enlisted men were recommended for the Navy Cross. Special letters of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy went to Lieutenant Commander Hughes and two other crewmen, one of them Chinese-born. Another crewman of Chinese origin got the Bronze Star. Executive Officer Anders, who took over for his disabled skipper, and Captain Roberts, the embassy military attaché, each received a Distinguished Service Medal. The Navy further honored Army Captain Roberts with the Navy Cross for his “fortitude and heroism.”
Only one of the four crack flight leaders who led the twenty-four Japanese planes on their attack against the Panay survived World War II. Commander Masatake Okumiya lived through four years of combat to see peace come again to Japan. In an article in an American naval journal in 1953, Okumiya wrote his account of the Panay sinking, still claiming that it had been a case of mistaken identity. He insisted that the command structure of the two services made it “impossible” for Army fire-eaters to have duped the Japanese Navy and ordered the attack. Okumiya did have a few barbs for his sister service. He criticized the Army—and particularly Colonel Hashimoto—because Army spokesmen had repeatedly aggravated the bad feeling that followed the sinking by not showing “common sense in regard to international matters, nor did they display good judgment, or even proper knowledge of military etiquette.”
Colonel Hashimoto was recalled to Japan early in 1938 and put on inactive duty, but he was never disciplined otherwise. After Pearl Harbor, the official pose of displeasure was no longer necessary. On January 25, 1942—forty-nine days after the Hawaiian raid—Hashimoto was awarded the Kinshi Kinsho Medal for his “audacity” in ordering attacks on all ships in the Yangtze four years earlier. While the bombing of the Panay was not specified, the citation was general enough to cover it—without leaving the government open to the charge of having lied when it ignored Hashimoto’s role four years earlier. Though still carrying the rank of colonel in 1942, he made his contribution during the war in the Japanese Diet and as a vigorous leader of the extremists and unofficial inner circle government leaders who advocated Japanese control not only of East Asia, but of Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and India as well.
On April 29, 1946, the Colonel stood among the twenty-eight top Japanese leaders who were indicted for “plotting to rule the world.” A staggering fifty-five counts of war crimes were arrayed against them. It was made clear in the indictment that the trials would involve charges of aggression even before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The trial had been in progress about three months when the Panay incident was revived in court—over the strong protest of the defense lawyers. Hashimoto admitted that his artillery had shelled H.M.S. Ladybird on her way to aid the Panay’s survivors. That was as far as he would go. Almost a year passed before Hashimoto came back into the limelight again. This time he admitted to prosecutors his long-time role as a troublemaker; he conceded that he had been a member of a tightly organized group that had been behind attempts to control the Japanese government since 1931, and that he had long advocated bringing to an end British political control in the Orient—"by force if necessary.” When the trial came to an end on November 12, 1948, Hashimoto was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On September 17, 1955—ten years and one day after he had given himself up to Allied authorities—the little colonel walked out of Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison a free man, but with incurable cancer. He had been released “by agreement of the United States and seven other Allied powers.” He and two other political prisoners emerged impeccably dressed in morning coats and striped trousers.
If Hashimoto had a secret—that he had been the man chosen to test Western toughness with an overt attack that might show whether or not the U.S. would risk war—two years later it died with him.
A year after the Panay was sunk, divers recovered her safe from the muddy waters of the Yangtze. More than $40,000 in cash and the vouchers and pay accounts were recovered intact. After their examination, John Geist, the Panay’s disbursing officer, then on duty in Manila, received the standard form letter from the Secretary of the Navy reporting that the money had been recovered, “your accounts are in order, and you may now resume your duties.” Unless the Chinese Communists have high regard for old scrap or the resurrected relics of history, the Panay’s hull is still at the bottom of the river.
Geist and eleven other Panay survivors were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As they saw the bombers with the red suns on their wingtips come diving down again there was an awful familiarity to it all.
But this time there would be no apologies.