- 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
Two thirds of the ship was engine room—under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) John W. Geist. The powerful twin engines could push the Panay at fifteen knots through the spring flood currents that ran like millraces through the Yangtze gorges. Their machinery was tended by an engine-room gang of fifteen sailors and by half a dozen Chinese who wore Navy dungarees, worked like the coolies they were, and lived in the “coolie flat” crammed in under the afterdeck of the port side (starboard was reserved for potatoes). Coolie quarters and pay were not much, but compared to the average coolie’s life ashore, the Panay provided such luxury that no one worried unduly.
A gunboat might employ just about as many Chinese supernumeraries as the crew could arrange to pay off at the end of the month. They were styled as “boat-men,” but held no real rank or official status. They washed, dried, ironed, swept out, scrubbed up, waited table, scoured dishes, polished engines, and ran sampans between ship and shore. A new group could be hired whenever the gunboat moved. The commissary officer was granted a per diem allowance to feed each Chinese boatman, comparable to the allowance provided for other crew members. Since the Chinese wanted—or were presumed to want—little more than rice and vegetables, ninety per cent of their commissary money went to fatten the general mess fund. All dined well.
Good as the food was on board ship, for the officers there was even more sumptuous dining at private homes, clubs, and embassies ashore. The invitations were frequent, and there were sports—riding, shooting, and tennis—to sweat it all out the next day. An officer had only to make the casual remark at noon around the wardroom table that the afternoon was good for tennis —and he would return to his cabin to find his tennis whites and his racket laid out by one of the Chinese.
Involvement in a war seemed highly unlikely, but it was sneaking up fast. In the summer of 1937, charmed by the ease with which it had bitten off Manchuria six years before, Japan had sent 500,000 invading troops to southern China. The resistance had been stouter than most outsiders expected, but by late fall the invaders were closing in on Nanking, the Panay’s station, some 225 miles upriver from the coast.
As fall progressed, there had been a number of air raids over Nanking, but the Panay had had only one casualty: a crewman coming back from liberty in a state of uncertain stability had fallen overboard and drowned. Most days were routine. As treaty powers or as influential visitors out to “show the flag,” most of the nations that would participate in the coming World War had armed ships in the river much of the time, and there was a continual exchange of ceremonial visits and salutes.
By December, however, the air raids were coming almost daily, and liberty ashore had been curtailed. All precautions were being taken. The Panay now carried two large American flags, each about five feet by nine feet, lashed to the awnings that covered the spacious decks fore and aft. Under way or at anchor she flew her “Sunday flag,” the largest ensign in her flag locker; it measured about six by eleven feet. At night all these flags were spotlighted so they could be seen from ashore or aloft. The myth of protective neutrality still hung on from courtlier days of warfare. And the Panay, well marked and lighted, was considered a safe refuge—so much so that Chinese shipping tended to squeeze menacingly close to the gunboat when raid alarms sounded.
These things were nuisances, but little more. However, American diplomats knew that the last days of Nanking were likely to be chaotic. When the Chinese troops began to surrender or to try to flee, and when the local government broke down, incidents of looting and dangerous disorder were bound to follow. Early in December, therefore, with the Japanese Army surrounding the city and about to pour over the walls, it seemed prudent to bring embassy personnel out to the ship until Nanking was captured and order was restored. In addition, the Panay was already providing refuge for nine American and European businessmen and correspondents.
On Saturday, December 11, the Panay and a group of assorted Standard Oil river freighters, motor barges, and launches were anchored close together just above Nanking. At about 2 P.M. some artillery shells that had been directed into the city began to splash around the ships. It could have been poor aim, or a case of mistaken identity. Still, the fire continued. The whole American flotilla got under way—but not before about forty or fifty shells had exploded in the area and one small craft had been damaged. Twelve miles above Nanking the little convoy anchored for the night.
On Sunday morning the trouble started again. Shelling began from the south bank. Possibly it was directed at some junks creeping along the north shore, but Commander Hughes decided to move farther upstream to avoid becoming a chance target for either combatant.