- 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
Hughes was a seasoned thirty-nine-year-old regular Navy officer who had been in the service since the summer of 1915 and knew his job well. The movement of the gunboat upstream was to be a routine one. Through diplomatic channels, Hughes asked that Japanese Army units and their armed boats in the river be notified where the Panay was moving and why. At 8:25 A.M. Sunday the ship raised anchor and headed upriver again against the sluggish current. The Standard Oil craft, manned by Chinese crews but carrying American or European captains, elected to follow. They, too, were showing American flags. The convoy had been under way only about an hour when Hughes was signalled from the north bank of the river by a Japanese Army unit. At 9:45, as the gunboat lay drifting with a Japanese field piece trained on her from shore, a Japanese lieutenant and a party of six soldiers with fixed bayonets came aboard. Hughes and one of the embassy men were called down from the bridge.
Captain Frank Roberts, the embassy’s assistant military attaché, said later that in his opinion the Japanese were intentionally rude, insolent, and highhanded. Hughes and his executive officer, Lieutenant Arthur F. Anders, simply put it down to a poor command of English and sat on their anger. “I had special orders,” Hughes explained, “from the Commander Yangtze Patrol not to be too sensitive about points of naval etiquette when dealing with the Japanese military—and above all else, to use my judgment in avoiding such complications as might arise.” If there was to be an incident, the Americans were not going to start it.
In broken English the Japanese officer demanded to know if the Americans had seen Chinese soldiers at any point on their trip upriver. Hughes, as protocol dictated, declined to give any information, saying that America was a friend of both China and japan and could take no part in furthering the military operations of either side. The Japanese then tried to get the captain to come ashore with them. When he refused, they left grudgingly—and the Panay got under way again. “At no time,” Hughes testified later, “did they indicate we were proceeding into a danger zone.”
At about 11 A.M. Panay dropped anchor roughly twenty-five miles above Nanking at a spot where the river is about a mile wide, with marshes immediately on either side—ground not likely to attract the operations or stray gunfire of either army. The Standard Oil ships anchored nearby.
Soon after lunch—the Navy’s traditional “Sunday dinner"—the lookout on the bridge passed down the word for Commander Hughes that planes were in sight high overhead, coming from upriver. By the time the captain reached the pilot house, picked up a pair of binoculars, and stepped outside to look up, he was astonished to discover the aircraft were losing altitude rapidly as they approached his ship. Almost immediately the planes appeared to go into power dives. Chief Quartermaster John H. Lang shouted a warning, “They’re letting go bombs! Get under coverl” He and Hughes ducked back into the pilot house just as the first bomb struck. “It seemed to hit directly overhead,” Hughes later recalled. The time was 1:38 P.M.
The radio mast sagged forward at the first bomb burst, and the concussion of other bombs falling knocked people off their feet. The aircraft could be seen plainly now. They were Japanese Navy bombers, the sort that had been used over Nanking. The red suns on their wings stood out clearly.
Ensign Denis H. Biwerse, the Panay’s communications officer, saw the first bomb hit. He stepped out onto the port deck forward, glimpsed aircraft, and thought he heard a burst of machine-gun fire; the next thing he knew he was sitting dazed on the deck, his uniform completely blown off except for his shirt, which was in rags, in addition to nearly stripping Biwerse, the first bomb had knocked out the bow 3-inch gun, wrecked the pilot house, damaged the radio equipment, ruptured the main fuel line, and wounded the captain severely. “Even though we weren’t moving,” Engineering Officer Geist said years later, “it was a good shot in those days for a bomber.”