- 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
Geist headed aft for his battle station. Since the ship was at anchor, his duty was to keep men under cover. As he chased half a dozen gawkers into the crew’s shower, he could see three heavy bombers going on downriver. The first three or four bombs had done fatal damage, but now dive bombers were following up the attack. In all. there seemed to be from six to nine planes, coming on in waves of three. “They came low enough for us to see the red suns on their wings distinctly,” Geist says, “and we could see the pilots of some of the planes. Even in the excitement, they would have had to see our flags.”
The Panay’s battery of machine guns had gone into action almost immediately, but mounted as they were, four to a side, they could not easily be trained fully ahead; they were in better position for dealing with snipers on the shore than with dive bombers coming in at 200 miles an hour over the bow. Nevertheless, several of the gunners testified later that they believed several hits were made, “even though not on planes’ vital points.” Ensign Biwerse, recovering from the concussion of the first bomb, was heading topside toward the radio shack when part of the radio room crumpled in on itself from the blast of another bomb. The mast above it went completely over the side with the same explosion; poor Biwerse was knocked back down the ladder to the main deck.
All the enthusiasm on the part of the Panay’s gunners wasn’t scaring anyone away. (In a letter to the author, one of the Japanese pilots recently recalled that the Panay’s return fire was persistent but, in his words, “somewhat inaccuracy.”) “You’d just get rid of one plane and you’d get hit with another,” Lieutenant Geist recalled recently. “The bombs were probably hundred pounders. When you get hit square with a couple of hookers like that in a ship the size of Panay—which was not much bigger than today’s large oceangoing tugs—you can’t last long.” The Japanese later claimed that they had scored only two direct hits on the Panay before they shifted their attack to the cargo vessels, which impressed them as much more appealing targets. But all the ships were close enough together that a near miss on one might inflict casualties on several.
The 3-inch guns were never to get into action. Hughes considered them basically ineffective against aircraft, and regarded the watertight integrity of his ship as far more important than whatever fire could come from these guns. So hatches to the 3-inch magazine stayed dogged tight during the whole fight, and all ammunition for these guns stayed below.
Commander Hughes had a badly fractured right leg, and his face was cut; Dr. Grazier propped him up in the galley, a somewhat protected location. The captain was in considerable pain, and his face was so covered with blood and soot that some of the men recognized him only by the stripes on his sleeve. But he was able to talk to Anders, his executive officer. Anders was suffering from wounds in both hands sustained while loading a machine gun in the first few minutes of the attack. During the second or third bombing salvo he had also been hit in the throat, and he could not speak above a whisper. His orders had to be written on the back of a handy chart or on the white paintwork of the bulkhead. Lieutenant Geist, wounded in the leg, stood by to carry them out.
Twenty minutes or so after the first bomb had dropped, water was a foot and a half deep below decks forward. The pumps were unable to keep up with it. The cabins under the forward gun had been pretty well wrecked by the same blast that disabled the gun. Bridge and radio shack were wrecked. The tiny two-bed sick bay, with most of its supplies, had been riddled—the steel walls shot through with fragments that would have killed anyone who had been in the room. Most of the machine guns were still in action, but ammunition was running short and water had reached the main magazine below.
Several large holes in the hull along the engine-room and fire-room walls were not only admitting water, but also air. In order to steam, the Panay’s fire room had to be put under pressure so there would be a forced draft through the boiler fires. But no pressure could be held with the engine-room bulkheads punctured like good Swiss cheese. Even slipping the anchor chain to try to beach the ship seemed useless; the Panay was now so close to the center of the river that she probably would have floated aimlessly with the current for miles—a sitting duck. One of the Standard Oil tankers was under way under her own power and started to maneuver alongside the Panay to help, but the Panay’s, people saw her as a potential floating bomb and waved her off.
At about 2 P.M. Anders passed the order to don life jackets and then pencilled his instructions to Lieutenant Geist on the white bulkhead outside the galley: “Take to the boats. Stay as close to shore as possible. Then swim and send boats back.”