- 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
The Panay’s two launches, both damaged by bullets or bomb fragments, were put over the side. The wounded went in first. Hughes wanted to be allowed to remain in his ship till the last, but Dr. Grazier took advantage of his commander’s incapacity to have him carried, protesting, to one of the launches on the second run to shore. The Panay’s abandon-ship procedure provided for each of the two small boats to make several trips, each man being assigned to a specific boat and trip. Under the best conditions, it would have taken about thirty minutes to get everyone ashore, but because of the wounded the evacuation was even more difficult and lengthy. Inevitably, there was some confusion. Three crewmen who had given up their life jackets to civilians threw mattresses and table tops over the stern as impromptu rafts and jumped in after them. Roberts, the embassy military attaché (now a retired major general), remembers looking at the 600 yards of cold water between ship and shore and thinking, “I’ll never make it.” Then the word was passed that the boats would keep coming back until all were off the ship.
For the crew, there were the final duties—the sort they had practiced for months at drill but never really expected to have to perform. Dr. Grazier made ready to abandon his first-aid post set up on the steel gratings over the engine room. During a lull in the bombings, he and an assistant had searched through the demolished sick bay on the upper deck. There they had salvaged all health records and as many medical dressings, drugs, and antiseptics as could be crammed into a sturdy pillow case. Grazier saw all his wounded loaded into the boats, then climbed down himself.
Ensign Biwerse made one last trip to the radio room. He grabbed what confidential publications he could find and tossed them over the side. Weighted lead jackets binding the code books made them sink immediately. Then Biwerse and a crew of sailors began to load emergency rations, clothes, and blankets into one of the boats. Their inventory ranged from one of the Lewis machine guns with ammunition to a bushel basket of fresh eggs. The eggs were to come in much handier than the gun.
Lieutenant Geist ordered steam released from the single boiler that had been in use. When the cold water of the Yangtze hit it, he did not want it to explode. Then he headed for the wardroom, where the ship’s money was kept—vouchers and about $40,000 in cash. But the safe doors were sprung shut by the bombs. Water was beginning to come into the wardroom rapidly, and it was at deck level; that meant the Panay’s hull was almost awash. Geist had to back out empty-handed.
At 3:05 P.M., the last man stepped off the ship. With flags flying, the Panay was abandoned—the first ship of the U.S. Navy ever lost to enemy aircraft and, in a sense, the first naval casualty of World War II.
By the time the boats started toward shore the bombing runs had stopped, but Japanese planes still wheeled overhead and swooped down over the survivors. More than once their machine guns cut loose, and the boats were struck several times. Two seamen already wounded in the bombing attack were hit again. “The strafing,” said London Times correspondent Colin McDonald, who was in the boat with these wounded seamen, “seemed like the end of a deliberate, systematic attempt to destroy the gunboat and all on board.” McDonald tore up handkerchiefs and rags to stuff in the bullet holes in the boat, and then started to bail rapidly with the only thing available—a helmet.
Ashore, Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger of Ocean Beach, California, was dying. So was Sandro Sandri, an Italian journalist known as “the Floyd Gibbons of Italy,” who was stretched out in the reeds with excruciatingly painful stomach wounds. Luigi Barzini, his Italian companion, could only comfort him with an occasional cigarette and a word from time to time.
When the last boat trip had been made to shore, Commander Hughes propped himself up in his basket stretcher in the reeds to take stock of the situation. It was not encouraging. All his line officers except one had been wounded in some degree; the “unharmed” survivor was Ensign Biwerse, and he was groggy from shock. Hughes’s party contained fifteen stretcher cases. A dozen or so others could walk with their wounds or were suffering from concussion. The ranking line officer of either service still on his feet was Army Captain Roberts. Hughes asked him to take active leadership.
If, as it appeared, the Japanese were out to finish off all the survivors, the best plan would be to move away from the immediate location as quickly as possible. J. Hall Paxton, the second secretary of the Nanking embassy and a veteran in the China service, was to go ahead on foot to try to get word of the attack back to Ambassador Nelson T. Johnson at Hankow.