- 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
Out on the river the Panay was getting a humiliating coup de grâce. From downstream two Japanese army motorboats had moved up abeam of the ship and were firing aimlessly into the slowly settling superstructure. When several short bursts had evoked no return fire or other sign of life aboard the sinking gunboat, the launches closed in. The Japanese soldiers boarded the Panay , made a perfunctory search while the Stars and Stripes still cracked out over their heads in the chill December wind—and then, satisfied that she was abandoned and going down, the soldiers left and headed upriver again. A short time later there was the sound of two muffled explosions from within the ship. At 3:54 P.M. , as the men on the shore doffed their caps, the Panay slid under, bow first. Both newsreel cameraman Norman Alley and Norman Soong, a Hawaiian-born American of Chinese ancestry who was a photographer for the New York Times, recorded the final plunge. The two men had taken valuable photographic evidence that would prove the attacking Japanese planes had been low enough, on more than one approach, for good identification.
Several men remembered later the sudden lonely feeling of being stranded. They were not at all sure anyone knew of their difficulty. And even if there had been no other problems, they were in a miserable spot. The riverbank where the Americans had first landed was little more than the muddy edge of a swamp of high reeds. The footing was precarious—freezing but not frozen. There had been a good bit of splashing around, slipping and sliding in the icy swamp water and the mud of the bank, trying to find some place on which to lay the wounded—ground that was both out of the water and still hidden from further Japanese attack.
A few minutes after the Panay finally settled below the surface of the river, Japanese planes came again. A pair of them circled low over the swamp for what seemed to the hiding Americans an interminable time. But the survivors weren’t spotted in the ten-foot-high reeds. The aircraft departed into the growing dusk after methodically dropping their bombs on two of the Standard Oil tankers which had been beached on the south bank of the river after the initial bombing. Both ships blazed up; the screams of the Chinese crewmen were audible across the mile of water. Hardly had the sounds of the airplane engines faded when a small Japanese patrol boat appeared and passed slowly along the shore as if it, too, were looking for survivors. The Americans stayed low, for they were defenseless: The one machine gun Biwerse had brought ashore had already been dismantled and tossed into the swamp to prevent its capture; the men were determined there would be no trophies for the victors.
As soon as it was dark the survivors moved out of the tall reeds and assembled again at the river’s edge alongside an abandoned motor launch. Many of the men were dressed only in the light clothes they had been wearing below decks in the early afternoon when the attack had begun. Some were without shoes. One sailor had been taking a bath when the first bomb dropped, and had manned one of the Lewis guns clad only in life jacket, helmet, and righteous indignation. On shore, he had to piece together an outfit through the largess of several better-dressed survivors.
The wounded—a few on stretchers brought off from the ship, but most of them slung painfully and awkwardly in ship’s blankets—were placed aboard the launch. Then the whole party moved on along the river toward the nearby hamlet of Ho Chan, their way lighted by the blaze from the tankers. From time to time explosions sent burning fragments and red-hot chunks of metal sizzling down into the river.
At the hamlet, the survivors were met by a small party of Chinese police who had witnessed the bombing. Additional stretchers were improvised from fence rails, bed springs, and the doors of farm buildings. Some frightened coolies were recruited to help with the wounded. About 9 P.M., after a meager meal of Biwerse’s eggs and some tea, the journey was begun again—to Hohsien, a little walled village about seven miles from the scene of the sinking. “Eventually,” wrote correspondent McDonald, “the gate of Hohsien was reached about midnight, but it was nearly dawn before the last of the wounded was carried into a derelict hospital on a hill above the shrouded town where Dr. Grazier again worked without rest to relieve their sufferings.” About three thirty Monday morning, in that miserable, unheated little hospital, Storekeeper Ensminger died of his wounds. Sandri died a little past noon.