- 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
Three times on Monday, Japanese planes swooped low over Hohsien—seeming to dive particularly at the flimsy, straw-roofed hospital. The Japanese claimed later that these were rescue planes trying to spot the Panay shore party and give assistance, but in the light of preceding events, attack seemed a more likely motive. It was decided that as soon as darkness came on Monday night, the Panay’s people should move on again to Hanshan, the first town of any size outside the probable area of hostilities. First, however, the bodies of Ensminger and Sandri were prepared for burial. The coffins would have to be left behind, to be picked up later by other gunboats. The able-bodied officers and men were drawn up for a final salute to their dead shipmate. Local magistrate Wang Tien Chih, a Syracuse University graduate, placed an American flag over the sailor’s body. Then the wounded and the walking embarked in a tiny convoy of eight open junks for another trip through the freezing night by canal to Hanshan, twenty-five miles to the northwest.
At daylight Tuesday they reached this refuge to find that Paxton, the embassy man who had gone on ahead of the main party, had succeeded in getting a message through. An American missionary, Dr. C. A. Birch, had arrived from his station 130 miles away with a car full of medical supplies.
Early Tuesday afternoon, while the survivors at Hanshan were enjoying their first real meal since Sunday dinner, the British gunboat Bee arrived in Hohsien to pick them up. U.S.S. Oahu was close behind, with Ladybird, another British gunboat. The Americans retraced their path to the river.
(The British boats had been attacked by the Japanese, too. On the same afternoon the Panay was bombed, Bee and Ladybird had been shelled by Japanese artillery as they cruised about thirty miles upstream. The gunboats returned the fire, suffering light casualties—one killed, four wounded. Two other British craft, Cricket and Scarab, had been bombed near Nanking by one of the squadrons that had hit the Panay a few hours earlier.)
On Wednesday morning, December 15, in a dense fog, the main body of Panay survivors finally reached the clean, warm sanctuary of the three gunboats, where hot food, medical attention, and contact with a seriously alarmed outside world waited for them. With them came four rough wooden coffins containing the bodies of Ensminger, Sandri, C. H. Carlson, captain of one of the Standard Oil tankers, and the Chinese quartermaster of another tanker.
U.S.S. Oahu, Lieutenant Commander J. M. Sheehan commanding, had joined the Bee off Hohsien at about the same time that the first survivors arrived back at the town. Hardly had the Oahu anchored when a boat came over from one of the Japanese destroyers also standing by. It carried two Japanese naval surgeons and a Japanese hospital corpsman. They requested Sheehan’s permission to board, saying that they had been sent to assist with the wounded. The American officer at first declined their aid, but they were very insistent. “And rather than cause unpleasantness,” Sheehan reported, “I let them stay and sent them to the sick bay to await the arrival of the wounded.” A short time after the first survivors started coming aboard, Sheehan looked in to see his own doctor at work, with the Japanese close at the American’s side, “ostensibly to assist, but actually they were taking notes of injuries and conditions of men.”
It was noon Wednesday before the fog at Hohsien lifted—and 1 P.M. before the somber procession started back downriver for Shanghai. A Japanese torpedo boat was in the lead. Then came U.S.S. Oahu with the survivors. H.M.S. Ladybird, carrying the coffins of Ensminger and Sandri, and another Japanese vessel brought up the rear. The Bee had gone on ahead. Colors on all ships were at half mast.
On Friday at 4:30 P.M. in the gathering winter dusk, the Oahu steamed slowly around the bend below Shanghai’s bund and eased alongside the Augusta. In a wireless story to the New York Times from Shanghai, correspondent Hallen Abend described the moving scene that millions of Americans would see later on their newsreel screens:
When the Oahu was first sighted, a curious murmur of suppressed excitement was felt the whole length of the 10,000-ton cruiser, whose decks were crowded with officers, sailors, marines, and a few civilians. It was not a manifestation of relief or enthusiasm when the Oahu made fast alongside the Augusta. Instead, those aboard the flagship stood in oppressed silence when they saw the survivors on the Oahu decks, whose faces in most cases were drawn and lined, many suffering obviously from shell shock; others had their arms in slings, while others wore conspicuous bandages.