- 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
A few hands were raised in salutes and greetings, and a few almost-hushed salutations were exchanged across the narrowing waters as the ships drew together while daylight faded rapidly. A hastily improvised gangway, of unplaned and unpainted lumber, was shoved from Augusta’s deck onto Oahu’s top deck, and a few of Augusta’s officers boarded the rescue ship. Then came a long wait, after which Augusta sailors carried empty stretchers aboard the Oahu, while blue-uniformed marines guarded the gangway and a majority of Augusta’s officers stood silent, waiting, in a semicircle. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet, sat grim-faced in his quarters awaiting oral reports of surviving officers on the Panay, many of whom were grievously wounded.
For the officers and men of the Panay and for their surviving civilian passengers, the “incident” was almost over. Some would be in and out of hospitals for months before they were able to return to duty. Some would be invalided out of service. One of them, Coxswain Edgar W. G. Hulsebus, would die in a Shanghai hospital, bringing the Panay’s death toll to three.
And there was still a court of inquiry to be closed. It had commenced aboard the Augusta on December 16, and moved to the hospital bedsides of assorted survivors; it concluded two days before Christmas. The court found, in summary, that everything possible had been done first to defend the ship and then to try to save her when she was mortally struck. There were several recommendations. The first asked that a board be convened to award decorations. The second concerned salvage: Since some of the ship’s confidential publications had gone down with her, their security had to be considered compromised until salvage could be accomplished—or declared impossible. The third recommendation urged that “the inadequacy of the antiaircraft defense for naval ships be given immediate consideration by the Navy Department.” Two months later, reviewing the findings of the court, the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance replied starchily that “with reference to the Court’s third recommendation … antiaircraft defense of naval ships is under continual consideration and study by this bureau.”
There were several bills to be rendered, too. Standard Oil had put its losses at $1,594,435.99. The Navy asked for $1,211,355.01. Of this amount, $607,000 represented claims for the death of Ensminger and Hulsebus, and for personal injuries to the fifty-seven officers and men who suffered from wounds, shock, or exposure. When submitting the Navy bill to the State Department for transmission to the Japanese, Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson emphasized that even this substantial amount did not include damages for injuries to civilians, or to State Department or War Department personnel on board.
The initial Japanese reaction to the news of the sinking was one of shock and regret for what was officially declared a tragic case of mistaken identity. A Japanese communiqué pledged immediate action in identifying the military units responsible.
Vice Admiral Kiyoshi Hasegawa, commander of all Japanese naval forces in Chinese waters, immediately called on Admiral Yarnell to express his regrets. The meeting was icy, even though Hasegawa promised Yarnell he would accept “the fullest personal responsibility.” In the Japanese military code, that could mean resignation or even hara-kiri. Hasegawa was in a tight spot. The Japanese Navy had recently bragged that it had sunk every Chinese warship on the river. But if that were true, why did Japanese pilots mistake the floating Panay for the sunken enemy?
In Washington on Monday, December 13, Secretary of State Cordell Hull delivered to Japanese Ambassador Hirosi Saito a memo of protest demanding full apology and compensations for the sinking.
In Tokyo, a delegation of high-school girls representing 500 students at the White Lily School left a donation at the Japanese Navy Ministry for Panay survivors. At the Japanese Foreign Office, two Japanese boys, eleven and fifteen, called to leave a donation of two dollars for the Americans. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew was deluged by apologies and expressions of sympathy from representatives of all classes, from high officials to school children. In several cases his wife was privately called upon by the wives of highly placed Japanese who felt they could not show their regret publicly. The conduct of the people was moving, but Grew feared the United States was in a remember-the-Maine mood; he was already making plans for the evacuation of the embassy should it be ordered.