- 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
In the fall of 1937, at the entrance of almost any first- or second-class post office in the United States, one was apt to see a Navy poster that showed a fresh-faced young sailor striding up the gangplank of a battleship. Over his shoulder were slung hammock and seabag. On his face was the bright expectation of travel and adventure. And in his pocket, presumably, was the fifty-four dollars a month that a first-class seaman could make in those days.
The picture was an appealing one—but the artist could have made it even more so if he had been depicting a sailor of the United States Navy Yangtze River Patrol. Such a sailor might have been tricked out in natty English walking shorts, a pith helmet, and a full beard. The artist could have shifted the staggering load of canvas on the young man’s shoulder to the back of a Chinese coolie following a respectful distance behind. And instead of a battleship, the sailor would have been climbing aboard a gleaming white and mahogany craft nobby enough to run with the brokers’ yachts at a Harvard-Yale boat race.
In 1937, except for the dwindling White House flotilla, the Yangtze Patrol was the most comfortable assignment in the Navy. The treaty right to patrol Chinese rivers and territorial waters had been won by the United States, France, Britain, and Russia after they had jointly subdued the terrorist mandarin Yeh in 1858. The duties of the Yangtze Patrol were simple: to watch over the safety and protect the rights and property of American businessmen and missionaries in China. The Patrol had done the job with diligence—and, at times, with cost. It was, however, a job that had its rewards. The quarters, with few exceptions, were light, airy, and unusually comfortable—with bunks for all hands instead of hammocks. Beards were allowed (no other U.S. Navy ships or stations tolerated anything bushier than a pencil-line mustache). Gunboat cooks took great pride in the tables they set: the menus were varied and even exotic, for food prices ashore—graft included—were so universally low that even the most zealous supply officer finally had to wink at the padded cost figures; there was hardly any point in trying to shake up the whole Oriental system for the sake of the Navy’s Bureau of Supplies and Accounts.
U.S.S. Panay, named after one of the Philippine Islands, had been built in 1927 at Shanghai, along with her sister ship, the Oahu. They were two of six gunboats that replaced an ancient fleet of converted yachts and refurbished Spanish-American War prizes. Both ships were specially designed for the Yangtze; they sat low in the water and their drafts were shallow—about five and a half feet. Their bottoms were completely flat, without a trace of a keel. They were likely to roll helplessly in a seaway, but they could ground on a Yangtze sandbar as harmlessly as a soapdish, and could be dragged or floated off equally easily. Seen at a distance running at flank speed in the river, one of the gunboats might appear to be a sinking ship, with decks awash and a captain intent on driving her under in one last, grand gesture. The Panay was lightly armed for a ship of war, but gunboats as a class were spawned by a certain damned-if-we-care-if-the-natives-are-restless approach to imperialism; they were intended to fight against an enemy seriously outgunned from the start. On a platform forward and slightly below the bridge, and also on the open upper deck above the stern, the Panay carried 3-inch guns mounted behind steel splinter shields thick enough to deflect rifle fire even at close range; sniping from the shore by bandits was a common danger. Both guns were capable of elevating to a vertical position for defense against attacking aircraft.
The Panay’s upper deck looked like a spacious tropical veranda—except for the presence of light .30 caliber Lewis antiaircraft machine guns. These were also behind heavy, oblong splinter shields that looked a bit like upended water troughs. There were no sights: a good gunner had to have a skeetshooter’s instinct for a wing shot.
The Panay was built for four officers, forty-nine enlisted men, and a Chinese crew of about a dozen. Behind the bridge the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Hughes, had a well-appointed two-room suite that served as bedroom, sitting room, dining room, and office. Nearby was a single stateroom occupied by the ship’s doctor, Lieutenant (j.g.) Clark Grazier, and the radio room, with transmitters for contact with other ships of the Patrol and with the cruiser Augusta, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, at Shanghai.
The chief petty officers lived in comparably pleasant circumstances on the upper deck astern, the rest of the crew in less capacious quarters on the main deck below. The wardroom and all quarters for officers and enlisted men had big, real windows instead of portholes.
Two thirds of the ship was engine room—under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) John W. Geist. The powerful twin engines could push the Panay at fifteen knots through the spring flood currents that ran like millraces through the Yangtze gorges. Their machinery was tended by an engine-room gang of fifteen sailors and by half a dozen Chinese who wore Navy dungarees, worked like the coolies they were, and lived in the “coolie flat” crammed in under the afterdeck of the port side (starboard was reserved for potatoes). Coolie quarters and pay were not much, but compared to the average coolie’s life ashore, the Panay provided such luxury that no one worried unduly.
A gunboat might employ just about as many Chinese supernumeraries as the crew could arrange to pay off at the end of the month. They were styled as “boat-men,” but held no real rank or official status. They washed, dried, ironed, swept out, scrubbed up, waited table, scoured dishes, polished engines, and ran sampans between ship and shore. A new group could be hired whenever the gunboat moved. The commissary officer was granted a per diem allowance to feed each Chinese boatman, comparable to the allowance provided for other crew members. Since the Chinese wanted—or were presumed to want—little more than rice and vegetables, ninety per cent of their commissary money went to fatten the general mess fund. All dined well.
Good as the food was on board ship, for the officers there was even more sumptuous dining at private homes, clubs, and embassies ashore. The invitations were frequent, and there were sports—riding, shooting, and tennis—to sweat it all out the next day. An officer had only to make the casual remark at noon around the wardroom table that the afternoon was good for tennis —and he would return to his cabin to find his tennis whites and his racket laid out by one of the Chinese.
Involvement in a war seemed highly unlikely, but it was sneaking up fast. In the summer of 1937, charmed by the ease with which it had bitten off Manchuria six years before, Japan had sent 500,000 invading troops to southern China. The resistance had been stouter than most outsiders expected, but by late fall the invaders were closing in on Nanking, the Panay’s station, some 225 miles upriver from the coast.
As fall progressed, there had been a number of air raids over Nanking, but the Panay had had only one casualty: a crewman coming back from liberty in a state of uncertain stability had fallen overboard and drowned. Most days were routine. As treaty powers or as influential visitors out to “show the flag,” most of the nations that would participate in the coming World War had armed ships in the river much of the time, and there was a continual exchange of ceremonial visits and salutes.
By December, however, the air raids were coming almost daily, and liberty ashore had been curtailed. All precautions were being taken. The Panay now carried two large American flags, each about five feet by nine feet, lashed to the awnings that covered the spacious decks fore and aft. Under way or at anchor she flew her “Sunday flag,” the largest ensign in her flag locker; it measured about six by eleven feet. At night all these flags were spotlighted so they could be seen from ashore or aloft. The myth of protective neutrality still hung on from courtlier days of warfare. And the Panay, well marked and lighted, was considered a safe refuge—so much so that Chinese shipping tended to squeeze menacingly close to the gunboat when raid alarms sounded.
These things were nuisances, but little more. However, American diplomats knew that the last days of Nanking were likely to be chaotic. When the Chinese troops began to surrender or to try to flee, and when the local government broke down, incidents of looting and dangerous disorder were bound to follow. Early in December, therefore, with the Japanese Army surrounding the city and about to pour over the walls, it seemed prudent to bring embassy personnel out to the ship until Nanking was captured and order was restored. In addition, the Panay was already providing refuge for nine American and European businessmen and correspondents.
On Saturday, December 11, the Panay and a group of assorted Standard Oil river freighters, motor barges, and launches were anchored close together just above Nanking. At about 2 P.M. some artillery shells that had been directed into the city began to splash around the ships. It could have been poor aim, or a case of mistaken identity. Still, the fire continued. The whole American flotilla got under way—but not before about forty or fifty shells had exploded in the area and one small craft had been damaged. Twelve miles above Nanking the little convoy anchored for the night.
On Sunday morning the trouble started again. Shelling began from the south bank. Possibly it was directed at some junks creeping along the north shore, but Commander Hughes decided to move farther upstream to avoid becoming a chance target for either combatant.
Hughes was a seasoned thirty-nine-year-old regular Navy officer who had been in the service since the summer of 1915 and knew his job well. The movement of the gunboat upstream was to be a routine one. Through diplomatic channels, Hughes asked that Japanese Army units and their armed boats in the river be notified where the Panay was moving and why. At 8:25 A.M. Sunday the ship raised anchor and headed upriver again against the sluggish current. The Standard Oil craft, manned by Chinese crews but carrying American or European captains, elected to follow. They, too, were showing American flags. The convoy had been under way only about an hour when Hughes was signalled from the north bank of the river by a Japanese Army unit. At 9:45, as the gunboat lay drifting with a Japanese field piece trained on her from shore, a Japanese lieutenant and a party of six soldiers with fixed bayonets came aboard. Hughes and one of the embassy men were called down from the bridge.
Captain Frank Roberts, the embassy’s assistant military attaché, said later that in his opinion the Japanese were intentionally rude, insolent, and highhanded. Hughes and his executive officer, Lieutenant Arthur F. Anders, simply put it down to a poor command of English and sat on their anger. “I had special orders,” Hughes explained, “from the Commander Yangtze Patrol not to be too sensitive about points of naval etiquette when dealing with the Japanese military—and above all else, to use my judgment in avoiding such complications as might arise.” If there was to be an incident, the Americans were not going to start it.
In broken English the Japanese officer demanded to know if the Americans had seen Chinese soldiers at any point on their trip upriver. Hughes, as protocol dictated, declined to give any information, saying that America was a friend of both China and japan and could take no part in furthering the military operations of either side. The Japanese then tried to get the captain to come ashore with them. When he refused, they left grudgingly—and the Panay got under way again. “At no time,” Hughes testified later, “did they indicate we were proceeding into a danger zone.”
At about 11 A.M. Panay dropped anchor roughly twenty-five miles above Nanking at a spot where the river is about a mile wide, with marshes immediately on either side—ground not likely to attract the operations or stray gunfire of either army. The Standard Oil ships anchored nearby.
Soon after lunch—the Navy’s traditional “Sunday dinner"—the lookout on the bridge passed down the word for Commander Hughes that planes were in sight high overhead, coming from upriver. By the time the captain reached the pilot house, picked up a pair of binoculars, and stepped outside to look up, he was astonished to discover the aircraft were losing altitude rapidly as they approached his ship. Almost immediately the planes appeared to go into power dives. Chief Quartermaster John H. Lang shouted a warning, “They’re letting go bombs! Get under coverl” He and Hughes ducked back into the pilot house just as the first bomb struck. “It seemed to hit directly overhead,” Hughes later recalled. The time was 1:38 P.M.
The radio mast sagged forward at the first bomb burst, and the concussion of other bombs falling knocked people off their feet. The aircraft could be seen plainly now. They were Japanese Navy bombers, the sort that had been used over Nanking. The red suns on their wings stood out clearly.
Ensign Denis H. Biwerse, the Panay’s communications officer, saw the first bomb hit. He stepped out onto the port deck forward, glimpsed aircraft, and thought he heard a burst of machine-gun fire; the next thing he knew he was sitting dazed on the deck, his uniform completely blown off except for his shirt, which was in rags, in addition to nearly stripping Biwerse, the first bomb had knocked out the bow 3-inch gun, wrecked the pilot house, damaged the radio equipment, ruptured the main fuel line, and wounded the captain severely. “Even though we weren’t moving,” Engineering Officer Geist said years later, “it was a good shot in those days for a bomber.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Emperor was said to have had his naval ministers on the carpet, rubbing their noses deep in the pile. The Japanese government insisted that since the outbreak of hostilities in China in July, it had faithfully tried to prevent what had just happened. During that time, the government said, a number of fliers had been punished and some sent back to Japan in disgrace for “reckless flying.” More immediately to the point, the government announced that Rear Admiral Keizo Mutsunami, commander of the Japanese Naval Air Force in China, had been dismissed and ordered to return to Japan immediately. Mutsunami had seemed sure of a bright future: he had once been skipper of the big carrier Kaga, which was to take part four years later in the Pearl Harbor attack, and only recently had been made a rear admiral. Virtually his whole career had been with the naval air forces. Now it was presumably over.
By Friday, December 17, the day the survivors reached Shanghai, many U.S. papers reported for the first time the final ignominious machine-gunning of the Panay by Japanese army craft before she sank. The story did not appear in Japanese papers; the Foreign Office in Tokyo immediately reported to Washington that the reply to the earlier American protest would have to be delayed still further while it looked into this new charge. Meantime, despite Japanese investigations and apologies, American indignation was growing.
On Monday, December 20, the Japanese admitted for the first time that indeed there had been from close range, where no mistake of identity should have been involved, a machine-gun attack against the sinking gunboat by Japanese army launches. New York Times correspondent Abend reported in an exclusive story that the machine-gunning was done on the personal command of one Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto. It was also suggested that in some unexplained way the Japanese navy fliers who made the initial attack might have been temporarily under Hashimoto’s command. The Colonel’s responsibility for the order was no secret in the Japanese Army, Abend wrote. Hashimoto was still in the field, presumably unavailable and obviously unchastised.
Hashimoto’s background reveals some reasons why his superior officers may have hesitated to discipline him. He had been one of the leaders in a coup the year before, when a clique of about 1,000 young army officers had seized the government building and communications centers in Tokyo and killed Premier Keisuke Okada and three cabinet members. The plotters had placed the capital under martial law and had staged a reign of terror for several days until subdued by loyal government troops. Hashimoto obviously must have had valuable political protection, for he had simply been relieved of duty. He had then formed the Greater Japan Youth Party, and guided it in general troublemaking until he had been recalled to duty and sent to China in the fall of 1937. Now, apparently, his political protection was still good.
The machine-gunning of the ship and Hashimoto’s role in the incident were now receiving more attention in the American press than the bombing itself. The Japanese papers still carried no mention of the attack by the army launches. But to Americans, the machine-gun outrage seemed to indicate clearly that the whole incident had been carefully planned from beginning to end by the anti-Western faction in the Japanese Army in order to humiliate the United States.
It was Christmas Eve in Washington—a “masterful” piece of timing, Ambassador Grew called it—when the official Japanese answer finally came. With it came a strange feeling of anticlimax—and relief. The reply was a complete apology. All the particulars of the U.S. note had been met. The Japanese still maintained that the bombing was a colossal mistake, although an understandable one. While the Panay’s plan of movement had been properly filed with military authorities, erratic field communications between Japanese units had held up a proper passing of the word. The commander of the air squadron that sank the gunboat had not been notified of the Panay’s presence in that part of the river until 5:30 P.M.—an hour and a half after she had gone to the bottom. And in spite of the American photographs, which showed that the visibility had been fine, the Japanese claimed that “dense smoke” had so obscured the area that Japanese troops had also been bombed. At the time the Japanese had said that only fifteen planes had been involved in five attacks over about twenty minutes’ time; later admissions raised the attacking force to twenty-four. The pilots stoutly denied that American flags had been seen at any time, even though they said they had dived as low as 900 feet to try to identify the vessels. The Japanese also reported that those responsible had been punished, but Colonel Hashimoto was not named or alluded to.
On April 22, 1938, the Panay incident was officially marked closed when the Japanese government presented the United States with a check for $2,214,007.36. It was tendered as “settlement in full” for destroying three large Standard Oil craft, for the loss of the Panay, for the deaths of one civilian captain and two Navy men, and for injuries suffered by seventy-four men on all the vessels.
But the men who had been bombed and machine-gunned didn’t close the books so quickly, and neither did their country. Dr. Grazier and twenty-two enlisted men were recommended for the Navy Cross. Special letters of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy went to Lieutenant Commander Hughes and two other crewmen, one of them Chinese-born. Another crewman of Chinese origin got the Bronze Star. Executive Officer Anders, who took over for his disabled skipper, and Captain Roberts, the embassy military attaché, each received a Distinguished Service Medal. The Navy further honored Army Captain Roberts with the Navy Cross for his “fortitude and heroism.”
Only one of the four crack flight leaders who led the twenty-four Japanese planes on their attack against the Panay survived World War II. Commander Masatake Okumiya lived through four years of combat to see peace come again to Japan. In an article in an American naval journal in 1953, Okumiya wrote his account of the Panay sinking, still claiming that it had been a case of mistaken identity. He insisted that the command structure of the two services made it “impossible” for Army fire-eaters to have duped the Japanese Navy and ordered the attack. Okumiya did have a few barbs for his sister service. He criticized the Army—and particularly Colonel Hashimoto—because Army spokesmen had repeatedly aggravated the bad feeling that followed the sinking by not showing “common sense in regard to international matters, nor did they display good judgment, or even proper knowledge of military etiquette.”
Colonel Hashimoto was recalled to Japan early in 1938 and put on inactive duty, but he was never disciplined otherwise. After Pearl Harbor, the official pose of displeasure was no longer necessary. On January 25, 1942—forty-nine days after the Hawaiian raid—Hashimoto was awarded the Kinshi Kinsho Medal for his “audacity” in ordering attacks on all ships in the Yangtze four years earlier. While the bombing of the Panay was not specified, the citation was general enough to cover it—without leaving the government open to the charge of having lied when it ignored Hashimoto’s role four years earlier. Though still carrying the rank of colonel in 1942, he made his contribution during the war in the Japanese Diet and as a vigorous leader of the extremists and unofficial inner circle government leaders who advocated Japanese control not only of East Asia, but of Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and India as well.
On April 29, 1946, the Colonel stood among the twenty-eight top Japanese leaders who were indicted for “plotting to rule the world.” A staggering fifty-five counts of war crimes were arrayed against them. It was made clear in the indictment that the trials would involve charges of aggression even before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The trial had been in progress about three months when the Panay incident was revived in court—over the strong protest of the defense lawyers. Hashimoto admitted that his artillery had shelled H.M.S. Ladybird on her way to aid the Panay’s survivors. That was as far as he would go. Almost a year passed before Hashimoto came back into the limelight again. This time he admitted to prosecutors his long-time role as a troublemaker; he conceded that he had been a member of a tightly organized group that had been behind attempts to control the Japanese government since 1931, and that he had long advocated bringing to an end British political control in the Orient—"by force if necessary.” When the trial came to an end on November 12, 1948, Hashimoto was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On September 17, 1955—ten years and one day after he had given himself up to Allied authorities—the little colonel walked out of Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison a free man, but with incurable cancer. He had been released “by agreement of the United States and seven other Allied powers.” He and two other political prisoners emerged impeccably dressed in morning coats and striped trousers.
If Hashimoto had a secret—that he had been the man chosen to test Western toughness with an overt attack that might show whether or not the U.S. would risk war—two years later it died with him.
A year after the Panay was sunk, divers recovered her safe from the muddy waters of the Yangtze. More than $40,000 in cash and the vouchers and pay accounts were recovered intact. After their examination, John Geist, the Panay’s disbursing officer, then on duty in Manila, received the standard form letter from the Secretary of the Navy reporting that the money had been recovered, “your accounts are in order, and you may now resume your duties.” Unless the Chinese Communists have high regard for old scrap or the resurrected relics of history, the Panay’s hull is still at the bottom of the river.
Geist and eleven other Panay survivors were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As they saw the bombers with the red suns on their wingtips come diving down again there was an awful familiarity to it all.
But this time there would be no apologies.