A bright Sunday in December Japanese planes blazed out of the sky to strafe and bomb an American warship while it lay at anchor.
You’d be forgiven to think this was the Pearl Harbor attack, but you’d be wrong.
The sinking of the USS Panay is pretty much forgotten now. But it was one of the biggest news stories of 1937.
In the 1930s, the United States had something that would be unthinkable today — a treaty with China allowing American gunboats to travel deep up the Yangtze River. It was a major trade route for U.S. commerce in China, and it was notorious for pirate attacks.
The crews of these ships were small. Panay for example carried four officers and forty-nine enlisted men, along with a Chinese crew of porters. The vessel only drew about five feet of water, and resembled more of a Mississippi riverboat than a destroyer. Yet it had a definite role to play, one summed up on a bronze plaque located in the wardroom: “Mission: For the protection of American life and property in the Yangtze River Valley and its tributaries, and the furtherance of American goodwill in China.”
By 1937, the Yangtze faced a much bigger threat than pirates: The Japanese army had launched an invasion of China, and by December, the Japanese were fighting for the city of Nanking. The fight became known as the Rape of Nanking.
The USS Panay, with 55 men aboard, was sent to rescue any Americans left, including embassy staff and journalists — most notably War correspondent Norman Alley a newsreel photographer who recorded what was to come.
The Panay, with its civilians aboard, escorted the oil tankers 20 miles upstream to wait out the Battle for Nanking. They anchored in the middle of the river and waited. Then, on Dec. 12, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Japanese planes appeared suddenly and bombed the American vessel.
After the Panay was sunk, the Japanese fighters machine-gunned lifeboats and survivors huddling on the shore of the Yangtze. Two U.S. sailors and a civilian passenger were killed and 11 personnel seriously wounded, setting off a major crisis in U.S.-Japanese relations.
Although the Panay‘s position had been reported to the Japanese as required, the neutral vessel was clearly marked, and the day was sunny and clear, the Japanese maintained that the attack was unintentional, and they agreed to pay $2 million in reparations. Two neutral British vessels were also attacked by the Japanese in the final days of the battle for Nanking.
The aftermath of the Panay sinking was a nervous time for the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew.
Grew, whose experience in the foreign service spanned over 30 years, “remembered the Maine,” the US Navy ship that blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898. The sinking of Maine had propelled the US into the Spanish–American War, and Grew hoped the sinking of Panay would not be a similar catalyst for the severance of diplomatic ties and war with Japan.
The Japanese government took full responsibility for sinking Panay but continued to maintain that the attack had been unintentional. Chief of Staff of Japanese naval forces in northern China, Vice Admiral Rokuzo Sugiyama, was assigned to make an apology.
The formal apology reached Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve.
Although Japanese officials maintained that their pilots never saw any American flags on Panay, a US Navy court of inquiry determined that several US flags were clearly visible on the vessel during the attacks.At the meeting held at the American embassy in Tokyo on 23 December, Japanese officials maintained that one navy airplane had attacked a boat by machine gun for a short period of time and that Japanese army motor boats or launches attack the Chinese steamers escaping upstream on the opposite bank. However, the Japanese navy insisted that the attack had been unintentional. The Japanese government paid an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 to the US on 22 April 1938, officially settling the Panay incident.
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