December 12th: The USS Panay Incident
The USS Panay sinking in the Yangtze River.
As Lieutenant Junior Grade Kaname Harada of the Japanese Imperial Navy watched his fellow aviators fly off to bomb Pearl Harbor from the cockpit of his own Mitsubishi A6M Zero, he no doubt had a slew of complicated thoughts and emotions about the matter. After all, it was an attack that even a junior officer like him knew would lead to all-out war with the United States. And even though Harada was flying a security patrol that day and not taking part in the actual bombing, he was still part of an attack on the US Navy. His second one in four years. Because the first time the Empire of Japan bombed an American ship wasn’t December 7th, 1941. It was December 12th, 1937.
The USS Arizona sinking during the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
When people in the United States think of WWII, they tend to think of it starting with that infamous day when our country was drawn into it at last. Or as starting on September 1st, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But arguably the first front of what would become the larger world war opened when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. That, in turn, led to the invasion of China in 1937, beginning what is often referred to as the Second Sino-Japanese War (although it stopped being considered a separate conflict from WWII when the Pacific Theater opened). And it was this prelude to the larger conflict that lead to the loss of the Panay.
Japanese troops landing at Shanghai in 1937.
American gunboats first started patrolling China’s Yangtze River in 1854, in the wake of the Opium Wars. As American influence and business interests grew, so did the size and strength of what was then called the Yangtze Patrol. The boats and sailors aboard them protected US citizens living and working in China, western businesses with large presences there, and often fought off bandits and local warlords that plagued much of China in the first half of the twentieth century. So by the time the USS Panay joined the patrols in 1928, American gunboats were common sights on the river and had been for decades. And, thanks to said bandits and warlords, she saw her fair share of fighting on the Yangtze during her nine years of service.
US Navy Sailors of the Yangtze Patrol posing with their small arms.
On the afternoon of December 12th, 1937 the Panay, captained by Lieutenant Commander James Hughes, lay at anchor a little upriver from the Chinese city of Nanjing. Anchored alongside them were three tankers of the Standard Oil Company. The day prior, the Panay had taken part in evacuating American and European civilians from the city as it fell to Japanese forces. The infamous Rape of Nanjing had not occured at that point and the US was a neutral party to the Second Sino-Japanese War, but Hughes was well aware of the danger in operating in a war zone. To ensure the Panay was easily identified he had several massive American flags spread out and tied down on her upper decks and an 11-foot long one flying from one of her masts. So despite the fighting nearby, Hughes had reason to believe he and the 58 other Sailors, four members of the American embassy, and 10 civilians aboard his ship would be safe.
Colorized still of LCDR James Hughes shortly before the attack. Note the large US flag tied down flat above him.
So it came as an unbelievably horrifying shock when three Yokosuka B4Y torpedo bombers dropped out of the sky and unleashed their payloads on the gunboat. Nine Nakajima A4N fighters, one piloted by newly minted pilot Kaname Harada, followed on strafing runs. The first blast incapacitated Hughes, shattering his femur, but executive officer Lieutenant Arthur “Tex” Anders immediately issued orders to fire back at the incoming aircraft. However the Panay, like most riverine gunboats of the day, was designed to combat other ships or shore facilities, not aircraft. It’s main 3-inch gun was not functional and the machine guns mounted along her sides were unable to hit the planes. The Sailors of the Panay did their best to put up a fight, including Chief Boatswain's Mate Ernest R. Mahlmann who bravely took to his gun sans-pants (in December, remember), but they didn’t inflict a single Japanese casualty.
Chief Mahlmann (right, pantsless) in all his glory.
Within twenty minutes the boat was sinking rapidly. Hughes regained consciousness and issued orders to abandon ship. Anders, unable to speak above a whisper due to a chunk of shrapnel now lodged in his throat, briefly countermanded those orders, hoping they could cut anchor and drift ashore before she went down. But when he realized that might risk them drifting into Japanese hands he re-issued the captain’s original order by writing it on a blood-soaked chart. Sailors began ferrying the wounded to shore aboard two motor launches which, in turn, came under fire from Japanese planes. When the aircraft finally ceased their attack on the Panay and her crew, it was only to open fire on the nearby oil tankers. All three were destroyed, killing an unknown number of Chinese crewmen as well as one of their captains, American Carl H. Carlson.
A Yokosuka B4Y, the type of torpedo bomber that attacked the Panay and oil tankers.
The passengers and crew of the Panay who made it ashore found themselves in a freezing, muddy swamp where they did their best to take cover as Japanese planes circled overhead. Finally, at 3:54pm, the Panay sank and the aircraft departed. Of the 73 people previously aboard her, over 40 were wounded, most of them seriously. Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger and one of the civilians, Italian journalist Sandro Sandri (ironically from a pro-facist newspaper) were dead. Coxswain Edgar C. Hulsebus would soon die from his wounds and eight other men were missing (they had gone aboard one of the oil tankers during the fighting to aid her crew and wound up on the other side of the river when she sank). Anders lost consciousness from blood loss and Hughes, in no shape to lead, ceded command to US Army Captain Frank N. Robers, an embassy attache with years of experience in China. Those able to walk constructed litters and carried the severely wounded to a small, nearby fishing village called Hoshien. From there, they were rescued by the British gunboats HMS Ladybird and HMS Bee a few days later. The missing men were recovered as well after being aided by, of all people, soldiers of the Japanese Army. Twenty-three members of the Panay crew were awarded the Navy Cross, including Anders (who later regained his ability to speak after literally coughing up the shrapnel) and Chief Mahlmann.
LT Anders receives his Navy Cross from Admiral Edward Kalbfus.
International outcry over the incident was immediate and emphatic. Two of the civilians aboard, Norman Alley and Eric Mayell, were newsreel cameramen who recorded much of the attack as it happened. So it wasn’t long before people all over the world saw firsthand footage of the incident. The Japanese government took full responsibility, issued a formal apology, and claimed it was unintentional. When the Americans raised the issue of the many flags Hughes had displayed, the Japanese response was that their pilots could not tell the difference between it and the Chinese flag. It was later revealed that the Japanese Imperial Navy had ordered aircraft to sink any ships they saw on the Yangtze that day to stop Chinese forces from using the river to flee Nanjing. Being well aware of the American gunboat’s presence on the river, there is little doubt that, while the Panay may not have been specifically targeted, it was included in the “sink any ships” directive. Moreover, several British Navy river boats, including the Ladybird and Bee, were attacked by Japanese airplanes or artillery fire that same day. So the attacks on ostensibly neutral vessels were not limited to American ones.
Newsreel featuring footage of the incident shot by Alley and Mayell.
Hoping to put an end to the matter, at least in a diplomatic sense, the Japanese paid an indemnity of about $2 million (over $35 million today) which officially settled the matter. But the whole affair led to a sharp uptick in anti-Japanese sentiment in the US. Relations between the two nations, already in poor shape, degraded rapidly. The renunciation of their trade treaty came in 1939 followed by a ban on aviation fuel sales 1940. Thus the stage was set for that morning in 1941 when Lieutenant Harada watched the War in the Pacific begin with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Bombing that killed, among thousands of others, US Navy Coxswain Morris Rider, a survivor of the USS Panay.
We like to end things on a hopeful note if we can, so here we go: Harada, who was shot down and severely injured 1942, spent decades haunted by the deaths he caused during his military career. He and his wife founded a nursery and kindergarten in order to care for children as a way to make up for the lives he'd taken. He befriended many American and British pilots he'd once fought against and worked as a widely celebrated anti-war speaker in both his own country and the United States from the early 1990's up until his death in 2016 at age 99.