The USS Panay incident was a Japanese attack on the American gunboat Panay while it was anchored in the Yangtze River outside Nanking (now spelled Nanjing), China on December 12, 1937. Like the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor four years later, Japan and the United States were not at war at the time. The Japanese claimed that they did not see the US flags painted on the deck of the gunboat, apologized, and paid an indemnity. Nevertheless, the attack and the subsequent Allison incident in Nanking caused U.S. opinion to turn against the Japanese.
A flat-bottomed craft built in Shanghai specifically for river duty, Panay served as part of the US Navy's Yangtze Patrol in the Asiatic Fleet, which was responsible for patrolling the Yangtze River to protect American lives and property in China.
After invading China in the summer of 1937, Japanese forces moved into Nanking (now known as Nanjing) in December, where they later committed the massacre in the city that resulted in the deaths of 300,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Panay evacuated the remaining Americans from the city on December 11, bringing the number of people aboard to five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians, including Universal Newsreel cameraman Norman Alley, Movietone News’ Eric Mayell, the New York Times's Norman Soong, Collier's Weekly correspondent Jim Marshall, La Stampa correspondent Sandro Sandri and Corriere della Sera correspondent Luigi Barzini Jr.
On the morning of the 12th, the Japanese air forces received information that fleeing Chinese forces were in the area in ten large steamers and a large number of junks and that they were between 12 and 25 mi (19 and 40 km) upstream from Nanking. While anchored upstream from Nanking, Panay and three Standard Oil tankers, Mei Ping, Mei An and Mei Hsia, came under attack from Japanese naval aircraft. Panay was hit by two of the eighteen 132 lb (60 kg) bombs dropped by three Yokosuka B4Y Type-96 bombers and strafed by nine Nakajima A4N Type-95 fighters.
According to Lieutenant J.W. Geist, an officer aboard the Panay, "the day before we told the Japanese army in the area who we were," and three U.S. flags were plainly visible on the ship. Planes also machine-gunned small boats taking the wounded ashore, and several additional survivors were wounded. The Times correspondent Colin MacDonald, who had also been aboard the Panay, saw a Japanese army small boat machine-gun the Panay as it was sinking in spite of the American flag painted on the side of the ship. Since Japanese planes continued to circle overhead, survivors cowered knee deep in mud in a swamp.
As a result of the attack, Panay sank; Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger, Standard Oil tanker captain Carl H. Carlson and Italian reporter Sandro Sandri were killed, Coxswain Edgar C. Hulsebus died later that night. 43 sailors and five civilians were wounded.
The three Standard Oil tankers were also bombed and destroyed, and the captain of Mei An and many Chinese civilian passengers were killed. The vessels had been helping to evacuate the families of Standard Oil's employees and agents from Nanking during the Japanese attack on that city.
Two newsreel cameramen were aboard during the attack (Norman Alley of Universal News and Eric Mayell of Movietone News); they were able to film part of the attack and, after reaching shore, the sinking of the ship in the middle of the river. Survivors were later taken aboard the American vessel Oahu and the British gunboats HMS Ladybird and Bee. Earlier the same day, a Japanese shore battery had fired on Ladybird.
The survivors coped with near freezing nights in inadequate clothing and with no food. It took three days to move the sixteen wounded to the safety of several British and American ships.
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 U.S. Navy ship that blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898. The sinking of Maine had propelled the U.S. 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 December 23, 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 April 22, 1938, officially settling the Panay incident.
However, the presence of U.S. flags, which would have been visible from the air, suggests the attack had not been a mistake, but rather a type of unauthorized action. On the other hand, in japanese testimony, Kaname Harada, a member of the attack team, wrote that Panay did not display U.S. flags anywhere.
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From the beginning, the State Department's position was that none of the families of those killed or the sailors or civilians wounded would receive any of the contributions.[clarification needed] No office or department of the federal government would accept the money. The State Department also expressed the desire that any necessary arrangements be made promptly. Hull did not wish to keep the Japanese people waiting for a decision on what was to become of the money they donated. A prolonged delay could lead to misunderstanding, especially if a decision was reached months later to return the money to the donors.[clarification needed]
The State Department telegram of 18 December also set forth, at least for the time being, that only the American ambassador in Japan and the American ambassador in China could accept donations related to the Panay incident. Several American consulates were receiving money, including consulates at Nagoya, Kobe, Nagasaki and Osaka, in Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; Keijo (Seoul), Korea; Dairen, Manchuria; and São Paulo, Brazil. These contributions were eventually forwarded to the ambassador in Tokyo. Grew kept all money received related to the Panay incident in the embassy safe until the State Department could find a solution.
The American consulates in Nagasaki forwarded several contributions and translations of letters to the embassy in Tokyo, including ¥50 from a Mr. Ichiro Murakami, identified as a former U.S. Navy pensioner, and another individual who wished to remain anonymous.
The Navy Cross was presented subsequently to two British naval officers, Vice Admiral Lewis Eyre Crabbe and Lieut. Commander Harry Barlow, for their "voluntary and unstinted cooperation in assisting with the recovery of the survivors of the U.S.S. Panay.
In a letter two days later, the consulate in Nagasaki also reported to Grew that on 21 December a small boy from the Shin Kozen Primary School brought in a letter and donation of ¥2 to the consulate and was accompanied by his older brother. The consul enclosed the contribution and both the original and translation of the boy's letter. The letter reads, "The cold has come. Having heard from my elder brother that the American warship has sunk the other day I feel very sorry. Having been committed without intention beyond doubt, I apologize on behalf of the soldiers. Please forgive. Here is the money I saved. Please hand it to the American sailors injured." The letter, addressed "To the American sailors," was signed only, "One of the pupils of the Shin Kozen." The boy did not provide his name in the letter and did not reveal it when visiting the consulate.
A local newspaper, the Nagasaki Minyu Shimbun, published the story of Murakami's donation and that of the schoolboy and included an excerpt of the boy's letter. Arthur F. Tower, the American consul in Nagasaki, informed Ambassador Grew of the article, which had been published on 7 January. Tower also informed Grew that a reporter of another newspaper—the Tokyo and Osaka Asahi Shimbun, had called on him on 23 December to discuss the Panay contributions. Towers reassured Grew that "this consulate has not sought to give publicity to the donations received or offered and has furnished information concerning them on two occasions only, when requested."
Although the consul in Nagasaki was not trying to publicize the donations, the newspaper stories may have increased contributions at his consulate. On 8 January, a Japanese pensioner of the US Navy called in person to make a contribution of ¥5 for the relief of those involved in the Panay incident. When his contribution was accepted, the former sailor informed the consul that a group of other US pensioners also wished to donate money.
On 10 January, he visited the consulate again, this time with two representatives of Japanese pensioners of the US Navy who lived in the area. By this time, however, the Nagasaki consulate had received the consulate general's supervisory circular informing them that all Panay-related contributions were to be made either to the ambassador in China or the ambassador in Japan. The gentlemen attempted to donate money but were informed that the consul could no longer receive contributions, and the men were asked to communicate directly with the American embassy in Tokyo. Soon after the departure of the former US sailors, two Japanese men arrived at the consulate. These gentlemen, representing the Buddhist Association of Nagasaki, also had come to donate money for victims of Panay and were likewise turned away.
Responsibility for the attack
Modern historians believe that the attack may have been intentional. According to John Prados, Navy cryptographers had intercepted and decrypted traffic relating to the attacking planes which clearly indicated that they were under orders during the attack and that it had not been a mistake of any kind. This information was not released at the time for obvious secrecy reasons. Writer Nick Sparks believes that the chaos in Nanking created an opportunity for renegade factions within the Japanese army who wanted to force the U.S. into an active conflict so that the Japanese could once and for all drive the U.S. out of China.
The episode has been cited by Philip K. Dick in his novel The Man in the High Castle, depicted in a collectible picture-card of the 1940s, in the series Horrors of War with the title "The sinking of the Panay."
The incident features in the novel A Winter in China by the British writer Douglas Galbraith. It is also described in the historical fiction novel Pearl Harbor by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.
The Panay incident is an important part of the background in Own Sela's thriller "An Exchange of Eagles". In the book, the only son of Max Schroeder, a Military Intelligence Colonel, was killed on board the Panay. Shroeder nurses a deep grudge against President Roosevelt, whom he considers to have sent his son to die in vain. That makes Schroeder willing, in 1940, to contemplate assassinating Roosevelt in order to prevent American soldiers being sent to die in Europe.
The 2009 film John Rabe portrays a fictionalized version of the incident.
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- The Oregonian, Saturday, December 18, 1937. page 24.
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- Based on public domain material from Prologue Magazine
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- Castle Film – Bombing of USS Panay – USS Panay Sinking
- (パネー号事件と日米関係)"The Panay incident and Japan-US relations", in US-Japan War Talks, the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records  (in Japanese)