Tuesday, October 23, 2007

USS Panay

Named after a Philippine island, the USS Panay (PR-5) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 10 September 1928, the Panay was part of the US Asiatic Fleet and was built specifically for patrolling China’s Yangtze River. American ships that were assigned to the Yangtze were part of the famous “Yangtze Patrol,” which existed for almost 90 years. The Panay was 191 feet long, had a beam of 29 feet, but only had a draft of 5 feet, 3 inches, making her ideal for steaming in some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze. She was armed with two 3-inch guns, eight .30-caliber machine guns and had a top speed of 15 knots. Panay also had a complement of five officers and 54 men.

As with most US gunboats, the Panay’s primary mission was to protect American lives and property during the turbulent 1920’s and 1930’s in China. During this time, China had been engaged in a massive civil war between Nationalist Chinese warlords and Communist Chinese. Then, in the 1930’s, Japan invaded China and the carnage in this troubled country reached extraordinary proportions. During all of this fighting, Western gunboats (from countries including Britain, the United States, France and Italy) had to protect their citizens and national interests from the devastation that was taking place around them. From 1928 to 1937, the Panay played an important role in protecting American lives, property and merchant ships from Chinese bandits and warlords that threatened the commerce on and along the Yangtze. The Panay was shot at on numerous occasions and she always fought back. Fortunately, the ship was not seriously damaged in any of these bloody skirmishes.

But in December 1937, the Panay’s luck ran out. The Japanese Army was sweeping through South China and was about to begin an assault on the city of Nanking. Most of the American Embassy staff had been evacuated in November, but a number of individuals remained behind to keep the embassy open until the last possible moment. The last group of 15 Americans left the Embassy and boarded the Panay on 11 December. The following day, 12 December, the Panay moved 15 miles upriver from Nanking so as to avoid the fighting that was consuming the city. She was also escorting three American oil tankers (the Mei Ping, the Mei Hsia and the Mei An) out of the area to protect them from Japanese artillery fire coming from shore.

Commander J.J. Hughes, the Panay’s skipper, was bringing the little convoy further upriver when, at 9:40 AM, Japanese soldiers on shore signaled the gunboat to stop. Commander Hughes hove to and a boatload of Japanese soldiers came towards the ship under the command of Lieutenant Sesyo Murakami. Murakami and his men boarded the ship and were immediately brought to Commander Hughes. The American officer informed Murakami that he was on board a neutral American warship transporting civilians and escorting three American merchant ships. Murakami was searching for Chinese soldiers and, after seeing that there weren’t any on board the ship, thanked Hughes and left. The American ships kept going up the river for five more miles and then anchored, hoping that they were well clear of the fighting that was going on in Nanking.

At 1:37 PM lookouts on board the Panay reported Japanese aircraft approaching the ship. A large number of Japanese naval fighters and bombers suddenly attacked the four ships. Unfortunately, these were aircraft from the Japanese Navy and, even though the Japanese Army had just boarded the American gunboat and released it, this information was not given to the Navy, which had orders to attack all ships next to Nanking. Even though it was a very clear day and the white American gunboat had two large US flags painted horizontally on her upper deck awnings (with another big American flag flying from its flagstaff), the Japanese planes came in for the kill. Bombs started falling all around the ships and two of them scored direct hits on the Panay. One of the bombs destroyed the gunboat’s forward 3-inch gun and the bridge while the other bomb caused severe damage to the midsection of the ship. Several near misses also sprang leaks in the ship’s hull and soon the small gunboat was beginning to sink. Crewmembers quickly manned the Panay’s eight .30-caliber machine guns, putting up some anti-aircraft fire that prevented the planes from scoring even more hits. Commander Hughes was injured with a broken thigh and 43 sailors and 5 civilian passengers were also wounded. Three crewmembers died in the attack. Fortunately, Lieutenant C.G. Grazier, the ship’s medical officer, was not injured and was able to keep many individuals alive until the entire incident was over.

Less than thirty minutes after the attack had begun, it was clear that the Panay could not be saved. Abandon ship was ordered and the Panay’s small motorboats and the captain’s gig transported the civilian passengers and crew to the nearby shore. Soon everyone was off the stricken gunboat. At 3:45 PM the Panay rolled over to starboard and sank bow first. She was the first American warship to be lost in action in the 83 years that the Yangtze Patrol had been in existence. The three oil tankers the Panay was escorting were also lost in the attack.

Unfortunately, communications in the area were almost nonexistent and it took a while for news of the attack to reach Asiatic Fleet Headquarters. Once it did, a small combined task force of two British gunboats (the HMS Ladybird and HMS Bee) and the US gunboat Oahu quickly headed for the area. After waiting for help for three days, the small Anglo-American “task force” finally made its way to the battle ravaged area and rescued all of the survivors.

American reaction to the attack was quick and sharp. Open conflict with Japan was avoided only after the Japanese apologized profusely for the attack and vowed to pay damages for the sinking of the gunboat and the oil tankers. The Japanese claimed that their Army troops had never informed the Navy that the Panay was in the area, even though the weather was good and the neutral American gunboat was clearly marked with American flags. On 22 April 1938, the Japanese government paid the United States $2,214,007.36 as compensation for the loss of the Panay, the three oil tankers, personal losses and personnel casualties. Japan didn’t want to fight the United States yet, so they believed this was a small price to pay to maintain America’s neutrality in the Pacific. Ironically, almost four years to the day after the attack on the Panay, the US Fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the payment, the attack on the Panay swayed public opinion in the United States against Japan. It also encouraged Congress to start enlarging US armed forces, even though money was scarce because America was still in the midst of the Great Depression. America may not have been at war with Japan, but the Panay incident brought that war one step closer to each country.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Panay on patrol, date unknown. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): Panay underway on 30 August 1928. National Archives photo. Click on photograph for lager image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Panay’s Decks awash, following fatal bombing by Japanese aircraft. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Panay sinking on 12 December 1937. Click on photograph for larger image.