Monday, December 11, 2006
The Panay Incident, December 12, 1937
Today in 1937, the USS Panay was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft while at anchor in the Yangtze River near Nanking, China. While this attack did not directly lead to war between Japan and the United States, it did much to damage relations between the two nations and was one of the first steps in the long road which led to Pearl Harbor.
The USS Panay was a gunboat less than 200 feet long and displacing 474 tons. She carried a crew of 59 officers and enlisted men, two 3" guns and 8 machine guns. She was built in China for the specific purpose of patrolling the Yangtze River as part of the United States Navy's Asiatic Squadron. The Yangtze Patrol protected American citizens and property on the river and in the towns and cities nearby. By 1937, there had been a continual US naval presence on the river for nearly 80 years.
To understand why the Panay was where she was when she was, it is necessary to go back to the mid-19th century and the end of the Opium Wars in China. With the Chinese Empire in ruins, Great Britain and other Western powers, including the United States, were granted unprecedented access to the Chinese market. "Unequal treaties", as they have been called, were signed by the Chinese and established treaty ports where foreigners could live, work and trade without interference from the Chinese government. In addition, any foreign citizen living in China was subject to the laws of his nation, not those of China. By the time of the American Civil War in 1861, US merchant ships were sailing up and down the Yangtze along with their counterparts from Europe. Piracy was a problem on some parts of the river, so the Navy began patrolling as far as 1,000 miles inland. As the situation in China began to deteriorate during the last decade of the 19th century, the Navy stepped up operations on the river.
Business was booming on the river by the 1920's, but trouble increased as well. Attacks on shipping by pirates and warlords was on the rise, but this gave way in the early 30's to a new menace: communist armies that took control of the north bank of the middle section of the river. American commerce began to recede from the area, believing that the risks to lives and property were no longer worth the reward. Following the Battle of Lugou Bridge in 1937, Japanese forces moved to occupy Shanghai and Nanking, two of the largest cities on the river.
The gunboats of the Yangtze Patrol were ordered to evacuate American civilians and most of the embassy staff in Nanking in November, 1937. The Panay was to stay behind to provide protection for those few who remained behind. They too, left the city and came aboard the gunboat on December 11 as fighting came close to the city, necessitating the Panay's movement upriver. She was joined by a small civilian fleet of three tankers. It is important to remember that the United States and Japan were not at war; in fact, the American naval commander in the area informed his Japanese counterpart of the location of the Panay and the tankers both before and after their move.
On December 12, Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft were ordered by the local Army general to attack any vessels on the river upstream of Nanking. The Japanese Navy knew the location of the Panay and her civilian charges, so they asked for confirmation of the order. Confirmation was given and so at 1:27PM local time, the Panay was attacked. She sank two and a half hours later, taking three members of the crew with her. She never returned fire. 43 sailors and five civilians were injured. The survivors were picked up by the civilian tankers and the British gunboats Ladybird and Bee.
The Japanese government took full responsibility for the sinking of the Panay and paid over $2 million in restitution to the US government in April, 1938. Tokyo maintained that the sinking was an accident, although many members of Congress thought otherwise. Relations between the two nations, already tense over Japanese aggression in China, steadily began to erode.
As word of the attack became known to the outside world, letters began pouring into US embassies all over Asia. Almost all of them were from Japanese citizens expressing their regret over the incident. Many sent money, so much that the disposition of it became a problem for Washington. While some of the younger letter-writers appear to have copied a master form letter, most of the correspondence was genuine. In the years that followed, these expressions of humanity from one society to another would be forgotten.