"It's been 5 years..." The USS PANAY incident (12-12-37)

The Pittsburgh Press (December 13, 1937)

Roosevelt asks nation’s support of any protests

Of 65 aboard gunboat, all but 9 are missing – merchant ships also wrecked
By Edward W. Beattie, United Press staff writer

Shanghai, China –
The U.S. gunboat Panay was sunk by Japanese bombing planes near Nanking yesterday. Three U.S. merchant ships, Standard Oil Company vessels, were sunk or destroyed.

It was not yet determined how many Americans were killed or wounded. At least one U.S. sailor was killed.

Only nine Americans of the crews and refugees aboard the gunboat Panay had been accounted for tonight.

Others of the estimated 65-70 men aboard the warship may have reached places of safety, but the British gunboat Bee reported that it had picked up only seven survivors and said two others were safe ashore.

Reports were received here that 54 survivors had reached Hohsien and were safe in a mission, but that could not be confirmed nor was there any report as to whether their number included injured men.

The Standard Oil Company said in New York all its men were accounted for with the exception of Capt. C. H. Carlsen of Connecticut, commander of the Mei Ping. The Socony-Vacuum Company announced in New York that it had received private cable advices indicating that 96 persons were killed in the bombings of the American ships.

Only launch found

The Bee, which raced to the rescue after the bombings early Sunday, found only a launch stuck in the mud to tell of the Panay’s fate. The gunboat had been sunk without a trace, but it was believed it went down fighting since orders had been issued to repulse any attack with fire.

Five of those picked up by the Bee were members of the Panay crew and two were civilians.

In addition to the Panay and Standard Oil boats, four British gunboats and tow tugs were attacked. A British seaman was killed on the gunboat Ladybird.

American seaman killed

It was officially announced that one seaman was killed on the Panay. Lt. Cdr. J. J. Hughes, the master, received a broken leg. Lt. A. F. Anders, executive officer, was wounded, as was E. P. Gassie, clerk in the U.S. Embassy at Nanking.

In addition to a crew of about 50, at least 15 civilians including 10 or more Americans, were on the Panay.

It was believed the Panay went down fighting. Since mid-August, both British and U.S. warships have been ordered to fire on any airplane coming too close, so it was assumed that the Panay used its anti-aircraft guns when the Japanese airplanes dived at it repeatedly, dropping bombs.

The British gunboats which were attacked also fought back.

Attacked four times

The Panay and the Standard Oil boats, anchored alongside, were attacked four times. Three planes in each attack plunged down in power dives. The fourth attack, it was said, came nearly three hours after the first, when the stricken ships were either sunk or beached, one of them in flames.

No details of the attacks were received until today, but disaster was feared when the Panay’s radio, sending to her sister ship Luzon, suddenly ceased at 1:25 p.m. yesterday, when it was first attacked.

The Bee, its own decks scarred by the Japanese attack, raced down the river to the village of Hohsien, where most of the survivors were believed to have been landed.

When she arrived, the Panay and the Standard Oil boat Mei Ping had vanished. The Standard Oil boat Mei Hsia was burning at a wharf. The Mei An was beached and deserted.

Four lighted on bank

There was no sign of survivors. After a search, the Bee sighted four men plodding along the bank. They were:

  • J. V. Pickering of Cadiz, Ohio, Nanking manager of Standard Oil;
  • CMM Vernon F. Puckett of the Panay;
  • MM William T. Hoyle of the Panay,
  • …and a Chinese servant.

They said 12 foreigners were walking along the south bank, hoping to reach foreign warships, and that surviving officers and men were on the north bank, presumably at Hohsien.

Japanese have offered to send an army transport plane with supplies and medicine to the survivors, and also to bring off any wounded. They apologized profusely for the attacks and promised to punish those responsible. At about the same time the Panay was attacked, four British warships and two British tugs were attacked at other points along the river – all by Japanese artillery and machine guns, or by Japanese planes.

The Bee and the gunboat Ladybird were attacked about 150 miles upriver from the scene of the attack on the U.S. ships. The Bee escaped lightly. But aboard the Ladybird, as in the case of the Panay, a bluejacket was killed – Seaman T. N. Lonergan, who was in the stoker’s mess room when it was wrecked by an artillery shell. Four shells hit the foredeck. One damaged a six-inch gun. One wrecked the officers’ bathroom, another the wireless aerials. There were splinter holes all over the ship.

Japanese planes three times attacked the British gunboats Scarab and Cricket, and the little ships fired back.

Tugs also attacked

Two British tugs were attacked. Aboard one, it was reported, passengers included Lt. Col. W. A. Lovat-Fraser (British military attaché) and H. I. Prideaux-Brune (British Consul at Nanking). Lovat-Fraser was a companion of the British Ambassador Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, when the Ambassador was wounded by a Japanese plane attack as he and an embassy party were driving from Nanking to Shanghai.

There was a dramatic tension here as a result of the attacks. British authorities and American civilians, at least, were most angry.

The United Press correspondent at Hankow reported that Adm. Reginald V. Holt, Chief of Staff of the British gunboat Bee, demanded of Japanese authorities that they put six Japanese officers aboard his ship as a guarantee of good faith against attack and that he had asked assurance against attack from shore with the comment that any further incidents against British ships might have serious consequences.

British Admiralty authorities in London, confirming the report of the demand for six Japanese officers, said that arrangements had been made to carry them and that it was only because they had not arrived when the Bee was ready to sail that the gunboat left without them.

More attacks reported

There were ominous reports that the Japanese were attacking the village of Hohsien, where many American survivors were landed. A Japanese plane was sent upriver with orders to army commanders to stop any attacks in the entire vicinity, and a dispatch from the British gunboat Bee late today indicated that all firing had ceased.

Adm. Jirō Honda, Japanese Navy attaché, reported that planes had flown over the area and ordered Japanese troops not only to stop attacks on Chinese in the Hohsien area but to go at once to the aid of survivors. Messages were also broadcast by radio, he said, to the same effect.

Adm. Hasegawa ordered a giant navy air transport to leave tomorrow morning with doctors, nurses, medicines and blankets for survivors, Honda said. He added that a U.S. Navy officer would be invited to go on the plane – a precedent according to the Japanese, because foreign officers have never been permitted on Japanese fighting planes.

There had been ominous reports for two days as to the Panay’s danger from Japanese attack. It had been under almost constant fire, from Japanese and Chinese. It went first about 10 miles upriver seeking safety, then 25.

At noon yesterday, the little gunboat was sending a wireless message to its sister gunboat Luzon.

Amateurs get reports

Amateur radio stations here reported picking up messages from the U.S. cruiser-flagship Augusta and the U.S. Marine station here and from gunboats all along the winding Yangtze trying to pick up the Panay. Early this morning came reports that the ship had been sunk; then confirmation that not only had the Panay been sunk, but that the three U.S. merchant vessels were sunk or wrecked – the Standard Oil steamship Mei An (commanded by Capt. Carlsen, an American), the Mei Ping (commanded by Capt. Mender, an Estonian) and the Mei Hsia (commanded by Capt. Jorgensen, a Norwegian).

As soon as they had received official reports that the Panay was sunk, the Japanese authorities assumed responsibility. They explained that their aviators mistook the Panay for a Chinese vessel. The other ships were involved because they sought shelter beside the Panay.

It was noted here that the aviators mistook the Panay for a Chinese vessel even though no Chinese gunboats are in the area and that the Panay was plainly painted with American flags.

Whether the Panay replied to the fire with its guns was not known. But it was disclosed officially that at least two British ships attacked in a similar manner did reply.

Concern apparent

It was apparent that Japanese authorities here were concerned over possible repercussions from the attack on the U.S. ships.

Japanese authorities advised the United Press that Adm. Rokuzō Sugiyama, commanding the Third Battle Fleet, called on Adm. Harry E. Yarnell, commanding the U.S. Fleet in Chinese waters, and expressed deep regret to him over the attack.

Japanese Consul General Takao Okamoto similarly called on U.S. Consul General Clarence E. Gauss to express regret and it was said that the Japanese Ambassador in Washington would visit the State Department as early as possible today.

In Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Kōki Hirota personally called on U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Grew and expressed profound apologies to him.

Japanese Navy authorities, particularly, were thrown into confused anxiety when they learned that the long-rumored report of the disaster to the Panay was true. The Japanese were busy trying to calm Americans. American residents here clamored at newspaper offices for news.

Embassy attachés aboard

According to the best available reports here, the following were aboard the Panay when it was bombed:

  • George Atcheson Jr. and J. Hall Paxton, U.S. Embassy secretaries;
  • Capt. Frank N. Roberts, assistant military attaché;
  • E. P. Gassie, Embassy clerk;
  • Roy Squires of Manila and Seattle;
  • Norman Alley of Hollywood, cameraman for Universal Newsreel;
  • James Marshall of Seattle;
  • Weldon James of Greenville, South Carolina, chief of the United Press Bureau at Nanking;
  • Norman Soong of Honolulu, employed by the New York Times;
  • P. J. Broderick, address unknown;
  • One British subject
  • Three Italians.

One Italian was believed wounded.

Standard Oil officials reported that aboard the Standard ships were J. B. Sherwood of McGraw, New York, of the Nanking office, and D. S. Goldie of Greenock, Scotland, superintendent at Wuhu.

The Japanese Navy reported that the aviator who reported the bombing of the Panay and the Standard Oil ships did so in the belief that he had done a good job by bombing Chinese ships carrying troops.

Adm. Honda, navy spokesman, said:

When he found what he had done, he was extremely contrite.

Adm. Honda said that orders had been given to Japanese airmen to be most cautious in future in their bombings along the Yangtze.

Funeral services were held at Wuhu today for the British seaman killed aboard the Labybird. A British bishop officiated. Japanese Army men provided the bier. A representative of the Japanese senior officer and two officers and 12 men attended the funeral.

Japanese explains attack

A Japanese Navy communiqué issued this afternoon on the attacks on the American ships was as follows:

Acting on information that Chinese troops were fleeing Nanking by steamship, the Navy Air Force proceeded on the night of Dec. 11 to pursue and bomb the ships. Mistaking three vessels belonging to the Standard-Vacuum Company for Chinese steamships, the airplanes bombed them. In the course of these operations, a most unfortunate incident occurred in the sinking of an American warship which was anchored alongside these vessels.

This incident is a matter to be sincerely and most deeply regretted.

In order to assume full responsibility, Adm. Kiyoshi Hasegawa, Commander-in-Chief, is taking forthwith appropriate steps.

Adm. Yarnell issued the following interim communiqué:

A telephone message received by the commander of the Yangtze Patrol from Nanking reports that the USS PANAY (PR-5) was bombed and sunk at mileage 212 above Woosung [the Yangtze is charted as from Woosung at the river’s mouth] and about 25 miles above Nanking.

Survivors, some wounded, are now ashore at Hohsien, on the Anhwei Province bank of the river.

Some Standard Oil ships which were in company with the PANAY were also sunk.

HMS BEE [the British gunboat] is proceeding downriver to assist and to take survivors to Wuhu.

The USS OAHU (PR-6) will also proceed downriver from Kiukiang.

Secretary Atcheson of the U.S. Embassy and Lt. Cdr. Hughes of the PANAY are among the survivors at Hohsien.

Oahu handicapped

The Oahu was handicapped, in its race downriver, by lack of usual aids to navigation and by rain. Not only that, but an area in which shells were falling thick were in its path. It was believed that it could not make the 160 miles to Hohsien before some time tomorrow.

During the attacks on the U.S. and British ships, which naturally absorbed foreign interest, 50,000 Chinese soldiers were holding off 240,000 Japanese from the walls of Nanking, which they had once penetrated only to be thrown back.

Japanese authorities here asserted, however, that this morning, Japanese shock troops fought their way to a foothold on the wall near the Chung-Shan Gate and, from there, moved out to extend their holding along the wall.

Reporter’s fate unknown

The fate of Weldon James, chief of the United Press Bureau at Nanking, was still unknown this afternoon. He was aboard the Panay. A survey of his dispatches, all written under fire, of the last few days, showed the urgently mounting danger to Americans.

At noon Friday, he reported the Panay under fire. Three hours later, he wired:

Two of the Panay’s mess cooks skipped off by tug without collecting their pay. The Panay’s Chinese watermen [who operate sampans between ships and riverbank] are becoming jittery, refuse to travel except direct from the Panay to shore, 200 yards away. On shore, a group of Chinese soldiers just shot a group of argumentative sampan men. The Panay’s crew are watching wounded Chinese soldiers crawl to the south bank while other soldiers step over them unheeding to board junks.

At 4 p.m. Friday, Mr. James reported that 16 Japanese planes, bombing Nanking, flew twice over the Panay, which he was aboard.

At 10 p.m., he reported, Lt. Cdr. Hughes ordered lights out on the Panay because the Chinese opened fire from a tug on the Japanese ashore. Shots swept over the Panay in volleys, he said.

Firing increases

Intensity of fire increased greatly Saturday morning, Mr. James reported. Some shots were falling wild, he said, and endangering the Panay to such an extent that Americans ashore were warned to be ready to leave on her at any moment.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, he wired that water, electric power and telephone service was cut off. Two Japanese planes were then flying over the Panay.

Japanese moved up big guns, he reported at 3 p.m. Saturday, and brought the Panay, British warships and U.S. and British merchant ships in grave danger. Lt. Cdr. Hughes decided to upriver and got underway while Mr. James was returning from a cruise down the river by launch to inspect fires burning at Pukow and Hsiakwan.

Taken aboard ship

Just as the Panay got underway, Mr. James reported, a group of Americans ashore were seen waving frantically and a boat was sent to pick them up. Mr. James joined the ship along with the Americans, who included Roy Squires (former captain of Washington University football team), Norman Alley (newsreel man), Eric Mayell (Movietone man) and James Marshall of Collier’s, who had accompanied Mr. James.

Mr. James wired:

We are heading directly into the line of fire. Huge splashes from shells are a few hundred yards ahead of us.

He commented that he divided his time between dashes to the deck to watch and intervals of typing his messages for the ship’s wireless in the little hospital or sick bay.

He wired:

The decks are crowded with members of the crew, Embassy attachés and refugees watching the fire, now dotting the shore and the river alike. Officers and men are taking it with seamen’s calm and the passengers show their excitement only by unusual jocularity.

Next, he wired:

We seem to have passed the danger zone – it took us 25 minutes.

The Panay went first 12 miles up, then 25. Then its radio went dead yesterday at lunchtime.

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U.S. demands ‘satisfaction’ for bombings

Strong protest made to Tokyo’s Ambassador by Secretary Hull

Washington (UP) –
The United States today demanded of Japan that full satisfaction and compensation for the Panay bombing be given by the Japanese government.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented the demand personally to the Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Saitō.

He informed Ambassador Saitō that President Roosevelt is deeply shocked and concerned at the news of the indiscriminate bombing of American and other non-Chinese vessels on the Yangtze River.

Mr. Hull conveyed the President’s request that the Japanese Emperor Hirohito be personally informed of the President’s feelings.

Secretary Hull met the Japanese envoy after spending nearly an hour with the President, leaving at 12:50.

Envoy expresses regrets

Ambassador Saitō had called at the State Department to express regrets at the bombing of the Panay.

He explained that the bombing was a “great mistake.”

He said the bombing was done by a naval airplane whose pilot was acting on orders to strafe Chinese soldiers fleeing up the river from Nanking. The Japanese pilot apparently mistook the American boat for one carrying Chinese soldiers and attacked it accordingly, he said.

He said:

Of course, it was completely accidental and a great mistake. I have come to make explanation and to bring deep regrets.

Considers U.S. welfare

Press Secretary Stephen T. Early said Mr. Roosevelt is studying the situation only from the viewpoint of national welfare, and subordinating all other considerations. He said the President hoped the press and the American people will give him understanding and support on whatever action is taken.

Information at the White House revealed that the American gunboat was believed out of the war zone when the bombers attacked. Secretary Early said that reports to the White House said the Lt. Cdr. J. J. Hughes of the Panay had chosen his position to avoid becoming the target for Japanese bombs.

For background purposes, the White House explained that this government had maintained with other powers, a Yangtze River Patrol since the 1860s to protect missionaries and commercial interests from bandit raids.

On rescue trip

The Panay moved to the Nanking area to remove refugees and had carried one group of American nationals to safety, he said, and was making a similar rescue trip at the time of the bombing. Rather than remain at Nanking where the Japanese were bombing and shelling Chinese positions, the Panay moved 27 miles up the river to a point where the Japanese hitherto had been inactive. The White House understood that the attack on the war vessel and merchant vessels took place without warning.

President Roosevelt gave orders that all his appointments today were tentative and that the State Department will have first call on his time.

U.S. officials stunned

The suddenness of the Panay incident stunned officials. The State Department closed over the weekend except for the telegraph and code rooms, was hurriedly reopened when first reports of the Panay sinking were received. Reports from all sources were scanned hurriedly as fast as they came in. At the Navy Department, officials likewise burned midnight oil.

Officials considered the attack on the Panay the more serious because Adm. Harry E. Yarnell, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, repeatedly had officially notified the Japanese naval and military authorities of the presence of the Panay and other U.S. river gunboats in the Yangtze, of their mission there, and of their movements. Neither the Japanese military nor naval authorities could have been ignorant of the approximate whereabouts of the Panay, it was said.

Official reports sketchy

Official reports of the incident were sketchy. U.S. Ambassador Nelson T. Johnson, from his temporary embassy aboard the U.S. gunboat Luzon at Hankow, tentatively fixed the time of the bombing at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Hankow Time. This would be 12:30 a.m. EST.

In a formal statement given to American newspapermen in Hankow, Johnson said:

At 1:30 p.m. Dec. 12, 1937, the radio of the USS Panay ceased operating in the midst of a message which was being received by the USS Luzon at Hankow.

At that time, the Panay was anchored above Nanking.

It is estimated that besides the crew, the Panay carried four members of the Embassy staff and five other American men. It is also thought that one British and three Italian subjects were onboard.

At 9:30 a.m. Dec. 13 (20 hours later), the American Ambassador at Hankow received a telephone message from Dr. H. B. Taylor, American missionary stationed at Anking, Anhwei Province, stating that he had received a telephone message from George Atcheson Jr., the senior American diplomatic officer onboard the Panay, saying the Panay had been bombed and sunk, and that 54 of the persons onboard had survived.

15 reported wounded

Atcheson was then at Hohsien, Anhwei, and presumably the other survivors were there also. Atcheson stated to Dr. Taylor that the ships of the Standard Oil Company anchored near the Panay were sunk as well. It is thought that five of these vessels were there, but it is not known whether all were lost.

The report stated that 15 survivors, including one Italian, were wounded, some of them seriously.

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