By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
As one walks the exhibits at the National Museum of the United States Navy, one can’t help but notice a number of American flags with varying numbers of stars. Ever since stripes were added to create the U.S. Navy ensign in 1775, the evolving American flag with its distinctive bold design became instantly recognizable.
Except one day in December, when Japanese aircraft attacked American vessels, sinking several and killing Sailors and civilians.
No, we aren’t referring to that “date which will live in infamy,” but four years earlier, on Dec. 12, 1937, when a squadron of six Japanese aircraft bombed and then strafed – repeatedly – the gunboat USS Panay (PR 5) about 26 miles above Nanking on the Yangtze River. Two Sailors would die from their wounds while providing protection to American citizens as Japan began escalating its aggression in the Pacific.
To commemorate that moment in time 78 years ago, the museum’s exhibit on USS Panay includes both the 48-star American flag flown on the ship that day, along with a blood-stained handwritten order given by the ship’s executive officer.
Neutral Nation in Harm’s Way
The gunboat and its convoy of tanker ships owned by Standard Oil Company were in the area to provide a quick evacuation for American embassy staff and U.S. citizens as Japanese forces advanced on the Republic of China’s capital city during the Second Sino-Japanese War that began in July.
In November, Joseph Grew, the American ambassador in China, and most of his staff were ordered to relocate the U.S. embassy to Hankow in southern China. Ropes had been issued to those remaining behind as a means to escape the city over the walls. On Dec. 8, after orders were given for all Americans to evacuate Nanking, Panay became the temporary office of the American embassy. Panay’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. James Hughes, had ordered large American flags to be flown from both the stern and aft of the gunboat and even larger ones lashed horizontally on the topside and awnings to make the ship’s nationality as clear as possible.
American officials repeatedly contacted their counterparts in Japan to advise them of Panay’s location and the names of Americans left in Nanking, mostly journalists and medical staff working in the hospital. As a neutral nation, friendly to both China and Japan, the American embassy requested “the Japanese authorities give appropriate protection and facilities to these Americans.”
With such efforts of precaution, Hughes was stunned to see six Japanese planes heading toward USS Panay and the oil tankers around 1:30 p.m. Dec. 12, unleashing 20 bombs. As the planes power-dived toward Panay, raking the ship with machine-gun fire, Hughes suffered a broken leg. Lt. Arthur “Tex” Anders, the executive officer, was wounded in both hands as he attempted to man a deck gun. As he sought out his commander in the bridge, Anders was struck again with shrapnel in his throat, reducing his voice to a whisper.
With the ship sinking from the bombing, Hughes ordered the crew to abandon ship at 2:05 p.m. As he was placed in a small boat during the evacuation, his boat was struck by bullets from a plane’s machine gun, wounding at least one Sailor as they headed toward shore.
Anders, who was still on the ship, yet barely able to talk, supervised the ship’s evacuation. He wrote the order to abandon ship on a chart stained with his blood and continued writing directives on pieces of paper and even the bulkhead.
After Panay sank, the Japanese pilots then turned their attention to the three oil tankers, sinking two and disabling the third.
Hidden in the tall foliage of bamboo and reeds, the survivors waited until the circling Japanese pilots gave up and left the area. After tending to their wounded and building litters to carry them, the group sought safety at the Chinese-held village of Hoshien eight miles away.
Two Navy Sailors died from the attack: Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger, and Coxswain Edgar C. Hulsebus. Civilians killed included Standard Oil Tanker Capt. Carl Carlson and Italian journalist Sandro Sandri. Wounded in the attack were 43 Sailors and five civilians.
Incensed, the United States demanded an explanation. The Japanese government claimed “poor visibility” and high-altitude as the excuse, explaining the pilots had been told the ships were Chinese merchants carrying Chinese troops.
“While it is clear, in the light of the above circumstances, that the present incident was entirely due to a mistake, the Japanese government regrets most profoundly that it has caused damages to the United States man-of-war and ships and casualties among those on board, and desire to present hereby sincere apologies,” said Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Koki Hirota, promising those responsible would pay for the mistake.
Japanese Rear Adm. Teizo Mitsunami took responsibility for the incident and resigned. The most senior Japanese Army officer in the region of the attack was also removed from his post under the suspicion he ignored orders not to attack neutral nations. Col. Kingoro Hashimoto was a zealot who believed pulling the United States into a “declaration of war would eliminate civilian influence from the Japanese government and complete the ‘Showa Restoration,’” according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison.
The apologies seemed less sincere a day later when reports stated the Japanese airplanes repeatedly “dived and machine-gunned” the sinking American vessels, including USS Panay, at a low altitude where the colors flying at the gaff were easily seen, and then even when the survivors reached shore, the Japanese aircraft continued to seek them out, “apparently searching to exterminate all,” according to a telegram written by Secretary of State Isaac Hull to Ambassador Grew on Dec. 16, 1937.
“These reports give very definite indication of deliberateness of intent on the part of the Japanese armed forces which made the attack on the USS Panay and American merchant ships,” Hull wrote.
Video footage shot by American and foreign journalists on the gunboat confirmed it was a clear, sunny afternoon at the time of the attack, and showed the pilots diving to just above the ship’s masts while raking it with machine-gun fire.
Even with such evidence to show the attack was more deliberate than a mistake, the United States accepted Japan’s apology and more than $2 million in reparations in an attempt to avoid entering another war.
Nearly four years later, Japan would strike unprovoked a second time, leaving some to conclude USS Panay and her two sailors were the first casualties of World War II.
(Editors Note: The main source material for this blog can be found here.)