“River Rats” The USS Panay Fires the First Shots of WWII

USS Panay, Yangtze River patrol, circa 1928

On a clear Sunday in December a flight of Japanese aircraft made a surprise attack on a United States Navy vessel and placed the two countries on the brink of war. The attack resulted in the sinking of the U.S Navy gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) and two Standard Oil tankers, along with the deaths of sailors and civilian passengers. The Panay and other  gunboats operating on the Yangtze River, China, were known as “River Rats.” The date of the attack was 12 December 1937, four years before the Day of Infamy, 7 December 1941. The sinking of the Panay, operating  upriver from Nanking on 12 December, became synonymous with the attack that bore its name – The Panay Incident. The two events, the Pearl Harbor attack and the Panay sinking, though only four years apart, produced markedly different national responses by the United States and Japan.

If history is doomed to repeat itself, the sinking of the Panay should have caused an equal or greater anger and call to arms than did, for example, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898. The extent of the damage and loss of life on 7-8 December 1941 precludes any comparison of the Panay sinking and the public outrage resulting from the later attacks. Still, the sinking of the Maine, leading to the Spanish American War, and the loss of American lives aboard the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915, were major contributing factors to the United States’ declaring war on foreign aggressors. The difference in national attitude and foreign policy is key to explaining why the United States did not go to war in 1937.

At the conclusion of WWI, world leaders believed they could prevent another war on the magnitude of the one they had endured from 1915-1918. Battleships and shipping were a huge factor in preventing such a war, so the great nations believed. In 1921, nine nations gathered to devise methods to slow the arms race to a halt. At the close of the Washington Naval Conference, as it was called, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States, possessing the three largest navies, agreed to reduce warship tonnage. With the treaty came a stifling of Japanese imperial expansion in the Pacific. The Japanese were openly insulted by the proposal to scrap perfectly good ships. For the United States, the treaty was the first tangible evidence that they intended to avoid any further overseas conflicts.  They lagged behind other nations in showing legitimate dedication to world peace. Although Japan had left the League of Nations in 1933 after criticism for the invasion of Manchuria, the United States had never joined the League. In all actions, the United States made it clear they were avoiding all paths that might lead them into another war.

The U.S. Congress passed into law the first Neutrality Act on 31 August 1935. After the death toll of WWI, Americans wanted no more involvement in foreign wars. The Neutrality Act of 1937 prohibited the export of arms and materiel to belligerent nations and reinforced the collective security of isolationism. The act further stated that United States citizens were not to travel on ships belonging to any waring country. That clause was obviously meant to avoid another  Lusitania. The downside of the Neutrality Acts in 1937 was that they hindered President Franklin D. Roosevelt from taking any actions that might help nations friendly to the United States that were struggling to defend themselves against growing aggression from Japan, Italy and Germany. It seemed that American isolationism was a sign that Americans were content to watch the Japanese rape and raze Manchuria in 1931 and then China beginning in July 1937, though they had renewed the Open Door Policy into China through the Washington Naval Conference treaty. But the turbulence caused by the Rising Sun was a vast ocean away. In 1937, Americans mistakenly believed distance equalled security. And they believed distance would allow them to be left alone and out of world affairs.

As had been the case in Cuba, leading to U.S entry into the Spanish American War and later WWI, many Americans blamed past wars on the government’s efforts to protect large financial interests abroad. The same was true of United States interest in China. The presence of gunboats on the Yangtze River was partly to protect American holdings, such as those of the massive Standard Oil Company. On the he Yangtze River alone, Standard Oil operated thirteen tankers to support their China operations. Three of the tankers, the Mei Ping, Mei Hsia, and Mei An, were attacked while they clung close to the Panay for protection on 12 December. American companies operating in Asia had little physical security assets to depend on beyond the River Rats. On land there were even fewer troops. The 4th Marine Regiment stationed at Shanghai guarded the embassy and performed other duties that did not typically include security for American industries.

The United States simply did not have trained soldiers to police the world before WWII. The military situation in China was a reflection of how the United States had allowed their armed forces to deteriorate after WWI. In the 1930s American ground forces ranked among the smallest in the world, around seventeenth in terms of men under arms. The military build-up for war only began in earnest after Germany invaded Poland. For the United States military, going to war with Japan in 1937 would have been a more daunting task after the Panay Incident then it was in 1941. In no way was the United States militarily prepared for war against one of the largest and most experienced armies in the world.

However, more influential in mustering support for war was the American isolationist mindset. Isolationism was the resounding factor behind the Roosevelt administration’s inability to muster support for any military retaliation against Japan after sinking the Panay, especially a declaration of warAccording to Fortune magazine, most citizens were only willing to fight if the country was physically invaded.[1] They were willing to sanction economic  embargoes against Japan but that was the limits of most American’s stomach for revenge.[2]  Open warfare was out of the question. After the Panay Incident, Americans voiced that they preferred evacuating and abandoning China rather than remain there and chance further loss of life and property or being drawn into a war on foreign soil.[3]  China would not be abandoned, but the sinking of the Panay did bring the United States closer to a war that appeared evermore unavoidable. 


What were River Rat gunboats, such as Panay and Luzon (the latter the flagship of Yangtze Patrol Force), doing on the Yangtze River in the first place? The United States and British patrol boats began their duties in China as early as 1858. Their presence there was the result of the opening of China to foreign travelers, most notably, missionaries and industries.

USS Ashuelot, steam-powered gunboat operating on the Yangtze River circa 1874

The gunboats were stationed at four ports along the Yangtze and were authorized to protect their respective nationals by the provisions of the Sino-American Treaty of 1858. Six new gunboats, including Panay, were built in 1927, increasing the number of patrol boats to eleven. Throughout the ten-year period Panay roamed the Yangtze – China’s longest river – she deterred bandits, pirates, and sometimes the crossfire between the Nationalists and Communists locked in their own civil war, which only paused when Japan invaded.

The 1937 confrontation was not the first time the Panay had been in the headlines for coming under attack by a foreign army. In November 1930, Chinese Communists fired on the Panay while she was patrolling 160 miles above Hankow.[4] Coincidently, the  Mei Ping and the British gunboat HMS Peterel were also shot at by shore-based artillery that same month. Seven shells, fired from the shore, fell close to Panay and barely missed some of the crew.  The Panay returned fire. Whether they hit anything or not remained a mystery, but no more artillery fire came Panay’s way – until 1937.

After the Third Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, Chinese forces were steadily forced north toward Nanking. Japan’s over-ambitious timetable to take all of China within weeks was thwarted by unexpected stubborn resistance in Shanghai. They did not reach Nanking in force until November, however that did not prevent the city and surrounding areas from being bombed and strafed ahead of Japanese ground forces. The constant flood of refugees and advancing Japanese toward Nanking placed Chinese officials and non-Chinese diplomats and foreign nationals in grave danger. As early as August, the U.S. State Department recommended all American citizens not in crucial positions leave China.[5] Instead of departing, some chose to seek protection from the River Rats. The Panay welcomed aboard several journalists, the last four staff members from the U.S. Embassy, and officials from the Italian Embassy.

Lt. Cmdr. James J. Hughes (right) puts ashore in one of the motor sampans carried by USS Panay, at Nanking, China, on 12 December 1937. CBM E.R. Mahlmann, USN, is in foreground center, to Hughes’ right. Photo and caption: Naval History and Heritage Command.

Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Hughes, born in New York, Naval Academy class of 1919, was captaining the Panay throughout the Sino-China War. Hughes previously served on the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) and the submarine USS O-9. After three years instructing at the Naval Academy, Hughes commanded the submarine USS R-18 (SS-95) and later was assigned to the USS Pensacola (CA-24). He was a task-master and more than capable of commanding the Panay under any circumstances. Hughes was thirty-nine years-old in June 1936, when he became the skipper of the Panay.

Lieutenant Arthur F. “Tex” Anders, Naval Academy class of 1927, signed on as executive officer (XO) and gunnery officer of the Panay in April 1937. Anders recalled the standard procedures that were implemented during the, then common, air raids of December:

Whenever an air raid alarm was sounded ashore, or if we observed airplanes approaching, we would man our Air Defense stations. All watertight doors and ports would be closed and the eight 50 caliber Lewis machine-guns would be manned. Ammunition was always available at the machine guns. Steel helmets were worn during the alarm. Our orders were: Fire Only If Ship and Crew Were Endangered.[6]

With American diplomats and passengers from other neutral nations boarding the Panay, the crew had much to worry about on an already cramped boat. At the time of the attack, the crew of the Panay was fifty-five sailors. It is believed there were also seventy-two or more passengers and crew aboard. Therefore, following the standard procedures during the appearance of possible threats was of the utmost importance. Nothing in later testimony at the hearing suggests they did otherwise. 

The U.S. Ambassador Nelson T. Johnson and most of the embassy staff stationed in Nanking boarded the USS Luzon on 22 November, after conditions in the city became too dangerous to remain.  Panay also collected American and foreigners aboard, including several journalists: Collin McDonald was the Far East correspondent for the London Times;Weldon James was UPI’s bureau chief, formally in Nanking. James Marshall was Far East correspondent for Colliers magazine. All three experienced the attack firsthand and displayed extraordinary courage during and after the sinking of the Panay.[7]

Also, among the passengers were Roy Squires, businessman, John Paxton Hall and George Atcheson Jr. Second Secretaries of the Embassy in China at Nanking, Emile P. Gassie, embassy clerk, and Frank N. Roberts, assistant military attaché. All would be wounded during the battle. Atcheson had just evacuated the embassy on 11 December. The three Standard Oil tankers also took on refugees.

The tankers were anchored three miles above Nanking Harbor on the 11th at about 1400 hours. There, they were fired on from the shore. The tankers got underway and proceeded upriver, chased by gunfire for approximately an hour. Meanwhile, Lt. Cmdr. Hughes was also forced to move the Panay upriver to avoid artillery shelling that seemed to be getting ever-closer to his boat. He informed the Japanese of his move, and continued to do so after every subsequent move. At 1600 the tankers once more dropped anchor after coming upon the Panay. The following morning gunfire from the banks again caused concern and Hughes, radioed the civilian vessels to make steam and follow him farther upriver.

The portion of the small flotilla belonging to the United States were all well marked with flags and symbols that designated their neutrality. The Panay displayed “two large horizontal” American flags on her top deck, on the front and rear of the boat.[8]  During the Court of Inquiry, held by the Navy a year later, all four American ships were further noted as flying horizontal and vertical flags of various sizes.  At 0940 the Panay was signaled to stop by a Japanese army position on shore. Hughes complied and stopped his boat.  A Japanese motor landing boat came alongside and  Panay was boarded by an officer, along with a security detail. The Japanese officer inquired about Chinese troop positions, but Hughes informed him that the United States was a neutral party in the war, he could not and would not divulge such information. After tense but polite moments the Japanese pulled away without causing any serious delays or harm.

At 1100 Hughes stopped about twenty-eight miles above Nanking, apparently believing he had gotten his boat and charges out of harm’s way. The crew and passengers maintained as much of a Sunday routine as possible under the circumstances. They ate lunch and otherwise considered themselves safe enough that a detail of sailors was sent over to the Mei Ping for stores. Many of the crew took the opportunity to find a comfortable place and take a nap after the excitement of the morning.  Hughes radioed the Japanese of his position. Unknown to him, this would be his last contact with them before his ship came under a storm of bombs and bullets.

The crew of Panay had seen Japanese bombers fly over en-route to attack Chinese positions in Nanking for several days. At 1338 the duty watch spotted three Japanese twin-engine heavy bombers, flying in a direction that implied they were headed for Nanking. Nevertheless, battle stations sounded and watertight hatches were closed, but the crew and passengers aboard Panay did not really expect an attack. Not until “the sound of a whistling bomb preceded an explosion” did anyone aboard truly grasp the dreadful situation they were in.[9] One bomb struck just to the port side of the bridge. The bombers continued toward Nanking without slowing. For a brief moment, some aboard Panay assumed the bombers had mistaken the boat for a Chinese vessel. However, the false hope was short-lived. Everyone onboard was shocked and terrified when six smaller, pursuit type bombers appeared at low altitude and released their bombs on Panay.[10]

Anders was directing the antiaircraft fire of the machine guns, as the second wave of bombers buzzed and circled in preparation for repeated diving attacks on the Panay. Unknown to Anders at that moment, the captain had been seriously injured in the first attack and was being taken to the galley with several other wounded. For all his experience and qualifications, Lt. Cmdr. Hughes was now out of the fight due to his injuries.

The radio was out, the pilot house was wrecked, the three-inch gun on the bow was inoperative and there were leaks throughout the boat. Anders soon realized there were so many men wounded some of the guns were not firing. He went to an unoccupied machine gun and attempted to load it when fragments from a bomb hit him in both hands and prevented any further thought of manning a gun himself. 

With Hughes in great distress from a broken hip and going into shock, it was the responsibility of Anders to step in and save the Panay. If he could. Upon learning of the captain’s condition, Anders headed for the bridge – it was a shambles he recalled. He was only on the bridge for a moment when another bomb blast sent shrapnel into his neck. The wound was bleeding profusely and further prevented him from speaking beyond a whisper. For the rest of the day, Anders was relegated to writing out orders and passing them to his crew. His main concern though, was for the boat, crew and passengers. He needed to stay on his feet and get the boat moving.

Things went from bad to worse. Anders was informed that all electrical power was gone and the engines were disabled. With the Panay taking on water, it seemed there was little more Anders could do for her. Hughes was conscious long enough to send word to Anders to abandon ship. Anders delayed until he received and evaluated incoming inspection reports from the sections. The news did not give him any further hope and Anders concluded nothing more could be done for the Panay. His primary focus now had to turn to saving lives. At 1400, Anders gave the order to abandon ship.

The Panay only had two small motorboats and the coxswains had to ferry a load to shore then make return trips in order to take everyone off. Each boat made four trips back and forth from ship to shore that day. Anders ordered the wounded removed first. Bombers still dropped their deadly loads on the Panay as the two boats puttered toward the river bank. Anders recalled that at least once a plane strafed one of the boats while taking men ashore. Motor Machinist Second Class Alexander Kozak was one of the men wounded while in the lifeboat from strafing Japanese planes.[11] The evacuees were dropped onto a swampy island where they tried to conceal themselves in patches of reeds. Anders assigned Ensign Denis H. Biwerse, one of the few men with minor injuries, to be the last man off Panay. Anders, though severely  wounded himself, took the next to last boat to land. By the time he arrived on the bank, he was so weak from loss of blood that he could no longer direct the men in the capacity as their leader.

While the Panay was being evacuated, the collection of other boats and tankers were also being pummeled by Japanese aircraft. Aboard the Mei Ping the crew had assistance from the Panay detail, present when the attack started. The regular navy men performed firefighting and emergency procedures alongside Mei Ping’s crew in the same methodical way they would have done it aboard their own boat. Their efforts only prolonged the inevitable death of the tanker.

Mei Ping first headed toward the north bank but turned about when machine gun fire from the shore prevented them from beaching on that side. Instead the captain ordered her beached on the south bank, where it was immediately met by approximately 100 Japanese soldiers.[12] The crew was ordered ashore to be questioned and then returned to the ship. Meanwhile, the Mei Hsia followed the Mei Ping in beaching on the south side of the river. Six Japanese planes descended on the two sitting-duck tankers and proceeded to tear them apart dive after dive.[13] Untenable fires broke out on both ships and finished the work of the planes. Fires setting gas tanks onboard ablaze caused explosions, which resonated for hours after the ship was abandoned.[14]  The Mei An’s fate was similar. She beached on the north shore only to be bombed until badly damaged.

 SS Mei Hsia, 1926, owned by Standard Oil Company of New York
Photo: Exxon Mobil Corporation/Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

With no means to radio for assistance or even to advise the outside world of the attack, the survivors were on their own. The gunboat USS Oahu(PR-5) did not start toward Panay’s position until Monday. The Oahu and HMS Bee arrived in the area, where Panay was sunk, on the Tuesday and began a search and rescue operation. Bee recovered twenty-two survivors including the captains of the Mei Pingand Mei Hsia. Survivors were later transferred to HMS Ladybird and taken to hospitals. Both Bee and Ladybird received fire from Japanese artillery batteries on shore during their journey to the scene. Bee narrowly evaded being hit and Ladybird was struck six times by shells.

HMS Bee, 1937


In the aftermath, the butcher’s bill was heavy. One of the Italian passengers, Sandro Sandri, a journalist aboard Panay was killed in the initial attack.  Lt. Edgar G. Hulsebus of Canton, Missouri died of his wounds the following day. Storekeeper First Class Charles L. Ensminger of Nash, Oklahoma died of his wounds on 19 December. Across the entirety of the crew, injuries ranged from very serious, including Lt. Cmdr. Hughes, to minor walking wounded such as Ens. Biwerse. Carl Harry Carlson of Connecticut, Master of the Mei An, was killed in the first attack by a bomb blast that hit the wardroom where he was at. On the Standard Oil ships, numerous unidentified Chinese citizens and ship’s crew were killed during the ensuing bombings and strafing of 12 December. On the 14th, aboard Ladybird, a sickbay attendant, Able-Seaman Terence N. Lonergan was killed by the shelling, while the ship was performing its rescue mission.

USS Oahu (PR-6)
HMS Ladybird circa 1917

Soon after the Panay Incident was reported, the Japanese government began a stream of formal apologies. The pilots that attacked the American and British ships also soon learned of their mistake. They later blamed the incident on poor instructions from the Imperial Japanese Army. A young fighter pilot named Kaname Harada was assigned to the 2nd Combined Naval Air Group formed of the 12th and 13th Naval Air Groups in July 1937, for China service. On 12 December, Harada’s group was ordered to locate and destroy a group of foreign ships operating on the Yangtze and suspected on transporting Chinese troops. The Central China Theater Army’s General Headquarters was the supplier of those orders. A total of twenty-four planes were called into action. Harada’s 12th Group provided nine Type-95 fighters and six Type-94 dive bombers. The 13th Group contributed three Type-96 bombers. In command of the 12th was Lt. Masatake Okumiya.[15]

The attack on the Panay and the three Standard Oil ships was carried out with the help of nine Type-94 Bombers of the 12th Air Group
 Three Type-96 Bombers flown by pilots of 13th Air Group scored the first hits on Panay  

On 12 December 1937, Harada was flying a Nakajima A4N Type 95, a single-engine biplane with two 7.7mm machine guns and armed with two 60kg bombs. He did his duty and was happy about it until he and his fellow pilots learned that they had bombed the ships of neutral nations. “I felt sick to my stomach. I had worked so hard to become a pilot, and now I was going to be thrown in prison,” Harada told author, Dan King, many years later.[16] The navy pilots would be punished for the mistake by being returned to Japan, away from further combat and opportunity for glory. Harada recovered his standing and went on to participate in the attack on Pearl Harbor and then survived the war.

Type-95 Nakajima A4N1 airplane flown in the attack on Panay by Kaname Harada

In April 1938, the Japanese paid $2,214,007.36 in reparations to the United States. The attack was hard to deny or cover up, as so many journalists and newscasters were aboard the various boats involved. Also present with his movie camera rolling throughout the attack was acclaimed war correspondent Norman William Alley. Ally was on assignment in China for the Universal Newsreel Company. Although wounded by shell fragments, he continued to film the attack. The film ran for just short of twenty-two minutes. It was published by Universal Studios and came to theaters within days of the sinking.  

Soon after the sinking, Japanese citizens began sending letters of regret and donations. The American ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew observed, “Ever since the first news of the Panay disaster came, we have been deluged by delegations, visitors, letters, and contributions of money— people from all walks of life, from high officials, doctors, professors, businessmen down to school children, trying to express their shame, apologies, and regrets for the action of their own Navy.”[17] Pilots of the attacking aircraft maintained that they never saw American flags on the Panay. “The normal procedure should have been to descend to a lower altitude and determine the nationality of the ships,” Okumiya said in his 1998 interview with the Japan Times. “But we did not do that because the order was based on information supplied by the army general headquarters” and to doubt high-level information would have been an insult to the army headquarters.[18] With the admission of guilt by the Japanese government the Panay Incident, even the strafing of lifeboats, disappeared from public and government attention. In fact, its sinking seemed a bit immaterial in light of Hitler’s launch of lebensraum, Spain’s continuing civil war and, of course, the Great Depression spanning the world. The relevance of the Panay Incident would not become altogether clear until Sunday morning 7 December 1941.     

Alley’s filming of the Panay attack was seen around the world. 

Additional Sources

Bouchard,  Joseph F. “Accidents and Crises: ‘Panay, Liberty,’ and ‘Stark,’” Naval War College Review 41, no. 4 (1988): 87-102.

Chang, Iris. The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of  World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

French, Paul. Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao. Hong Kong, China: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

King, Dan. The Last Zero Fighter: First hand Accounts from WWII Japanese Naval Pilots. Rockwall, TX: Pacific Press, 2012.

Konstam, Angus. Yangtze River Gunboats 1900–49.New York: Osprey Publishing, 2011.

Moskin, J. Robert. American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Scherr, Arthur. “Presidential Power, the ‘Panay’ Incident, and the Defeat of the Ludlow Amendment.” The International History Review, 32, no. 3 (2010): 455-500.

Tolley, Kemp. Yangtze Patrol: The U.S. Navy in China. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Williams, Greg H. The Last Days of the United States Asiatic Fleet: The Fates of the Ships and Those Aboard, December 8, 1941-February 5, 1942. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2018.

[1]“Here’s Fortune’s Survey on How Americans Viewed Jewish Refugees in 1938,” http://fortune.com/2015/11/18/fortune-survey-jewish-refugees/, accessed 10 December 2018.

[2] “Here’s Fortune’s Survey,” fortune.com.

[3]David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 402.

[4] “U.S.S. Panay, Standard Oil Tank and British Gunboat Return Fire on Yangtse,” New York Times, 15 November 1930, 1.

[5] R.H. Growald, “When Japan Sank the Panay in 37, La Mesa’s Anders was Aboard,” San Diego Union-Tribune, January 12, 1989, ed. 1,4,5,6, p B-3; ed. 2,3, p II-3.

[6] Growald, “When Japan Sank the Panay.”

[7]Paul French, Through the Looking Glass:China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao (Hong Kong, China, Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 205.

[8] Department of the Navy, Court of Inquiry, “Bombing and Sinking of the U.S.S. Panay, Pt. I” August 1938, Washington, D.C. http://www.jag.navy.mil.

[9] Court of Inquiry, “Pt. II,” 40.

[10] Court of Inquiry, “Pt. II.” 41.

[11] Court of Inquiry, “Pt. III.” 115.

[12] Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, 1937, The Far East, Vol. IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 651.

[13]Diplomatic Papers, 1937, The Far East, Vol. IV, 651. 

[14]Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, Japan, 1931–1941, Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010),  Document 385.

[15]Tai Kawabata, “Pilot recalls ’37 bombing of Panay,” Japan Times, 25 December 1998, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/1998/12/25/national/pilot-recalls-37-bombing-of-panay/#.XBLt2RNKgW8, accessed 13 December 2018.

[16]Dan King, “Nanjing 1937: A Japanese Pilot Remembers,” August 2017, http://www.chinaww2.com/2017/08/01/nanjing-1937-a-japanese-pilot-remembers/, accessed 13 December 2018.

[17]Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, (1944), 236

[18]“Pilot recalls ’37 bombing of Panay,” Japan Times.