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Japanese Attack on the USS Panay

By Bob Price
This Article First Appeared in; The Medina Valley Times 1992
Editorial Column: Paying the Price; by Bob Price
Early December is a traditional time when Americans remember the Attacks on the US Navy by the Imperial Forces of Japan.

Would you believe though; Pearl Harbor wasn't the first sneak attack by the Japanese on US Warships?

It must have been a red hued sky of warning for the American sailors the morning that they were attacked by surprise in 1938. Around the world there was unrest and war. Rumors of war abounded. America had watched developments in Southeast Asia and had warned it's on alert.

At sea US vessels and their crews were busy protecting the shipping lanes and American interests abroad. Oil laden transports sat at anchor just miles off shore from where the action was taking place. This was the coast of China.

On shore an invading force of determined Japanese beat down all resistance. The local military and militia fell easily before the shelling.  Supplies of high technology weapons purchased from the US either directly or indirectly were used against the population. All of these weapons were purchased before a US sanctioned embargo, and before all the war talk. America had supplied Japan with the firepower to carry out its dark mission. A series of sales we would live to regret.

Now; all munitions and loans had ceased from America; but the Japanese were more determined than ever to secure territory in Southeast Asia. Foreigners caught ashore by surprise were outlaws to the Japanese.

American citizens no longer could count on any assistance from the State Department, here.  Those few Americans unfortunate to get caught or captured were on their own. Their rations no doubt would have been poor for sometime. The embargo would have an effect on the entire area economy and food sources adding more intensity to the flames of war.

The Imperial Empire now struggled for supplies, for technology, and for a way to either strike a 50 - 50 deal with America and Russia; who primarily represented the 'other interested parties'. Or they were determined to retain all the territory they had recently captured. There was also the likelihood and the option of war. Japan was already planning a multistep war plan. She was in lock step with Germany.

Warnings to Japan from America made little difference; like thunder from a rain storm which never comes. Japan had a free ride and it knew it and Japan moved swiftly and mercilessly. The paper-tiger of America held little or no threat abroad.

The US turned to humanitarian actions assisted the mass exodus of refugees from the region, even going as far as to help evacuate their local 'friends' who wept as they saw their once peaceful towns and cities and country reduced by bombardment and siege.

Terrible brutality took place there too. In the country's major city the invading forces ravaged the area during several days in what has been called 'a senseless orgy of slaughter, rape, and destruction'. Hundreds of years of heritage, priceless architecture, art, and irreplaceable human life made up the target of this attack of hate and conquest; by the Japanese.

Meanwhile, three Standard Oil tankers stood at anchor side by side resting peacefully in the nations waters under the protection of a US gunboat, a scant 27 miles from the action. Smoke was rising from the shoreline in the distance and gunfire could be heard.

Nearby sat the US Panay at Anchor.

The US sailors were helpless though.  These Americans were too few and too far from home.  And, America was caught flat-footed on this one.  Only a small American force patrolled these thousands of miles of foreign waters. The US role was complimented by a small international force which included some British warships; they too had to remain neutral in the onshore battle.

The American crews on the civilian and military vessels knew the danger the area posed. They were under no illusions.Many boats had been attacked and sunk in these waters but so far no American shipping had been involved.

US Naval personnel stood at the ready in an almost constant state of 'Yellow Alert' or known today as Condition Three; which is about midway through a five condition scenario. One third of the crew was on duty at all times, 24 hours a day. Seven days a week.

Suddenly, from overhead terror griped the sky, as the unseen and unexpected enemy dropped to bombing level and let go with a payload which would cripple the small American gunboat.

The Panay was the smallest ship in the American arsenal and guns were manned quickly but ineffectively. Americans would die here, and the attackers would go unpunished.

It was December 12th, 1938. These were the International Waterways of China. The USS Panay was a 450 ton gunboat built especially to protect US shipping from Chinese river pirates on the Yangtze River and along the coastal waterways. And now the Panay was sinking.  

No one thought the Japanese would attack a US vessel in 1938. America was neutral and isolationist. She saw herself above the fray and hue and cry of battle.

The US was not at war, and as a matter of fact had been supplying both China and Japan with supplies on a cash and carry basis. An age old 'sin' of free trade.
The Panay was clearly marked. From her fantail flew the Stars and Stripes. It was a clear day, and on board; photographers captured the scene so graphically that  Japanese propagandists will later claim that the footage was faked. But there was no mistake. These were Japanese planes attacking a clearly marked US warship.
The Japanese purposefully attacked the US Panay, the three Standard Oil Tankers, the British gunboats, and river steamers.

The British vessels even had huge Union Jacks painted on their decks. No help here.

Japan would apologize. It would offer to pay for an itemized listing of damages for the vessels. But, apologies would not and could not pay for the missing and dead. A total of 96 people were known to be missing. Probably more. An American seaman was known dead, and so was an Italian journalist. Their bodies recovered. At least ten crewmen were missing from the Panay alone. Japan was victorious and unchallenged.

Japan could not be routed from China, and in March of 1940 she established a puppet government. Internal war would eventually bring down the Japanese in China. But, in 1941, despite overwhelming information American Naval forces were attacked on a clear Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor. The sinking of the USS Panay went unnoticed and largely ignored by the US public..
Japan's attempt to pull the US into its war in 1938 had failed. But, US responsiveness was tested. Its pride was challenged, and the sleeping giant was not provoked enough to respond and bring to a head a political situation which the Japanese felt they could live with.

And how many servicemen lost their lives in 1941 due to this unnecessary strategy; if the US had stood up to Japan; What would have been the outcome of the war?

Instead, the US became a primary target, because it threatened to intervene in Japan's quest for more territory, more oil, and more economic stability; and yet the US did not build up its forces or stand prepared for Pearl Harbor.

In the face of world wide economic collapse; Japan felt it had no choice.

First, Japan sought provocation in order to draw out the US and when that didn't work it sought a more aggressive action. Once Japan had entered into its plan of conquest and control its only hope of survival was to deal a death blow to US forces, and hope that it could somehow gain further concessions from the US or actually bring down America in the Pacific.

The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor however, set in cement the national resolve necessary to defeat Japan. The sinking of the USS Panay angered Americans too, but because of the previous war experience just decades before in World War I; the US embraced Isolationism. That is a mistake played out in American politics over and over again.

America lacked the immediate will to recognize its enemies, and strike back decisively. Because we are not inherently evil; we don't do well with evil first.

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