Monday, November 17, 2014

Attack on USS Panay

As mentioned previously, the Topps Civil War News trading cards were not the only ones to portray events of war.  The brainchild of the Bowman Gum Company, the 1938 Horrors of War card series covered some of the recent conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. While most of the events depicted on the cards had little to do directly with the U.S., one event in particular breaks this mold.  Four cards were used to show the attack on USS Panay on December 12, 1937.
Card #9-Panay being attacked by airplanes. In the foreground is a Japanese boat that later came and raked the wreckage with machine guns.
 USS Panay was a gunboat designed to patrol the Yantze River in China. The mission of this gunboat and others like it was to protect U.S. interests and citizens residing in the area. This had been a standard part of American and British foreign policy for decades. Panay had been commissioned in 1928 in Shanghai. 
By December 1937 the Japanese and Chinese had been fighting for nearly five months. As Japanese troops headed toward the capital city of Nanking, Panay was ordered to help evacuate American citizens there, including some journalists.  By December 11, the situation was too dangerous to stay near Nanking, so Panay headed upriver on the Yangtze, escorting some American owned Standard Oil tankers.  The convoy anchored on the river after traveling nearly 30 miles away from the besieged city. 

The crew was enjoying a relaxing afternoon when they heard the sound of planes. Many people, both crew and passengers (evacuees) came to the deck to see about the commotion. The Japanese navy planes, having heard reports from the Japanese army of Chinese troopships escaping from Nanking on the river, started their bombing run on the convoy. The first ship to be attacked was Panay. A bomb almost instantly incapacitated Lieutenant Commander James Hughes, the CO of the vessel. Very quickly, their machine guns were soon answering back at the Japanese onslaught, but to little effect.  
Card #40-Machine gunners attempt to fire on the Japanese planes. The guns were positioned to fight against threats on the riverbanks, not planes, which put the ship at a disadvantage. The two machine gunners are portrayed almost exactly as seen in Universal Newsreel cameraman Norman Alley’s footage of the attack.
Card #53-Lt. Cmdr. Hughes and QMC Lang are wounded.
The Japanese planes also attacked the oil tankers, eventually sinking three of them. With Panay taking on water, and many wounded onboard, the order was given to abandon ship was given less than half an hour after the aerial assault began.
Card #54- Boats evacuating Panay are strafed by Japanese planes. This happened multiple times, but there were no casualties from the strafing. 
USS Panay sinking in the Yangtze River.
The survivors of the attack regrouped on land and headed overland to get to safety and find help for the wounded.  This trek took several days, with the uncertainty looming over them of whether the U.S. was at war with Japan.  One of the items carried out with them was the film shot by news cameraman Norman Alley.  The survivors eventually reached the gunboat USS Oahu and some British gunboats who were searching for them.  The final toll from the attack included three dead and forty five wounded.

While an incident involving loss of life had occurred a few months previously, the event regarding Panay had much more publicity and more controversy surrounding it as a U.S. Navy vessel was sunk. To this day there is still debate on whether the incident was intentional or not.  The Japanese government quickly apologized and claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.  There are many questions which arise from some of their claims however, including the claim that the pilots (and later the Japanese army boat) did not realize Panay was an American ship.  The selection of the only armed ship in the group as the primary target, along with the fact that there were large American flags painted on the ship, fed allegations that this attack was intentional.  In addition, there were some British ships which were also attacked the same day.  Yet the pilots were young and inexperienced, so perhaps they were simply overeager to fight the Chinese.  As in any war, confusion is present, and the Japanese military branches were notorious for bad communication.  With this in mind, there could be some truth to there being miscommunication between Japanese army intelligence and the navy pilots.

Even if there was inter-service confusion within the Japanese military, the footage that Norman Alley took contradicted some of the official Japanese claims.  When the film was to be released to the American public, FDR had the most sensitive parts (showing the planes at low altitude where they would have easily seen the American flags) cut out.  For by this time, the Japanese government had already officially apologized and paid over two million dollars in damages.  The situation had been diplomatically resolved and there was fear that evidence contrary to the Japanese claims would provoke a national uproar.  Even with some of the footage removed, the video helped turn many people against the Japanese and raised sympathy for the Chinese side of the struggle.  It would be only four short years before Japanese naval planes bombed US Navy ships on another December day. 

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