According to newspaper reports, duly authorized for publication, finis may be written in gallant memoria for the last three of the original six Yangtze River gunboats, lost in action in Manila Bay while engaged with the enemy in the battle for the Bataan Peninsula. Told off for duty for the transportation of fresh supplies of ammunition and food from Corregidor to the Bataan beach, the flat-bottomed gunboats with a freeboard of only three feet served valorously in the fiercest combat fighting. Fighting, it should be said, for which these craft were never intended; they could neither take nor give a hard blow.
The Yangtze gunboats will be remembered affectionately by thousands of our own naval personnel; by Anglo-Saxons resident on the river and in the country thereabouts; by missionaries and American doctors ministering to the Chinese. Named for our island dependencies, the six boats were christened: Guam and Tutuila, sisters; next pair, somewhat larger, the Panay and the Oahu; and the other pair, the largest, the Luzon and the Mindanao. The first to be launched and commissioned was the Guam in 1928. Later in her career, her name was changed to Wake.
The Yangtze gunboats were unique— their designs were by the then Bureau of Engineering and the Bureau of Construction and Repair but the workmanship was exclusively Chinese, in a shipyard at Shanghai. (Excepting only the engines for one pair which were made at the New York Navy Yard.) Born in China, the boats would have ended their days there. They were deemed unseaworthy to make passage, say, to Manila. Water rougher than the river would come over the three- foot freeboard.
When the danger incident to the near approach of war came to Shanghai toward the end of 1941, the Yangtze gunboats, which is to say, those designated to go, were made reasonably seaworthy. The main deck and the superstructure were boarded up; they put to sea bravely and made Manila Bay.
A vastly different fate was in store for the Wake (ex-Guam). She was at Shanghai with her sisters when the time came for them all to say good-by—probably forever. She was told off to be left behind at her anchorage after all other United States armed forces and vessels of war had cleared out. The duty designated for the Wake was to act as radio relay ship for the American consuls and other American nationals in and near Shanghai.
Inevitably the Wake had to be marked for sacrifice and so it turned out. When the enemy took over complete military control of Shanghai, the Wake perforce was captured. It is reported reliably (though not necessarily accurately) that the Wake has been commissioned as a vessel in the enemy naval forces.
The sister of the Wake, the Tutuila, is known to have been at Chungking, temporary capital of the Chinese Nationalist Government. She now flies the flag of that Chinese Government, according to a Reuter dispatch from the headquarters of General Chiang Kai-shek. This disposition of the Tutuila, the dispatch stated, was in accordance with orders issued by the President of the United States to the U. S. Naval Attaché at Chungking. The Tutuila is a veteran of many an enemy bombing raid on her post of duty; one may pray that her luck so far will continue.
The Chinese workmen who built the Yangtze gunboats have doubtless not been surprised at the violence that has come in the end to all the boats. Their birth was violent—while some of them were on the ways, revolting armies coming north from Canton took possession of Shanghai. Workmen of all classes were “inducted” into the armies from the South. It seemed certain that the unfinished gunboats would rust where they lay. And then, from causes unexplainable, that particular shipyard was restored to the favor of the new powers.
After that the boats were commissioned for peaceful cruising on the river but not for too long. Japanese naval and military forces took over the Yangtze—a little more every month. The climax and the tip- off that the military had seized control from the civil came in connection with the capture by the Japanese of the temporary capital at Nanking. That was in November, 1937. The events that took place at Nanking fired the enemy to commit the unspeakable crime—the bombing of the Panay, one of the original six Yangtze gunboats; the first of the six to fall, incident to enemy treachery.
Viewed in retrospect, the bombing of the Panay was a small-scale preview of a series of comparable events that quickly followed: bombs from Japanese aircraft dropped on the liner President Hoover; and on the cruiser Augusta, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. The so-called “war-lords” had definitely taken over.
The bombing of the Panay is unequaled for savagery and cruelty in peace-time naval history. So lightly was this class of river boats constructed that a Springfield rifle bullet could probably pierce the side. Her underwater plates pulled clear of holding rivets in consequence of enemy bomb bursts in the water near by. The armament of the Panay was intended only to frighten river junks—two three-inch rifles and some machine guns.
When murderously minded enemy naval aviators swooped down in two waves of bombers—nine craft all told—on the little Panay on Sunday noon, December 12, 1937, and destroyed her viciously without warning and with full knowledge of her nationality, it marked the triumphant rise of that faction in the enemy navy that had vowed to kill every white man that dared remain in China. The guilty officers compounded the bombing by machine gunning American naval men from the sinking Panay. Their punishment as virtually promised by the Foreign Ministry was never carried out.
If one can give full credence to Japanese protestations of friendship and regret for the bombing of the Panay, it would appear that this event marked the beginning of the downfall of those men in Japan who were intent on the preservation of peace. The Japanese Admiral in command at Shanghai and the Japanese Ambassador at Washington alike expressed regret and condemned the perpetrators.
The Japanese Foreign Office made public apology for the Panay assault and expressed willingness to pay indemnities and to enforce new regulations designed to prevent bombings in the future. The diplomatic note said the Panay attack was “unintentional” and expressed “fervent hope” that this unfortunate circumstance would not impair the friendly relations between the nations. Japan’s Foreign Minister’s words were honeyed.
Nonetheless, the Panay bombing was in fact intentional. There was nothing on the river that could possibly be mistaken for the Panay—known to everyone. She was painted white, her superstructure buff. Her identity from the air was made certain from the fact that two large American flags were stretched out on the upper side of her deck awnings. Another large United States flag flew from her staff.
It was not mercy by the enemy that accounted for the Panay's people escaping with their lives. The Japs dropped twenty bombs and followed this with sprays from their machine guns. The Panay's commander was blasted by bomb explosions and suffered a broken leg. The second in command was wounded in the throat but carried on—he wrote his commands on a blackboard. Miraculously only two of the ship’s company were killed but some twenty others were wounded and others badly shocked. The Panay herself lies dead where she sank in action in the river that was her home.
The river gunboats have earned medals of valor for duty done above and beyond their duty. They were expected to do nought else than cruise their beat in peace on the river. Actually they have been under combat fire as have the ships designed only for that.
Let us keep their names in mind: Wake and Tutuila; Panay and Oahu, gallant sisters; Luzon and Mindanao. The last two ended their war service in the waters of the islands for which they were named. The Oahu rates a tear when one remembers Pearl Harbor, Island of Oahu. The Wake commemorates the gallantry of U. S. Marines and Navy on Wake Island. Tutuila, Samoa, is a precious island on the long line for our ships and men now going southwest.