A forgotten historical footnote provides the opportunity for the United States and China to reframe their relationship.
“Abandon ship!” The order was given by Lieutenant Arthur “Tex” Anders of the gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) as bombs fell from Japanese warplanes on a peaceful Sunday in December. Anders, the ship’s executive officer, did not bark his orders from the bridge or shout them over the ship’s communications system. Instead, he blotted the words on the bulkhead and navigation charts in his own blood. Hit in the throat by shrapnel, Anders was unable to speak and had to get word to the watch to pass the dreadful order. Although he sustained serious injuries, Anders survived that attack and went on to become one of the first U.S. casualties of World War II.1
Anders’ story and that of the Panay sound like an account from a Pearl Harbor narrative. But the Panay was not tied up at Ford Island, Oahu; she was part of the famed Yangtze Patrol Squadron protecting U.S. interests deep in the heart of China. The year was 1937, four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In July 1937, a local conflict between Chinese and Japanese soldiers at Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing escalated into an all-out conflict. Within days Japan was making its intentions clear: The incident in the capital was nothing more than a pretext for invasion.
During this time, British and U.S. patrol ships on station began shifting colors and making their way deeper into the heartland of China, west on the Yangtze. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, Commander, U.S. Asiatic Fleet, was concerned over developments in the region. He remarked that if fired on by the Japanese, inadvertently or not, U.S. ships would return fire.
Japanese troops entered Nanking, the capital city of Nationalist China, on 1 December, and by the morning of the 12th a British gunboat, HMS Ladybird, had been hit by four Japanese artillery shells. That same morning, Yarnell sent a message to the Panay that gave her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander J.J. Hughes, permission to depart at his discretion, citing reports that shell fire could place the crew in imminent danger.
By early afternoon the Panay, along with her complement of 5 officers, 54 enlisted men, and a small crowd of embassy personnel and U.S. refugees, was well up the Yangtze. Finding a wide-open space in the waterway that seemed less likely to confuse attacking pilots, the Panay anchored, her U.S. flags clearly visible.
At 1337, the ship’s lookout spotted two aircraft flying at approximately 4,000 feet. The crew of the Panay did not know that these Japanese reconnaissance planes had seen them. According to Japanese accounts, the Panay was suspected to be part of a Chinese flotilla trying to escape Nanking. A few minutes later the attack began. A dozen Japanese fighters and as many dive bombers screamed out of the sky hurling bombs and making strafing runs on the unsuspecting crew. The first bomb hit its mark, the explosion flinging Hughes across the pilothouse and destroying a 3-inch gun and the radio room. Communications were knocked out. Chief Ernest Mahlmann jumped up from his afternoon nap and began firing back from one of the ship’s .30-caliber Lewis guns, wearing only his skivvies.
A second bomb hit, and soon the Panay began listing. The forward main deck was awash, and water was six-feet deep in compartments below. As the crew and passengers were evacuated to shore on the commanding officer’s gig, Japanese aircraft continued to strafe the gunboat. At 1505 the last man, Ensign Denis Biwerse, departed the vessel. The Panay rolled to starboard and disappeared beneath the surface, bow first. By 1545, she was gone.
Local Chinese villagers, still fearful of Japanese retaliations, gave what they had to help the Panay survivors. For three days, they protected and cared for them, offering rice and tea. Eventually the survivors were picked up by the Ladybird and the Panay’s sister ship, the USS Oahu (PR-6). In all, three men died and 27 were injured. In the 83 years of the Yangtze patrol, the Panay was the first U.S. ship lost to enemy action, and the first U.S. ship ever sunk from an aerial attack.2
In the United States, public outrage was immediate and intense. That a neutral U.S. ship had been attacked deliberately by a foreign power already at war was hard to accept. In the tense hours after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt faced the question of how the United States would respond. The Japanese were quick to issue a formal apology, claiming the incident had been unintentional, and paid a compensation of $2.2 million. Their murderous rampage into Nanking, however, reached new levels of cruelty. Beginning in December 1937, Japanese soldiers brutally raped, tortured, and murdered upward of 300,000 Chinese citizens. For the Chinese, World War II already had begun. But with the attack on the Panay, now the United States was involved.
When 50,000 Japanese troops entered Nanking in December 1937, they were given orders to kill all prisoners of war. If the Chinese had not fought back so relentlessly, China would have become a Japanese colony and Japan’s imperial ambitions more easily achieved.
China’s contribution during World War II has been largely missing from Western histories of the war. Alamy Image.
Despite its assertion that the attack was a mistake, Japan had sent a clear signal that the United States could not go on believing neutrality would keep it out of the war. In this way, the Panay attack was a forecast of the gathering storm that would descend four years later on the sleepy island of Oahu.
The Forgotten History
Not surprisingly, the attack on the Panay is not well known by most Americans. It was only one ship with few casualties compared to the 2,000-plus who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the sinking of the Panay, while shocking, did not launch the United States into war. It was certainly a wake-up call to the reality of the Japanese surge in the Pacific, but unlike the sinking of the USS Maine (ACR-1) and RMS Lusitania decades earlier, the incident did not move the United States to a wartime footing.
The Panay incident perhaps carries more significance today than it did 81 years ago. In light of the tensions between the United States and China, the attack might offer a new and needed understanding and relationship between the two nations and their navies.
Developments over the past two decades in the South and East China seas have prompted the much talked about “pivot to the Pacific” in U.S. foreign policy and naval strategy. It was inevitable that this pivot should happen given China’s seizure, build up, and, in some cases, militarization of small island-reefs in the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei all trace many of these islets and islands back to their own histories and have competing claims over them.3 But as the juggernaut power in the region, China has exerted its weight and claimed hegemony over most of the disputed areas. U.S. carrier strike groups, forward-deployed ships and squadrons, and other more distributed platforms have become a constant presence working to ensure the freedom of international waters and support partner nations.
The situation has resulted in numerous provocative and dangerous encounters between China and other countries. The most serious of these was the 2001 mid-air clipping of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft by a Chinese fighter jet, resulting in the U.S. aircraft’s emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the U.S. crew was detained for almost two weeks.4 Since then, several other near-misses in the air have increased the tension in the region. China has begun to deploy coast guard vessels as first-line defenders, “undertaking actions such as ramming other states’ coast guard and fishing vessels.”5 This blunt defense of sovereignty has made the South China Sea one of the most destabilized regions in the world.
Reimagining the Dragon
It is no wonder the United States pivoted when and where it did. The response is set against the decades-old backdrop of a nation that has come of age and is now dictating the terms over an area of ocean crucial to the world’s political and economic stability. But it is not only the recent history of disputed islands and waterways to which the world has reacted. The lens through which most Westerners see China reveals a communist nation on the other side of the Cold War. Popular histories still fixate on Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the trappings associated with Communism: consolidated power in the hands of a few, Cold War posturing, minimal religious freedoms, Tiananmen Square, the one-child policy, and coercive expansion. Given this historical lens, none should be surprised to see China flexing its muscle and attempting to strangle access to international waterways.
On the other hand, an interpretation of China through an exclusively Cold War lens misses the larger and more important story: China was an ally of the United States during the most catastrophic war ever to plague mankind. And China, as the Panay incident shows, was in the war long before the United States and its allies. By the war’s end, the number of Chinese dead was 14 million, second only to losses of the Soviet Union. Chinese refugees reached more than 80 million during the war.6 China’s fight against the Japanese invader had direct implications for the Allied victory in the Pacific. In the seminal book, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945, historian, Rana Mitter, writes:
Without Chinese resistance, China would have become a Japanese colony as early as 1938. This would have allowed Japan dominance over the mainland, and would have allowed Tokyo to turn its attention to expansion in Southeast Asia even more swiftly, and with less distraction. A pacified China would also have made the invasion of British India much more plausible. Without the “China Quagmire”—a quagmire caused by the refusal of the Chinese to stop fighting—Japan’s imperial ambitions would have been much easier to fulfill.7
Westerners have lost this larger story of China’s contribution. The relationship with China in the 1930s and ‘40s as a great ally has all but faded from memory, if it was ever even a part of it.
Many Westerners do not realize China played any role in World War II. Those who are aware of China’s involvement often dismiss it as a secondary theater. China’s role was minor, this assessment goes, and its government was an uncertain and corrupt ally that made little contribution to the defeat of Japan. In this view, China’s role in the war is a mere historical footnote.8
If there was any appreciation for China’s contribution to the Allied cause, it was soon lost in the hole created by the Cold War. While Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists won World War II for their people, it was Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who won the country in the end.9 Communism was rightly perceived as an emerging threat, especially as it unfolded in the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Winston Churchill pushed to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle” when it came to the Allies’ postwar policy toward Joseph Stalin.
But China was a different story. World War II fundamentally shaped China’s self-perception as a brutalized nation in need of identity, direction, and coherence. From the ashes of disorder, atrocity, and unimaginable death, a modern China emerged. Westerners were right to be leery of the government that eventually took control, but the Communism in China had a different kind of birth and growth than it did in the Soviet regime. As Mitter stated: “Chinese society became more militarized, categorized, and bureaucratized during the harsh years of the war when government struggled to keep some kind of order in the midst of chaos. These tendencies, along with an almost pathological fear of disorder, continue to shape the Chinese mindset.”10
The authoritarian characteristic of the Chinese approach to foreign policy is a hard pill to swallow today, and the United States and partner nations are right to exercise muscle in reply. Still, without an appreciation of China’s larger history as an ally that suffered and endured much, U.S. foreign policy will continue to be one-dimensional in its approach toward China. It is high time to reframe the relationship. Beyond a pivot west, the United States may need to pivot back to a time when the two nations were friends and allies in the fight against a brutal and ideological aggressor.
The sudden and unprovoked attack on the Panay gives a way back to this relationship. It recalls when Western sympathies lay with the Chinese, when commerce benefited both; when allies sent aid over the Burma Road, and when Flying Tigers rose in support of a great and noble people.
The Panay incident of 1937 might provide a new way to understand China in the context of its larger history, as well as a way forward to a new kind of partnership. Eighty-one years after the event, there are some striking similarities in the region. The United States maintains a naval presence, albeit contested, and there is an aggressor nation intent on destabilizing the region—North Korea. The region has proven it has the capacity for a textured approach with respect to international agreements. Among all the partnerships and bilateral and multilateral agreements that exist, there must be room for a new and constructive arrangement between the United States and China.
With the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaching, there may not be a more opportune time to reaffirm respect and admiration for the Chinese contribution during the war and U.S. desire to change the tenor of the relationship. China, which overcame so much in the allied cause, would welcome this initiative. Rana Mitter reminds us:
In the early twenty-first century China has taken a place on the global stage, and seeks to convince the world that it is a responsible great power. One way in which it has sought to prove its case is to remind people of a time past, but not long past, when China stood alongside the other progressive powers against fascism: the Second World War. If we wish to understand the role of China in today’s global society, we would do well to remind ourselves of the tragic, titanic struggle which that country waged … not just for its own national dignity and survival, but for the victory of the Allies, west and east, against some of the darkest forces that history has ever produced.
Pivoting to Panay may be the best way forward—back to a time of shared suffering and noble causes, back to a friendship forged in sacrifice, back to a river where Panay sailors were given refuge by friends who also sacrificed.
1. LCOL Frank Roberts Jr., U.S. Army (Ret.), “Climax of Isolationism, Countdown to World War,” Naval History 26, no. 6 (December 2012).
2. Kemp Tolly, Yangtze Patrol: The U.S. Navy in China (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1971). The account of the attack is told in detail from pages 274–277. Also helpful was Eric Niderost’s account.
3. “U.S. warns Beijing on South China Sea islands,” BBC News, 3 June 2017.
4. Bonnie S. Glaser, “Conflict in the South China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventative Action, 7 April 2015.
5. Lyle J. Morris, “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty: The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia,” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2, (Spring 2017), 75.
6. Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 (Boston: Mariner Books, 2013), 5.
7. Ibid., 379.
8. Ibid., 9.
9. Ibid., 6.
10. Ibid., 14.
COMMANDER CASH serves as command chaplain on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). In 2004, he was chosen by the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains to receive the Military Chaplains Distinguished Service Award for Ministry to Marines.