On December 12, 1937, while conducting operations on the Yangtze River in war-torn China, the U.S. Navy gunboat Panay was suddenly and deliberately attacked by Japanese aircraft. This website, created nearly 70 years after the attack, memorializes those aboard the Panay who fought and died that day, and attempts to shed light on this terrible, deceitful, and sadly forgotten incident.
It sounds like a familiar story: on a bright Sunday in December, nearly 70 years ago, Japanese planes blazed out of the sky to strafe and bomb an American warship while it lay at anchor. The surprise attack caught the crew off-guard, and despite valiant action, the ship was critically damaged, had to be abandoned, and soon sank. If you said December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor, you’d be wrong. The date was December 12, 1937, and the place was the Yangtze River in war-torn China. The vessel? The gunboat USS Panay. It was a sudden and deliberate attack that might have led to war, save for swift diplomacy, and luck.
As early as 1854, U.S. Navy vessels sailed the Yangtze, a right secured by treaty due to America’s status as a trading nation and military power. By the 1870s, America’s expanding economic interests in China necessitated the creation of an “Asiatic Fleet” for protection of merchant ships against river pirates and warlords. By the early 1900s, with the Standard Oil Company operating tankers on the river, America’s presence became more pronounced until finally, around 1914, specially-built shallow draft gunboats advanced to Chungking, more than 1300 miles from the East China Sea.