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The Panay Newsreels and Norman Alley

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The Panay Newsreels and Norman Alley

“The Pantsless Gunner of the Panay

by Vaun Al Arnold

Norman Alley
Norman Alley
The astonishing newsreel footage seen on this website was shot by Universal News cameraman Norman Alley, and Movietone News’ Eric Mayell.  Both men were covering the on-going Japanese invasion of China in the mid-1930’s, and found themselves in the thick of things in early December of 1937 as Japanese forces moved on Nanking.  Fearless and tough, Alley had a reputation as an outstanding documentarian.  He had filmed the sinking of the steamer Eastland in 1915, traveled with Pancho Villa during the Mexican-American War, and was gassed in the Argonne Forest while covering the front in WWI.  His credo said it all: “Go to hell if you must — but bring back pictures of it!”

Nanking was certainly about to descend into hell that December.  At the prompting of George Atcheson, a U.S. Embassy official, Alley, Mayell and two Italian correspondents Sandro Sandri and Luigi Barzini Jr., boarded the Panay so that they could document the fall of the city from relative safety. According to Alley, writing in his memoir I Witness, Atcheson proclaimed that aboard the gunboat the group would be “as safe…as you would be on good old American soil.”  Little did Atcheson know that in just a week’s time, Panay would be attacked and sunk and Sandri killed. The result would be not only an international incident, but — next to the Hindenburg crash in May — the biggest scoop of the year.

In the beginning days of December, the Panay under Commander James Hughes operated close ashore off Nanking, rescuing American and foreign dependents from the carnage unfolding in the city.  On the 11th, as Nanking burned fiercely, Panay steamed up the Yangtze away from the city, with three oil tankers under its care.  The relieved crew, passengers and refugees alike, could now take a moment and relax.  The next morning however, brought tragedy.

Alley vividly remembered the events of December 12th.  After having a leisurely breakfast and playing cards into the early afternoon, he suddenly noticed “the sound of motors in the sky.  There they were,” he wrote, “ — three bombers, dual-powered, red-breasted wild geese.  For a split second I thought they were on their way to place a vicious period at the end of Nanking’s death sentence. But I was in for one of the rare surprises of a fairly surprising life, for…there came the unearthly whistle of a plummeting bomb.  The Panay lurched, trembled, rocked.”

The newsreel man stood in shock as the crew of the Panay ran to their stations and began returning fire with machine guns, and watched in horror as the helpless crew of one of the three oil tankers was blown into the river by the concussion of a nearby bomb hit. “Drama was going on around me,” Alley recalled thinking, “I must do something about getting photographic records of this for my government, the American people, and the civilized world, if my camera and I lived through it.” 

Running towards his quarters to retrieve his DeVry 16mm camera, Alley met up with Sandro Sandri, and urged him to get below decks.  A moment later, a bomb struck amidships and Sandri collapsed.  “I dragged him to the engine room,” recounted Alley.  “His left side was a sickening canyon of blood…his number was up.” 

Leaving Sandri in the care of the ship’s company, Alley retrieved his camera and began shooting frenetically.  It was the most important twenty minutes of his career.  “Once more the flying Togos dropped down and let us have it,” he wrote.  “Our machine gunners were doing their level best to counter-punch, but it was nothing short of ludicrous…  Through the telescopic finder of my camera I saw one of the Japanese planes hit.  But, shucks!  I panned with it as it careened crazily in mid-air, but righted itself and plunged back into the fray.”

While Alley photographed, Lt. Arthur Anders took command of the ship in place of Commander Hughes, who had been badly wounded by the Japanese bombs.  A series of hits and near misses disabled the vessel, and the sound of steam escaping the broken boilers was inescapable.  Then there was a terrible concussion on the deck, near where Anders had been directing the defense of the ship.  Lt. Anders, Alley recalled “…staggered; clutched suddenly at his neck.  Blood spurted from his throat as water from a spigot!”  But the Lieutenant did not leave the deck.  Instead, while Alley watched in amazement, Anders was roughly bandaged, and although unable to speak above a whisper, resumed his duties.  Grabbing a piece of chalk, he began issuing orders to his men by writing on the deck.  “I was proud to be an American,” Alley said of that moment.  “I thought of that naval byword handed down by Commodore John Paul Jones to men of Anders’ caliber: We have not yet begun to fight!”

But just as suddenly as the attack began, it abruptly ended. The Japanese planes made one last series of passes on the oil tankers and then disappeared over the horizon. Panay began to take on water, while nearby two of the three oil tankers burned fiercely. “From afar, we could hear the pitiful screams of their Chinese crew members,” remembered Alley. 

As the evacuation of the sinking gunboat commenced, Alley realized he might have to swim for it.  Crewman Fon Huffman gave Alley his life jacket, then jumped over the side and began swimming for it.  Alley thought better of the situation, stayed with the ship, and ended up leaving Panay aboard the last sampan. A short time later, a small Japanese boat arrived on the scene and sprayed the abandoned hulk with machine-gun fire.  It’s crew then boarded Panay briefly, probably in search of code books.  Fortunately, they had already been thrown overboard.

Norman Alley
Norman Alley filming

Alley did not shoot the motorboat attack, but he did film Panay’s final moments as it turned and sank, and then filmed the rag-tag band of survivors on shore as they assessed their predicament.  While the survivors cared for the wounded, and arrangements were made to contact representatives of the Chinese forces in the vicinity, many worried that the surprise attack signaled the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan. Alley and Mayell had another worry: how to secure their film footage and get it to the U.S.A. as quickly as possible.

On the first night, the newsmen wrapped their cameras and films in a piece of canvas and buried them in a shallow mud hole.  Once the survivors began to move, the films were excavated and handled with care, lest they be damaged or lost.  For Alley, the existence of the films was both a comfort and a cause for real fear.  If the Japanese became aware of the footage, Alley was convinced, they would almost certainly attempt to seize it, by force if necessary.

Once the survivors reached USS Augusta, the films were locked in the ship’s safe.  For a moment Alley felt he could relax, although according to Darby Perry, he did have quite an uncomfortable, if accidental, meeting with a visiting Japanese naval attaché.  The attaché recognized Alley and quickly asked if he’d shot any film.  When Alley “acknowledged that he had”  the officer responded by asking Alley if he’d like to “have supper tonight at the Cathay?”  The invitation was politely declined.

Once Admiral Harry Yarnell, commander of the U.S. Fleet in Asiatic Waters, became aware of the films, he determined to have them reach Washington with alacrity.  Yarnell had Alley and his and Mayell’s footage put on the destroyer USS Stewart and rushed to Manila.  From there the journalist flew by Pan Am Clipper to the West Coast, then by chartered airplane to New York, then to the film lab in armored car, all at a cost of $25,000. 

Panay bombing film
Norman Alley's film of the USS Panay Attack

The trip took roughly ten days, by which time the Japanese had apologized for the ‘Panay Incident’ and the matter was considered closed by the U.S.  Government. Nevertheless, prior to releasing them for public viewing, Alley was asked to present his films to various officials including Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson and Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring.  Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt apparently saw the films a short time later, without Alley in the room.  The newsreel man could only speculate as to what kind of action, military or otherwise, the movie might provoke.  For perhaps the first time in history, the facts of a crime and its aftermath had been vividly preserved in moving pictures.

The reaction was swift, and not altogether what Alley might have anticipated.  There would be no new offensive, military or diplomatic.  Instead, at the request of the President, Universal would excise roughly twenty seconds of footage from the documentary.  It would be kept from public view until 1969, when still frames from the offending segment were published in Darby Perry’s book The Panay Incident.

One of the most egregious facts of the attack, and most argued-over, was whether or not Japanese pilots could have seen the American flags draped over the Panay’s deck awnings.  In his apology, Navy Minister Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa claimed the pilots bombed from a high altitude through clouds, and simply could not see the flags.   “Imperfect communication…and poor visibility,” he stated, “were responsible for the mistake.” 

The newsreel threatened to make a mockery of those claims. Kenneth Davis, writing in FDR: Into the Storm states that “Alley’s camera had caught Japanese planes strafing the vessel at masthead height, so low that the pilots’ faces could be seen”.  That may be overstating the facts, but only by a smidgen. The photos in Panay Incident show Japanese dive bombers making passes at an altitude of about 100’— close enough to discern the planes’ markings and count the weapons in their bomb racks.   According to Davis, “the anger this (footage) aroused in Roosevelt was great.”   The President worried that the footage “would have an option-closing inflammatory effect on public opinion” by revealing the depth of Japanese dishonesty.  No wonder he asked Universal to censor it — to do otherwise would have risked a re-examination of the entire incident and a diplomatic crisis.  (Whether FDR informed the Japanese that he intended to have the film censored, so as to gain initiative, is unknown.  Such gamesmanship was not unknown in those days, or in more modern times.).

Panay survivors suspected all along the film that the American public got to see was incomplete.  Some expressed outrage, mostly in private, that the Roosevelt administration lacked the will to prosecute the issue with the Japanese and demand a trial for those who ordered the attack.  For his part, Alley never appears to have publicly commented on the arguments for and against censorship of the film.  He did however speak with Darby Perry, and remembered that he did not fight the cut, thinking to himself “Let’s don’t quibble.  The stuff is great even without it.  And prints are due all over the country chop-chop.  Theatres are already advertising it.”

Indeed, “The Sinking of the Panay” turned out to be a sensation.  The newsreel debuted in Los Angeles as part of a special New Year’s Eve screening at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, showing just before the George Burns, Gracie Allen and Fred Astaire feature Damsel in Distress. The release version, while it only showed Japanese planes at high altitude, did make one falsehood apparent: the day Panay was attacked it was sunny and, despite Admiral Yonai’s claims to the contrary, cloudless. Just a day or two later the newsreel was playing in theatres around the country to an outraged American public.  By now however, with formal apologies issued and the White House taking a liassez faire approach, the time for action was past.

Norman Alley’s reputation gained tremendously as a result of his brave reporting of the Panay incident.  He went on to cover the Spanish Civil War, and was the only American newsreel cameraman allowed by Hitler to document Germany’s early campaigns.  He traveled the globe during WWII filming the advance of the Allies, and covered the Korean and Vietnam wars, and when he died in 1981 he was memorialized as “Mr. Newsreel”.

Norman Alley filming
Norman Alley films sinking of USS Panay

His legend lives.  Writing in an editorial in the New York Daily News in 1997, editor Carleton Freedman praised Alley and his chiefs at Universal.  By allowing the “incriminating 30 feet” of footage to be snipped out, thus diminishing their scoop, they allowed America to maintain its dignity, and helped President Roosevelt avert a war.   Such an act can be seen as an ethical precedent of profound importance that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.  As Freedman put it, “Why not instill in every journalism school student that, in the face of certain earthshaking scoops, there is more than one way of achieving lasting distinction?“

The Panay bombing certainly stands out as the most compelling moment in Alley’s storied career. Yet like many of the survivors, some facts about the incident and its aftermath continued to trouble him. He questioned the exact motivation of the Japanese attackers and also scrutinized the seemingly lackadaisical reaction of the United States government to such a serious affront.  Writing in I Witness some four years after the incident he asked, “Was the dropping of those bombs a mistake?”  In answer to his own question he continued, “Pardonable mistakes, even though they hurt badly, do happen.  But it’s unmistakably an unpardonable mistake to make some mistakes!”

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Postscript: One interesting sidebar is worth a mention. In 1937, a 25-year old African American employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad saw Norman Alley’s “Panay” newsreel.  It captivated him totally.  “Suddenly I became aware of all the things I could say through this medium," he later said. "I sat through another show, and even before I left the theater, I had made up my mind to become a professional photographer."  That man was Gordon Parks, and he went on to become one of the best-known photographers and cinematographers of the 20th Century.