The USS Panay Incident

By: Alex Cintolo
Posted on Oct 26, 2022

The U.S. Navy river gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) underway off Woosong, China, during standardization trials on 30 August 1928. (NARA Photo)

The USS Panay Incident

In the years leading up to the start of World War II there was an incident between the Japanese military, the United States, and China. The incident resulted in the sinking of several ships including a United States Navy gunboat, the Panay. It also resulted in the death of several Chinese and American civilians as well as Chinese and American sailors.

What Was the Full Story?

In 1937 Japan had invaded China. As the Japanese Army continued to advance into China, the United States coordinated with China to help evacuate civilians. On December 12th three Chinese oil tankers and one United States Navy gunboat, the USS Panay, were on the Yangtze river evacuating civilians when they were attacked by the Japanese military.

While Japan was at war with China, Japan and the United States were at peace. To ensure they were not attacked, the USS Panay prominently displayed several American flags and had large American flags painted on the sides of the ship. Ultimately, these displays would not help them in the events that followed.

The USS Panay Sinking
U.S. Navy Photo: The USS Panay (PR-5) sinking in the Yangtze River

The Japanese military first attacked the USS Panay and the Chinese tankers using aircraft while they were anchored. The USS Panay was hit with several bombs and then took strafing fire from the aircraft. While the ship was sinking, small boats were used to evacuate the wounded. Japanese aircraft did not cease their attack and continued to fire at the defenseless wounded. A Japanese small boat armed with automatic weapons also continued to fire at the USS Panay as it sank. 

The USS Panay and the Chinese oil tankers were all sunk in the attack. From the USS Panay three sailors and an Italian reporter were killed. Five civilians and 43 sailors were also wounded from the USS Panay. One of the captains from one of the Chinese oil tankers was also killed along with a large number of Chinese civilians.

Japanese aircraft continued to circle the sunken ships. They continued to fire on the wounded and civilians that were trying to escape the water. Aircraft also continued to fire on defenseless lifeboats as they tried to escape the water. When American and British boats arrived to evacuate the wounded from the USS Panay incident, a Japanese shore battery continued the attack by firing at the British gunboat Ladybird.

What Happened Between America and Japan After?

The United States public was furious at the unprovoked attack. However, the Japanese government took full responsibility for the attack. They said it was an accident and that the Japanese military thought the USS Panay was a Chinese ship. Later that month the Japanese government offered a public apology on December 24th. In 1938 they also paid the United States several million dollars to make amends. 

While the apology was accepted, the time between the USS Panay incident and the apology was very tense. A similar incident in 1898 led to the Spanish-American war, and the public feared this would launch the United States into war with Japan.

Meta Description: The USS Panay incident was an attack on American and Chinese ships by the Japanese military. American and Chinese ships were evacuating civilians from the advancing Japanese military when Japanese aircraft bombed the USS Panay and three Chinese oil tankers. All four ships were sunk. Several sailors and civilians were massacred in the attack.

About the author Alex Cintolo:
Alex is an OEF Veteran. He served with the Army National Guard for six years and served one tour in Afghanistan. He is a native New Englander who currently lives in New Hampshire.