First of two partsStaff writer
For Masatake Okumiya, a lieutenant and dive bomber pilot of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Dec. 12, 1937, was not just another busy day.
On that day, one day before the fall of Nanjing to the Imperial Japanese Army, he took part in a historical incident — the bombing and sinking of the USS Panay, a U.S. Navy gunboat, in the Yangtze River — which put Japan-U.S. relations in peril and led furious Americans to coin the phrase “Remember the Panay!” a precursor for some to “Remember Pearl Harbor!”
And two weeks later, Okumiya witnessed what later became known as the Rape of Nanking.
On the morning of Dec. 12, after a routine bombing run, Okumiya and his unit returned to a Changzhou airfield lying between Shanghai and Nanjing. Orders for one more round of sorties were waiting.
The navy’s air force had received a message from the Central China Theater Army’s General Headquarters that about 10 ships carrying Chinese soldiers were heading up the Yangtze River from Nanjing.
The army requested that naval planes attack the ships, adding that it would award a citation if the mission was accomplished.
The Changzhou airfield commander immediately ordered all planes available, 24 in total, take off for the attack: nine Type-95 fighters and six Type-94 dive bombers from the 12th Air Wing, and six Type-96 dive bombers — led by Okumiya — and three Type-96 level bombers from the 13th Air Wing.
The planes took off around noon and located four ships about 28 nautical miles upriver from Nanjing.
“The normal procedure should have been to descend to a lower altitude and determine the nationality of the ships,” Okumiya, 89, told The Japan Times.
“But we did not do that because the order was based on information supplied by the army general headquarters to the navy through a naval liaison officer. We never doubted the accuracy of the information.”
The three single-engine Type-96 level bombers from the 13th Air Wing dropped the first bombs.
“It was level bombing from an altitude of about 3,000 meters,” Okumiya said.
“Strangely enough, the first six bombs covered the ship that was most upriver from Nanjing and the ship’s vicinity, and there was at least one hit. I was surprised. The upper deck in the ship’s midsection was destroyed, with steam rising up.”
The ship, later identified as the Panay, a 450-ton U.S. gunboat, sank in about two hours and 10 minutes.
The three other ships — fatally hit by bombs dropped by the dive bombers led by Okumiya from an altitude of 600 to 700 meters — were Standard Oil tankers.
“After dropping the bombs, our planes descended further by about 200 to 300 meters and started to ascend again. Even at the lowest altitude, we did not see any markings to show the ship’s nationality.”
The pilots had failed to see the Stars and Stripes, measuring 5.5 meters by 4.3 meters, which had been painted on the Panay’s forward and rear upper decks specifically to avoid such an incident.
The first strike damaged the Panay’s markings, Okumiya explained.
Two Panay crew members, an Italian journalist aboard the gunboat and the captain of one of the tankers died.
The attack caused a furor in the U.S., especially as accounts from survivors, including the captain, James J. Hughes, fueled the belief that the Japanese planes attacked the Panay fully aware of its nationality. Okumiya adamantly rejects this.
He wrote an article for a 1953 issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings, a U.S. magazine, to argue against the official U.S. report on the incident and to reply to Hughes’ questions, and the U.S. side accepted his account, he said.
On a followup mission to ensure the ships had all been sunk, Okumiya’s unit spotted another group of four ships about 10 nautical miles upriver from Nanjing.
Okumiya dived and dropped one bomb toward one of the ships. Then he spotted a Union Jack painted on its deck, he said.
“I was surprised to see the Union Jack. In order to stop the other planes from dropping bombs, I dipped my plane’s wings a few times,” Okumiya said.
“Although two planes dropped bombs, three others stopped.”
Two of the ships were British gunboats.
Back at the base, Okumiya was told to report to the navy’s China Theater Fleet’s flagship, the Izumo, in Shanghai. He and three other pilots flew to the port city the next day.
“While climbing the Izumo’s ladder, I thought that we would be praised for our raid. But another thought came up that we would be scolded concerning our action toward the British ships,” Okumiya said.
It was then that the pilots were told they had sunk the USS Panay and Standard Oil tankers, he said.
“We explained that because the information came from the army headquarters, we took it for granted that the ships were Chinese ships.”
The navy headquarters decided it was a “bombing by mistake” and Rear Adm. Rokuzo Sugiyama, chief of staff, visited the U.S. Asia Fleet’s flagship to apologize, Okumiya said.
“I felt very sorry,” he said.
The Panay incident became a serious diplomatic row between Japan and the U.S. Although the Japanese navy sent Deputy Navy Minister Isoroku Yamamoto to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to explain and apologize, the U.S. rejected the apology due to evidence that the Panay and the other ships had been raked by machinegun fire from shore.
The navy later learned that an army boat machinegunned boats that came from the Panay and the Standard Oil tankers, Okumiya said. Before the shooting, the boat had visited the Panay and learned of its nationality.
Only when Yamamoto explained this to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Clark Grew did the latter accept Japan’s apology.
“It is either that the commander of the army boat did not report the attack to army headquarters or that the headquarters hid it,” Okumiya said.
On Dec. 11, the commander of the 10th Army had ordered the 18th Division to fire on ships on the Yangtze River that passed near Wuhu regardless of their nationality.
“On the basis of the order, the army fired on the British gunboat Ladybird from land on the morning of Dec. 12,” Okumiya said. “This order and the incident show that the army lacked sensitivity toward international affairs.”
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