Revealed: America's World War II Fight Against Japan Almost Started In 1937

Key point: Roosevelt accepted an official Japanese apology for the incident.

For some Americans, World War II started early. In December 1937, four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war, Japanese planes attacked an American gunboat, the USS Panay, on China’s Yangtze River, strafing and bombing the boat, sinking it, killing three American crew members, and the wounding 45 others.

Those same Japanese planes also attacked three Standard Oil tankers that were being escorted by the gunboat, killing the captain of one of the tankers as well as a number of Chinese passengers.

Two newsreel cameramen aboard the Panay were able to film the attack and subsequent sinking of the gunboat, the burning tankers, and the diving, firing Japanese planes. The attacks and the newsreels taken at the time helped to turn American public opinion against Japan and, for a time, there was talk of war.

In the end, war was avoided, and Japan paid an indemnity of over $2 million to the United States. But, at the time and for years afterward, questions raised by the incident remained unanswered.

What had really happened? And why?

As early as 1854, the United States had gunboats on the Yangtze River, a right granted by treaty. By the 1870s, American interests in the area had expanded and the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was created to protect those interests from feuding Chinese warlords and pirates along the river.

By the early 1900s, Standard Oil’s activity and use of tankers in the region had also picked up, and by 1914 the United States Navy had introduced specially built, shallow-draft gunboats to the river. By then the Navy was patrolling as far upriver as Chunghink, 1,300 miles from the coast.

Between 1926 and 1927, six new gunboats were commissioned and placed on the river. One of the was the Panay, a 191-foot gunboat armed with eight. 30-caliber Lewis machine guns and two three-inch guns.

A brass plaque in the Panay’s wardroom summed up her mission: “For the protection of American life and property in the Yangtze River Valley and its tributaries, and the furtherance of American good will in China.”

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