December Japanese attack signals war … in 1937

By Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice

Photos courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
Japanese warplanes attacked and sank the USS Panay on Sunday, Dec. 12, 1937, at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Panay was part of the Navy’s Yangtze Patrol, which operated gunboats on the Yangtze River, China.

The first strike in a war between Japan and the U.S. came on a December Sunday, but it was four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 12, 1937, Japanese warplanes attacked and sank the USS Panay, an American gunboat on the Yangtze River engaged in embassy evacuations.

Today the USS Panay Incident, as it’s called, is barely remembered. But newspapers at the time ran all-caps headlines edge-to-edge on the front pages. For example, the Boston Herald headline “NIPPON PLANES BOMB AND SINK U.S. GUNBOAT PANAY.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s fear this attack on a Navy gunboat would lead to war.

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