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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to recall a day when Japanese warplanes staged a surprise attack on the United States Navy. We are not talking about Pearl Harbor. This attack took place in China nearly four years before the date that will live in infamy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It happened on December 12, 1937. That's when Japan sank an American ship called the USS Panay. It was caught on film, and 70 years later those pictures and the last survivor have kept the story alive.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: In the 1930s, the U.S. had something unthinkable today — a treaty with China allowing American gunboats to travel deep up the Yangtze River. It was a major trade route for U.S. commerce in China and notorious for pirate attacks.

Mr. NICK SPARK (Filmmaker; Writer): So one of the major missions of these American ships was to keep the river free of bandits and to protect, in particular, the Standard Oil tankers that were plying the river.

ROBBINS: Nick Spark is a filmmaker and writer. He says by 1937, the Yangtze faced a much bigger threat than pirates. The Japanese army had launched an invasion of China, and by December, it was fighting for the city of Nanking - a fight that became known as the Rape of Nanking.

The brutality was recorded on newsreel.

(Soundbite of recorded newsreel)

Unidentified Man: The invaders scaled the walls at night, gliding machine guns and light artilleries that raked the town by day. Horror piles upon horror and one pitiful scene surpasses another.

ROBBINS: The USS Panay, with 55 men aboard, was sent to rescue any Americans left, including embassy staff and journalists — most notably a newsreel photographer who recorded what was to come.

The Panay, with its civilians aboard, escorted the oil tankers 20 miles upstream to wait out the Battle for Nanking. They anchored in the middle of the river and waited. Then, on Dec. 12…

(Soundbite of recorded newsreel)

Unidentified Man: A quiet Sunday afternoon, shortly after lunch, officers of the Panay and several other refugees are chatting in the ward room when suddenly planes appear. The ship has been bombed by Japanese navy planes.

ROBBINS: The last survivor of the attack remembers it vividly.

Mr. FON HUFFMAN (Retired; U.S. Navy): I was sleeping in the bunk. I was sleeping, taking a nap in the afternoon, one o'clock.

ROBBINS: Ninety-four-year-old Fon Huffman worked below decks on the boiler.

Mr. HUFFMAN: The next thing I remembered, they was evacuating the ship. And I went in the river.

ROBBINS: The newsreel shows the Japanese planes attacking and the crew on deck firing back with machine guns, one sailor still in his underwear.

(Soundbite of recorded newsreel)

Unidentified Man: The camera portrays heroism - sights but not sounds. There was no sound equipment aboard the Panay, only silent cameras.

ROBBINS: The ship's captain was wounded badly enough to be taken below. Commander Tex Anders took charge. His son, Bill Anders, was 4 years old at the time, safe with his mother in Canton, China.

Bill Anders grew up to become an astronaut. He flew aboard Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. He recalls how his father wrote the gruesome order to abandon ship.

Mr. BILL ANDERS (Astronaut, Apollo 8; Commander Tex Anders' Son): Since he'd been wounded in the throat, he couldn't talk. So he had to write, initially, in blood and then in pencil his orders.

ROBBINS: Several small boats from the Panay carried the crew to the river bank. Three men aboard died; 27 were injured. The survivors watched their ship sink.

(Soundbite of recorded newsreel)

Unidentified Man: And finally, the Panay rolls over on their side and goes down in 10 fathoms, goes down with their colors still flying, hanging in shredded summer gaff. It's an event that has shocked the world.

ROBBINS: It was especially shocking because people could see pictures of the incident and because the U.S. was a neutral country. So for years, people wondered if the attack was a mistake. Maybe the Japanese thought the Panay was a Chinese boat. Both Fon Huffman and Nick Spark say that's not likely.

Mr. HUFFMAN: We had the American flags all over the ship - all over the top of the ship.

Mr. SPARK: And you can see it if you look at photographs or the newsreel, is they painted American flags on the top of the ship on the decks so that any aircraft flying overhead should be able to see these flags and understand that this is an American vessel.

ROBBINS: So why did the Japanese attack? Writer Nick Spark believes the chaos in Nanking created an opportunity for renegade factions within the Japanese military.

Mr. SPARK: Who really wished that the United States and Japan would get it over with and get into an active conflict, so that the Japanese could, once and for all, drive the United States out of China.

ROBBINS: The Roosevelt administration lodged a protest. And instead of resistance, the American embassy in Japan got cards and letters from embarrassed Japanese citizens. And Roosevelt got a response that, for the time, was nothing short of extraordinary.

Mr. SPARK: Yes, actually, the emperor of Japan eventually personally issued an apology about the attack.

ROBBINS: The Japanese government continued to claim the attack was an accident. Even so, it reprimanded officers and agreed to compensate the Panay crew. Fon Huffman got $1,200 — the equivalent back then of a year-and-a half salary.

Mr. HUFFMAN: I bought a car with the 1,200 bucks. Oh, I had $800. I bought a brand new one for 800 bucks.

ROBBINS: What kind of car?

Mr. HUFFMAN: Chevy coupe.

ROBBINS: Fon Huffman continued serving in the Navy until he retired in 1949. The Panay's executive officer, Tex Anders, eventually retired because of his injuries. Members of the crew were heroes, and Nick Spark says the apology and the money prevented the incident from escalating.

Mr. SPARK: That and the fact that it was Christmastime in the United States, and very few people wanted to spend Christmas worrying about whether the United States and Japan were going to go to war over this incident.

ROBBINS: But gradually, the Japanese hard-line factions gained control. Four years later, they attacked Pearl Harbor. Today, the 1937 warning is all but forgotten.

(Soundbite of recorded newsreel)

Unidentified Man: The Panay survivors will never forget those hectic horrible hours when American blood was shed by war-crazed culprits in an audience of flame.

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to watch the dramatic newsreel you're now hearing of the attack on the USS Panay, go to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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