The Forgotten Story of How America and Japan Almost Went to War (before Pearl Harbor)

November 23, 2017 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaAmericaJapanWorld War IIU.S. NavyMilitaryHistoryPearl Harbor

The Forgotten Story of How America and Japan Almost Went to War (before Pearl Harbor)

When U.S. Navy gunboat Panay was sunk by Japanese aircraft on a Chinese river, the two countries were pushed to the brink of war.

While America and Europe struggled through economic depression and nervously watched the spread of fascism in the second half of the 1930s, the situation was far more ominous in the Far East.

Expansionist Japan had sown the seeds of war in China early in the decade, and hostilities broke out in July 1937. By that autumn, Japanese troops were advancing. Drunken and undisciplined soldiers pillaged and burned towns and villages; civilians were captured and shot, and females of all ages were raped, murdered, and mutilated.

There were no limits to Japanese brutality; piles of Chinese bodies were even used for grenade-throwing practice. A Japanese general apologized to a Westerner by saying, “You must realize that most of these young soldiers are just wild beasts from the mountains.”

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Japanese troops marched into the city of Soochow in eastern China on November 19, and the roads to the great cities of Nanking and Shanghai were open to them. When Japanese units approached Nanking on November 21, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s office notified the American Embassy that it should prepare to evacuate. Ambassador Nelson T. Johnson and most of his personnel left the next day aboard the gunboat USS Luzon. Chiang, his wife, and remaining members of the Chinese government fled from the threatened city on December 8.


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Japanese diplomat Yosuke Matsuoka explained that his country was fighting to achieve two goals in China: to prevent Asia from falling completely under white domination and to stem the spread of communism.

Japanese troops soon triumphantly entered Nanking and began a month of unprecedented atrocities. They roamed the city looting, burning, raping, and murdering. Men, women, and children were “hunted like rabbits.”  Wounded and bound prisoners were beheaded, and an estimated 20,000 men and boys were used for live bayonet practice. Even the friendly Germans in the city issued an official report branding the Japanese Army as “bestial machinery.”

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The invaders were supported by a new policy ordering the sinking of “all craft on the Yangzi River,” regardless of nationality. The aim was to leave China’s principal waterway clear for Japanese operations. The order came from Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, founder of the Cherry Society, the Army’s “Bad Boy,” and commander of artillery batteries along the Yangtze River. He told his men to “fire on anything that moves on the river.”

To protect Western citizens, legations, and business interests, the waterway and its tributaries had been continually patrolled since the 19th century by British and American gunboats. The U.S. Asiatic Fleet established supply depots in Tsingtao, Hankow, and Canton and organized gunboats, which had been operating on the river since 1903, into the famed Yangtze River Patrol (Yangpat) in December 1919. Its first commander was Captain T.A. Kearney.

The U.S. Navy’s presence in China was lengthy. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson sent the 44-gun frigate USS Potomac to defend merchant ships against piracy in East Asia. She was commanded by Captain Lawrence Kearny, a veteran of piracy patrols in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Named commander of the Navy’s East India Squadron, Kearny sailed from Boston to Macao and Canton aboard the 36-gun frigate USS Constellation in March 1842, just as the British-Chinese Opium War was ending. A skilled diplomat as well as a gallant sailor, Kearny formed good relations with Chinese officials.

U.S. Navy vessels were thereafter regularly assigned to East Asia, and in 1854 the side-wheel gunboat USS Ashuelot became the first American ship to patrol the Yangtze River. The Sino-American Treaty of 1858 granted U.S. warships the right to navigate all Chinese rivers and visit all ports. U.S. naval activity increased significantly after victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, which led to the annexation of the Philippine Islands, and American naval units served in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 when Chinese insurgents besieged the foreign legations in Peiping.

The Yangtze Patrol comprised 13 vessels, including nine gunboats, and 129 officers and 1,671 enlisted men. In addition, 814 men of the 15th Infantry Regiment were stationed in Tientsin, 528 U.S. Marines in Peking, and another 2,555 Leathernecks in Shanghai.

As revolutionary upheavals swept the country after World War I, the U.S. Navy beefed up its presence on the Yangtze in 1927-1928 by deploying six gunboats built in China and designed especially for river duty. They were the Guam, Luzon, Mindanao, Oahu, Tutuila, and the aging Panay.

The British and American sailors tensely plying the great waterway faced heightened danger as Japanese aggression mounted through the 1930s. The perceptive U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, reported that American-run churches, hospitals, universities, and schools across China had been bombed despite flag markings on their roofs, and missionaries and their families killed. Stressing that the attacks were planned, he loudly protested the pillaging of American property.