Panay Island Namesakes in U.S. Navy Warships

USS Panay underway off Woosung, China on August 30, 1928
USS Panay underway off Woosung, China on August 30, 1928

USS Panay underway off Woosung, China on August 30, 1928

The United States Navy named several war ships after Philippine islands.  These included The USS Pampanga, USS Luzon, USS Mindanao, USS Calamianes and the USS Panay.  Some of these were Spanish patrol boats captured in the Philippines.  Others, including the USS Panay (PR-5)  were built in China for river patrol duty.

  • The first Panay was originally a Spanish gunboat in the Philippines, purchased in 1899 after the American occupation, and in various service until 1914, and sold in 1920. Among those who served upon her were future WWII admirals Chester Nimitz and John S. McCain, grandfather of the 2008 US presidential candidate, John McCain.
  • The second Panay (PR-5) was a river gunboat launched in 1927, and serving on the Yangtze in China until being sunk by the Japanese in the 1937 Panay incident.  See for photos and videos of this engagement, the first in which American servicemen were killed by the Japanese military.
  • The third Panay was the general auxiliary Midway (AG-41), renamed in 1943 to make the name Midway available for an aircraft carrier.

This is from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.  The tone and perspective are dated and objectionable but still paints a wonderfully colorful account of patrol duty on the Yangtze in the years before WWII.

“(PR–5: dp. 474; 1. 191′; b. 29′; dr. 5’3″; s. 15 k.; cpl. 59; a. 2 3″, 8 .30 cal. mg.)

The second Panay (PR–5) was built by Kiangoan Dockyard and Engineering Works, Shanghai, China; launched 10 November 1927; sponsored by Mrs. Ellis S. Stone; and commissioned 10 September 1928, Lt. Comdr. James Mackey Lewis in command.

Built for duty in the Asiatic Fleet on the Yangtze Patrol, Panay had as her primary mission the protection of American lives and property frequently threatened in the disturbances the 1920s and 30s brought to China struggling to modernize, to create a strong central government, and, later, to meet Japanese aggression. Throughout Panay’s service, navigation on the Yangtze was constantly menaced by bandits and soldier outlaws of various stripes, and Panay and her sisters provided the protection necessary for American shipping and nationals, as other foreign forces did for their citizens. Often parties from Panay served as armed guards on American steamers plying the river. In 1931 her commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. R. A. Dyer, reported: “Firing on gunboats and merchant ships have (sic.) become so routine that any vessel traversing the Yangtze River, sails with the expectation of being fired upon.” and “Fortunately, the Chinese appear to be rather poor marksmen and the ship has, so far, not sustained any casualties in these engagements.”

As the Japanese moved through South China, American gunboats evacuated most of the Embassy staff from Nanking during November 1937. Panay was assigned as station ship to guard the remaining Americans and take them off at the last possible moment. They came on board 11 December and Panay moved upriver to avoid becoming involved in the fighting around the doomed capital. Three American merchant tankers sailed with her. The Japanese senior naval commander in Shanghai was informed both before and after the fact of this movement.

Manila newspaper account of the sinking of the USS Panay

On 12 December, Japanese naval aircraft were ordered by their Army to attack “any and all ships” in the Yangtze above Nanking. Knowing of the presence of Panay and the merchantmen, the Navy requested verification of the order, which was received before the attack began about 1327 that day and continued until Panay sank at 1554. Three men were killed, 43 sailors and 5 civilian passengers wounded.

A formal protest was immediately lodged by the American ambassador. The Japanese government accepted responsibility, but claimed the attack unintentional. A large indemnity was paid 22 April 1938 and the incident officially settled. However, further deterioration of relations between Japan and the United States continued, as did provocations, many of them stemming from the Japanese Army whose extremists wished war with the United States.

A good account of the Panay sinking