William Breuer was a military historian with more than two dozen books to his credit. He passed away several years ago, but his work is still with us, and continues to fascinate readers.
He had a deeper knowledge base of the war than most writers, and it wasn’t just the big battles. He had details on little things that might have turned the tide on any given day than any other historian to the best of my knowledge.
He wrote a book called Unexplained Mysteries of World War 2 that contains a ton of stories about events that have not been fully explained across the intervening decades between that horrific period in history and now. One of those was about an event that occurred long before the war. It happened in China on December 12, 1937. This one, or so his theory says, could have been a test run for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
People tend to forget is that before the War the United States had troops in China. They had been there for a variety of reasons and pulled out before Pearl Harbor. Mostly we knew the position would be taken over, and the men killed or imprisoned if we left them in place.
On that fateful December day, a Lieutenant Mastake Okuyama led a squadron of Japanese Imperial Navy bombers flying up along the Yangtze River. That river is some 3,100 miles long that eventually empties into the Yellow Sea. At that point in time it was used primarily for transportation of goods and people to get out of a number of cities into the open ocean for movement to the rest of the world. At the same time the bombers were going up that river the USS Panay (a U.S. Navy gunship) was going down the river.
Normally the Panay had one job, protect US shipping on that river from pirates that tended to raid other vessels of anything valuable. On this day there was a Lieutenant Command James J Hughes serving as the Captain of the vessel which was equipped to fight pirates, not bombers. The ship was also transporting U.S. citizens out of Nanking which was under siege by the Japanese military. It had four U.S. Embassy officials, five refugees, and a number of western journalists on board. The picture of this boat going down the River was obviously one of U.S. activity given the giant US flags flapping in the wind off the bow.
Now, before we get into what happened there is something that must be revealed. In 1927, Japanese military leaders decided that armed conflict with the United States was inevitable. At that time they put together a top secret plan called the Tanaka Memorial which was their plan for military conquest of China and for that eventual war with the United States. Might that have had something to do with what comes next?
If you read our book called China Bones you can find a very dramatic telling of what happened to the Panay. The result was that it was sent to the bottom of that river.
Recall that there were reporters on the ship. They showed that the attacking aircraft came in so low that there was no way, based on the direction of their attack and the placement of the US flags that the Japanese pilots could have not known the Panay was a US ship.
As the Panay started to sink, to make matters a little more intriguing, a Japanese ship came up on the Panay and opened fire on the already doomed ship. Once the Panay was evacuated the Japanese sent several officers on board looking for equipment or top secret documents in a quick search of the bridge.
Over the next several days the survivors and wounded form that ship had to hide, and travel on foot across the Chinese countryside looking for safety. Again, this ordeal was shown in the historic fiction novel China Bones.
The day after the sinking of the Panay the Japanese military went into the city of Nanking and launch a barbaric bloodbath the likes of which had not been seen on the planet for hundreds of years. Even German military who witnessed it were shocked in their reports back to Berlin. In that attack more than 250,000 Chinese men, women, and children perished. It was an attack that came to be known as the Rape of Nanking.
To make matters worse, a number of days later, a Japanese officer was quoted in the news as saying he had orders to open fire on the Panay.
Was the attack really an accident? Was the attack planned?
Well, William Breuer offers up an alternative theory.
Perhaps this event was a test. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was a trial run for Pearl Harbor. Ok, now we know, Pearl Harbor had much larger Navy vessels, and a lot greater ability to respond but the ability of our military to fight isn’t the theory.
Perhaps the axis powers wanted a way to see what the US would do IF the US was attacked. Perhaps they wanted to be able to attack our forces and take out large amounts of equipment and the result would be public condemnation of the attack, and not a counter attack as we did not counter the attack on the Panay.
Maybe that was the idea, but history knows that we did indeed respond to Pearl Harbor and the rest, as they say, is history.