Chief Boatswain’s Mate Ernest R. “Swede” Mahlmann of Astoria, Long Island, was a tough “China Hand” with twenty years of Navy experience and the leading petty officer on board gunboat Panay (PR 5) on 12 December 1937. He and his shipmates had evacuated Americans out of the Japanese rampage at Nanking, China, up the Yangtze River, when a lookout cried, “Planes overhead!” as Japanese bombers roared out of the winter sun and attacked them at 1327 hours.
Despite the huge colors flying from Panay, the Japanese ruthlessly bombed and strafed the Americans; some pilots flew as low as one hundred feet, which meant that they undoubtedly identified the ship as American. They dropped their first several bombs onto the ship’s bow and close aboard to port, wrecking her forward three inch gun.
Mahlmann had surrendered his rack to one of the evacuees and was getting dressed below deck in the forward boatswain’s locker when one of these bombs exploded in the water alongside. “The bulkhead seemed to give,” he recalled, “and water started to rush in.” Struggling through the rising water, he clambered topside to his station at the aft three inch gun, only to discover that men had secured it beneath an awning.
The chief determinedly went to one of the .30 caliber Lewis machine guns and opened fire on the attackers. As he had not had time to finish changing, Mahlmann fought only in his long woolen shirt and life vest. Civilian cameraman Norman Alley filmed part of the battle and revealed Mahlmann’s heroism to millions of Americans, though journalists dubbed him “The Pantless Gunner of the Panay.”
Mahlmann gallantly fired from three different guns and inspired his shipmates. The Japanese, however, had struck the ship a mortal blow and she sank at 1554. Mahlmann exposed himself to enemy fire as he directed survivors into lifeboats, pulled a struggling sailor from the water, and even returned to the sinking gunboat for bandages and medicines to help his comrades, narrowly avoiding two launches filled with Japanese soldiers searching for them.
“Mahlmann was the spark plug of the crew,” Chief Quartermaster John H. Lang summarized. The redoubtable chief boatswain’s mate received the Navy Cross for his heroism during the battle. The Japanese killed three of Mahlmann’s shipmates and wounded forty-three sailors and five civilians.
The Japanese expressed regret that their men (allegedly) had not been able to identify Panay. President Roosevelt correctly judged the prevailing mood among isolationist Americans and accepted the apology and payment of an indemnity. Colonel Joseph W. “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, USA, serving in China as an observer, however, summed up the reaction of most men in the region in his journal that evening: “Japs apologize. ‘Very sorry for you.’ Couldn’t see the insignia. The bastards.”