A Brief History
On December 12, 1937, the USS Panay, a gunboat afloat on the Yangtze River near the city of Nanking (now called Nanjing) was attacked by Japanese military aircraft and sunk, with the loss of 3 American lives. The United States and Japan were not at war and the incident was claimed by the Japanese to be due to mistaken identity of the American ship, despite clear American flags painted on the decks. The Panay was not the first, nor the last, American vessel to be attacked by forces of another country not at war with the United States. Today we list some of those unfortunate incidents, some of which may have been by accident and some quite intentional. This list is by no means a complete account of US ships attacked outside the bounds of war.
1. USS Panay, 1937.
While Japan was engaged in a war of aggression against China, Western powers, including the United States, maintained a presence in China to look after trade arrangements and spheres of influence. The 12 planes that attacked the Panay could almost certainly see the American flag markings, but Japanese irritation with Western presence in China may have caused local military commanders to “accidentally” attack a Western ship, although the Government of Japan would surely not appreciate the diplomatic fallout of such an attack. Japan apologized for the attack and paid an indemnity to the US, and private contributions for the families of the killed and wounded flowed into American consulates and embassies, but diplomatic wrangling kept the money out of the hands of those families! The Panay was 191 feet long and displaced less than 500 tons and was armed with 2 X 3 inch guns and 8 X .30 caliber machine guns. She had a crew of 59 men.
2. USS Pueblo, 1968.
The United States has had a troubled relationship with North Korea since the Korean War (1950-1953), and no peace treaty has ever been signed officially ending that war. During the Cold War, the USS Pueblo, a lightly armed (only 2 .50 caliber machineguns) intelligence gathering ship was sailing in international waters off the coast of North Korea when North Korean forces attacked and seized the ship and its crew, killing 1 crew member in the process. After 11 months of mistreatment and even torture, the surviving crew members were finally repatriated to the United States, though North Korea never gave the ship back to the US. Used by North Korea as a propaganda museum ship, the Pueblo remains on the active roll of US ships despite being held as captured. Unfortunately, the negotiations that brought the American crew home included an “admission” by the US that the Pueblo had violated North Korean territorial waters. The Pueblo incident is but one of many examples of North Korean criminal activity that keep the country a pariah in decent company.
3. SS Mayaguez, 1975.
The Mayaguez began its career in 1944 as a fast cargo ship, first named SS White Falcon and renamed SS Santa Eliana when she was sold to a private company after World War II. In 1975 the US chapter in Southeast Asia was drawing to a miserable conclusion as North Vietnamese forces poured into South Vietnam after the withdrawal of American military forces, creating the impression of American military weakness in the region. Cambodia, a neighbor of Vietnam and a country undergoing its own political and civil upheavals, had seen the US backed government displaced by the Khmer Rouge communist rebels, and the new communist overlords were eager to flex their muscles at the expense of the United States. Cambodian forces seized a peacefully operating US owned cargo ship, the Mayaguez, asserting that the ship had violated Cambodian territorial waters. This time the US was not going to let such an indignity go by unchallenged, and a US Marine Corps operation was hastily mounted to recover the ship and crew. An assault on Koh Tang Island, where the ship was being held ensued, with the ship recovered by American forces. The US lost 3 helicopters and 15 men killed in action, with another 3 men captured and later killed. Additionally, a non-combat helicopter crash killed another 23 American servicemen. The Khmer Rouge Cambodians lost about 25 killed and 4 swift boats sunk with unknown casualties. Alas, despite recovering the ship, the crew of the Mayaguez had been taken to a different island. American military action was continued until the Cambodians released the crew of the Mayaguez. (Note: Though American owned and crewed, the Mayaguez flew the Panamanian flag as a flag of convenience, a common tactic by ship owners to avoid certain taxes, fees and regulations.)
4. USS Liberty, 1967.
The USS Liberty was a converted cargo ship of 7725 tons displacement, lightly armed with 1 3 inch gun and 8 X 20mm automatic cannons, along with some machineguns, reconfigured to serve as an intelligence gathering ship with a crew of 358 officers and men. While patrolling off the coast of Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (6 Day War) when the ship came under attack by Israeli fighter jets and torpedo boats, despite clearly flying the American flag. Clearly in international waters by a wide margin (over 25 nautical miles from the Sinai coast) and flying the American flag, the Liberty was overflown by Israeli jets and propeller powered aircraft repeatedly and at very low altitude before the attacks commenced. The identity of the ship as an American vessel had to be blatantly obvious, but instead of recognizing the Liberty as a non-combatant American ship, the Israelis instead attacked with fighter jets and torpedo boats in a relentless attack spanning about 90 minutes of hell for the Americans. First attacking with cannon fire and rockets from jet fighters, the Liberty suffered severe damage from the start. Antennas were shot apart, precluding extended radio transmissions, though a plea for help was sent, and her flag was knocked off. Still, even after the flag was blown off the ship, the hull number and designation could be clearly read. The Israelis claimed a case of mistaken identity, saying they believed the Liberty was an Egyptian vessel. Bombed with napalm fire bombs, the stricken ship continued to take damage and casualties. Eventually a total of 34 American sailors were killed and 171 were wounded, a casualty rate of over 50%. Finally, an Israeli pilot making a strafing attack reported seeing the identification on the hull of the Liberty and the attacks were ended. Another clue about the non-combatant nature of the Liberty was the lack of return fire on the attacking planes and boats. Plus, the crew of Liberty had hoisted an American flag during a lull in the attacks. Before the ordeal was over, the Liberty was struck by a torpedo fired from an Israeli torpedo boat, blowing a large hole in the unfortunate vessel. The attacks had taken place in broad daylight, between about 2 pm and 3:30 pm. Around the time of the end of the attack, American fighter jets finally appeared on the scene to protect the stricken ship. Despite a 39 by 24 foot hole in the side of the Liberty caused by the torpedo strike, the crew managed to keep the ship afloat. Although Israel apologized for the attack and paid over $3 million in restitution to the families of those killed in the attack, again paid another few million dollars to the families of victims in 2018, the incident has had a chilling effect on US-Israeli military relations to some extent, with many in the US Navy bitterly resentful about the incident and refusing to accept the seemingly bogus “explanation” for the attack.
5. US Pacific Fleet, 1941.
Most Americans “Remember Pearl Harbor!” as the war cry exhorted back in December of 1941, in response to the Japanese “sneak” (surprise) attack on the air and naval bases at Oahu, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. While the US and Japan were engaged in diplomatic negotiations to “avoid” war, the Japanese secretly planned the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in an effort to strike a knockout blow against the main force of our Pacific fleet. While the battleships of the Pacific fleet were caught at anchor in the harbor, the other prized portion of the fleet, the American aircraft carriers, were out to sea and were spared the attack. All 8 American battleships were heavily damaged, with 4 of them sunk. Many other ships were damaged or sunk, and nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged. Though a devastating blow, the Japanese “sucker punch” did not neutralize the US Navy in the Pacific and the subsequent war resulted in massive death and ruin for the Japanese people.
6. USS Reuben James, 1941.
Before the US became a belligerent combatant in World War II in December of 1941, the War in Europe had already been raging for over 2 years, and the Battle of the Atlantic was being waged by German U-boats against ships heading back and forth to Britain in a desperate effort to keep the British Isles fed and equipped so as to continue resistance to the Germans. The US Navy began escorting US flagged cargo ships in the open waters of the Atlantic in an effort to deter U-boat (submarine) attacks, in an operation called “Neutrality Patrol.” A destroyer laid down in 1919, Reuben James was armed with 4 X 4 inch main guns along with an additional 3 inch anti-aircraft cannon and a complement of torpedo tubes and depth charges. Crewed by 159 officers and men, the ship displaced 1215 long tons, stretched 314 feet long, and could zip along at a top speed of 35 knots. On October 31, 1941, the skipper of Reuben James had placed his ship in a position to protect an ammunition cargo vessel against a possible U-boat attack, since multiple German submarines were known to be in the area near Iceland. A torpedo fired from one of those German U-boats intended for a cargo vessel in the convoy accidentally struck Reuben James and the front end of the destroyer was promptly blown off when an ammunition magazine blew up. The ship sank in only 5 minutes, taking 100 of her crew with her. None of the ship’s officers survived the attack. Reuben James was not the only US ship attacked in the Atlantic prior to the US entrance into the War but was the first US vessel sunk by enemy action in World War II. (Note: The Kingston Trio sang a nifty folk song about the Reuben James in 1961, a song written by American icon Woody Guthrie.)
7. USS Cole, 2000.
A modern, high technology Arleigh Burke class destroyer, Cole was commissioned in 1996, and was serving in the Middle East region in 2000. At port at Aden, Yemen on October 12, 2000, the Cole was attacked by an Al Qaeda Islamist extremist terror attack consisting of a small inflatable boat filled with explosives. The suicide boat drove right up to the port side of the Cole and detonated its bomb, blowing an enormous 40 foot diameter hole in the hull. The crew of the Cole suffered 17 men dead and 39 wounded, including female sailors. Though the ship was not sunk, it had to be transported by a gigantic heavy-lift ship, the MV Blue Marlin, back to the United States for repair. Cole did not reenter active duty until 2002.
8. USS Chesapeake, 1807.
In 1807, the United States was only an independent country since 1783 and had not established itself as a world power. British attitudes toward the US were somewhat patronizing and with little respect for American concerns. The US Navy had few warships and could not challenge British mastery of the seas, leaving American merchant ships largely to the mercy of whatever the British deemed appropriate. One of the American warships in existence was the frigate, USS Chesapeake, a 38 gun man o’ war of 1244 tons and 152 feet long, manned by a crew of 340. In October of 1807, as at other times, the Royal Navy had struggled with manning her ships, impressing sailors and suffering desertions when the ships were in port. A British 4th rate warship of 50 guns, the HMS Leopard, approached the Chesapeake under false pretenses, and began bombarding the hapless American vessel that had not gone to battle stations. The Americans were forced to yield and submit to a British search of the American ship for British Navy deserters. The British carried off 4 men from the Chesapeake and left 3 Americans killed and 18 wounded. The outrage by Americans at the British action resulted in the recall of all US Navy ships and the expulsion of British ships from US ports. The Embargo Act of 1807 was implemented and relations between the US and Britain were damaged to the point of worsening relations resulting in the War of 1812.
9. USS Mason, 2016 (X3).
Apparently 2016 was not a lucky year for the USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer launched in 2003. In 3 separate incidents in October of 2016, Houthis rebels (a Shiite Islamic sect) in Yemen targeted the ship with anti-ship missiles fired from shore. Luckily, the Mason was not hit in any of the incidents, though the US did retaliate against Houthis sites. (Yemen was and is in the middle of a Civil War, with Saudi Arabia backing the government forces against the rebels. To say the situation there is complicated is a gross understatement.)
10. USS Water Witch, 1855.
A US Navy steamship conducting surveying duties off the riverine coast of Paraguay, Water Witch was fired on by a shore battery, killing one sailor. Water Witch left the area but continued her surveying mission along other parts of the South American coast. The United States responded in 1856 by dispatching a fleet of 19 ships, which poignantly included the Water Witch, to Asuncion, Paraguay, causing a chastened Paraguayan government to apologize, pay an indemnity to the family of the slain American sailor, and grant the US a highly favorable trade agreement. (Note: Paraguay has access to sea traffic via rivers and does not border the actual Atlantic Ocean.) The Water Witch was a side-wheel gunboat of only 464 tons, 163 feet long, 24 feet wide, manned by a crew of 64 and armed with a main battery of 4 X 32 pounder guns. (Note: In 1864, Water Witch was captured by Confederate forces during the American Civil War and was placed into service with the Confederate Navy as the CSS Water Witch.)
Honorable Mention: USS Maine, 1898.
Remember the Maine? This US Navy armored cruiser was at port in Havana, Cuba, when she blew up and sank in 1898, allegedly by means of “sabotage,” though no such action was ever proven. To this day her demise remains due to unknown reasons. Her sinking created a national fervor in favor of war against Spain (Cuba was then owned by Spain) and precipitated the Spanish-American War. A total of 266 American sailors died in the incident.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other incidents of US ships being attacked while not at war do you know of? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cutler, Thomas. A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press, 2005.
Symonds, Craig. The U.S. Navy: A Concise History. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Toll, Ian. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by the US Signal Corps of USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack on Nanking, China, on December 12, 1937, in what became known as the Panay incident, is a work of a U.S. military or Department of Defense employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.