Saturday, March 22, 2014

Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, USN - A Unique Perspective on History circa 1937

In this current period of an evolving and unsettled world it may be both interesting and instructive to recall history, and what was occurring in the world in the mid to late 1930’s. Less than a year prior to Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland in October of 1938, the United States was involved in a major provocation by Japan during its invasion of China, specifically in December 1937, during the Battle of Nanking.

Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, USN
Commander-in-Chief US Asiatic Fleet

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN
Commander-in-Chief US Pacific Fleet

By uncanny coincidence both Admiral Harry E. Yarnell and future Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, discussed in depth in an article in this blog regarding the planning for the attack on Pearl Harbor (, were involved in the incident, one directly the other indirectly. As a then Captain, Nimitz had commanded the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) in 1934 -1936, a relatively new ship, having been commissioned in 1930. The Augusta was to become ADM Yarnell’s flagship during his tour as Commander-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet. During that tour is when the bombing and subsequent sinking of the USS Panay (PR-5), a River Class Gunboat, by Japanese naval aircraft, occurred in December 1937 on the Yangtze River. The incident, like so many others, quickly slipped into obscurity, forgotten in time. The only transient reminder (but not directly related) being the movie “Sand Pebbles” starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, released in 1966.

USS Augusta (CA-31)
Flagship US Asiatic Fleet circa 1937

USS Panay (PR-5) River Class Gunboat circa 1937

Preliminary proposed naval architect's design for the River Class gunboats dated 1924. Note the flat bottom, as well as the tunnels for the diesel engine driven propellers, both design features intended to minimize potential damage from the Yangtze River bottom, shoals and sandbars. The image can be enlarged in order to improve legibility.

I had the good fortune a number of years ago to be able to borrow and copy a set of files containing ADM Yarnell’s personal correspondence, as well as that of his chief-of-staff, written at that exact period in history. The files had been retained in the possession of CAPT R. F. McConnell, ADM Yarnell’s Chief-of-Staff at the time. They provide original source documentation written within a “window of history”, and a unique perspective on the time and events leading up to World War II.

Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN
Chief of Naval Operations

Not intending to bore anyone, the following are just some brief vignettes into history. The composition and content of the correspondence mix a perspective on significant historical world events on the same page with a reminder about “not forgetting golf clubs”, and queries about wife and family. This was privileged personal correspondence. Who, even in this day in age, would begin official correspondence to the then Chief of Naval Operations with, “My Dear Leahy” (Admiral William D. Leahy)? One clarification, Captain Harold M. “Cap” Bemis, was naval intelligence, and Naval Attache to Japan at the time. Admiral John Marquart commanded the Yangtze River Patrol. With regard to quality of the copies, please try and appreciate that they are reproductions by a copy machine about 4 decades ago of already aging pieces of paper.


The following is a contemporary newsreel film of what was called the "Panay Incident", and in its real time coverage is considered as sensationalism in its format, but as well certainly unique.

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