TOPEKA — On a Sunday in December 1937, the U.S.S. Panay was patrolling the Yangtze River in China after rescuing American diplomats and journalists from the country torn by fighting between Chinese troops and invading Japanese forces.

Aboard the Panay was U.S. Army Capt. Frank N. Roberts, a 40-year-old Oskaloosa native, who had been an assistant military attache at the American embassy in Nanking.

Japanese fighters and bombers earlier had bombed Chinese forces. Since 1931 when Japanese forces had invaded China, forces from Japan and China had fought.

Within hours that day, the Japanese had sunk the Panay, the majority of the 70-man crew was wounded including all the officers, and three aboard the ship were dead or mortally wounded.

Roberts, who narrowly escaped a serious wound, was in charge of rescuing the crew and getting them to safety, family members said last week.

Tuesday is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the Panay and three oil tankers, which were sunk or run aground.

Kansas roots

Frank N. Roberts was born in 1897 and raised in Oskaloosa, where his father, Frank Henry Roberts, was publisher of the Oskaloosa Independent, a newspaper dating to Kansas' territorial days. His mother was Daisy May Needham Roberts.

Frank N. Roberts joined the Kansas National Guard in May 1916 before the United States entered World War I and was mobilized with the 35th Division, according to the U.S. Military Academy Association of Graduates memorial.

His unit was was sent south to the United States-Mexico border area to support the campaign against Pancho Villa.

He attended Baker University in Baldwin City for a year before entering the Military Academy at West Point in June 1918. After graduating in 1920, he taught English at West Point for four years.

China service

By 1934, he was an assistant military attache at the embassy in Peking, China. While there, Roberts studied two or three hours a day to learn to speak Chinese, his son, Frank N. Roberts Jr., said. He learned rapidly and was fluent.

The younger Roberts recalled that years later when he was a boy, he and his father ate at the Presidio in San Francisco, where his father would speak in Chinese at length to the Chinese waiters.

“I would sit there and think, ‘This is amazing,’ ” Frank Roberts Jr. said.

The older Roberts’ fluency would be a “major factor” during the Panay incident, his son said.

In December 1937, Capt. Frank N. Roberts was serving at the American embassy in Hankow as Japanese forces were advancing. On Dec. 8, Roberts and other embassy personnel were evacuated and moved onto the gunboat, a shallow-draft ship armed with eight .30-caliber machine guns and two 3-inch guns.

On Dec. 12, 1937, Japanese aircraft attacked the Panay, bombing the 191-foot ship and strafing it, wounding many of the crew, and causing the ship to begin sinking. The captain issued the order to abandon ship.

The captain, executive officer and other naval officers were wounded, and Roberts was ordered to take command, his son said.

Of the 70 officers and crewmen, two were killed, 10 were seriously wounded, including the captain and executive officer, and 33 were lightly wounded, according to the U.S.S. Panay Memorial website.

An Italian journalist also was killed, two civilians were seriously injured, and one suffered minor injuries. That means 70 percent of the men aboard the ship were casualties.

Escaping capture

The ship’s officers were wounded, and once the survivors reached shore, Capt. Roberts took command.

“They were pretty well scared to death about what was going to happen next,” Frank Roberts said. Villagers made stretchers to carry the wounded, and the crew waited until after dark to move.

Capt. Roberts’ fluency in Chinese was “definitely a major factor” in the assistance and trust villagers gave to the survivors, Frank Roberts Jr. said.

Gunboat survivors “were pretty well shaken,” Capt. Roberts later told his son. “When we talked about it, he admitted how shaken he really was. When the crew arrived on land, they didn’t know whether they would survive.”

When the survivors got aboard the fleet flagship, they were escorted on the river by Allied ships but also by Japanese ships.

That made survivors “nervous. I don’t think it ever left him,” Frank Roberts Jr. said of his father.

The Japanese apologized for the Panay sinking and paid more than $2 million in reparations to the United States.

During World War II, Frank N. Roberts served a number of staff positions, including at the U.S. War Department, in Moscow and with Gen. Frank Stillwell in the China-Burma India area.

The son recalls talking to his father about the attack.

The older Roberts found a piece of shrapnel after Japanese planes machine-gunned the Panay.

“It entered his clothing near his neck,” Frank Roberts Jr. said.

“He often told me that a quarter inch (closer) would have meant I never would have come into this world,” the son said his father kidded him. “It was that close for him.”

His father also said “there absolutely was no doubt that this was a provocative, intentional attack,” Frank Roberts Jr. said. “The Japanese knew this was an American ship. He was unequivocal about that his entire life.”

Before the Panay attack, the U.S. Navy routinely informed the Japanese of the location of the American gunboats to avoid an international incident based on an accidental attack of a gunboat by the Japanese, who then would claim they didn’t know an American ship was there, Frank Roberts Jr. said.

Also the Panay had three American flags on it, including a large one painted on the top deck, which made it clearly visible from multiple directions, he said.

Frank Roberts Jr. also said conjecture cropped up that inter-service rivalry between the Japanese army and the Japanese naval air forces might have led to an attack on the Panay when air crews were told by Japanese army forces that an unidentified ship or a Chinese ship was on Yangtze River.

Pat Roberts, a nephew of Frank N. Roberts, talked to his uncle about the Panay sinking. The captain’s father was the brother of Pat Roberts’ father, Charles Wesley Roberts. Pat Roberts is a Republican U.S. Senator from Kansas.

Pat Roberts said the American ambassador to Japan hoped the sinking of the Panay wouldn’t be the catalyst for America severing diplomatic ties with Japan and its entry to a war with Japan the way the U.S.S. Maine’s sinking in 1898 in Havana, Cuba, had prompted declaration of war against Spain. The Maine was an American warship that exploded in Havana harbor and sparked the Spanish-American War.

“He was a hero to our family. To a young kid, he was a legendary figure,” Pat Roberts said.

Pat Roberts, who refers to his famous relative as “Uncle Frank,” joined the Marine Corps in 1958, serving until 1962.

“My uncle really gave me a hard time” about enlisting in the Marines, Roberts said of their good-natured inter-service rivalry.

Medals of valor

Capt. Roberts eventually was awarded the Navy Cross by the U.S. Navy and the Army Distinguished Service Medal, both for the Panay incident.

He received the Navy Cross for his “display of coolness, resourcefulness and tact,” the Navy Cross commendation said.” Roberts took charge of the survivors of the Panay ashore and by his superior leadership, his knowledge of land operations and his ability to speak Chinese, he was of invaluable assistance,” it read.

During the bombing and sinking of the ship, Roberts, ”disregarding his own safety, assisted in the care of the wounded and in executing the abandonment of the ship,” the commendation for the Distinguished Service Medal read.

“Displaying excellent leadership, courage and tact, he initiated immediate measures for security and alleviation of the suffering of the wounded,” the commendation read. Roberts lead the survivors through “unknown country occupied by troops engage in s hostilities.”

Back in the U.S.

“He was bigger than life. For any guy to get the Navy Cross was unusual,” Pat Roberts said of his uncle. If the United States had been at war when the Panay was sunk, Pat Roberts is certain his uncle would have received the Medal of Honor.

Frank Roberts Jr. said after the attack, newspapers quickly noted a Kansas native son was involved in the Panay incident. When the older Frank Roberts returned home, he was interviewed, and he talked to his family about the attack, too.

Pat Roberts asked his uncle what he thought about taking over command of the Panay when the captain was wounded.

“During those times, you don’t think about such things,” his uncle told him. “You just take over, that’s your training. If you can, bring the boat to shore, save as many people as you can, and mount an attack against that Japanese airplane.”

After the war, Gen. Roberts served in posts around the world and retired as a major general in 1957. At one point, he served a stint with the CIA. At age 77, Roberts died Dec. 23, 1975, in Pomona, Calif. He is buried in the post cemetery at West Point.

After 27 years in the U.S. Army, Frank Roberts Jr. retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in San Diego. He is 67.

Frank Roberts Jr. wrote “Climax of Isolationism, Countdown to World War,” the story of the Panay attack. Marking the 75th anniversary of the Panay attack, the story was printed in the December 2012 edition of the “Naval History” magazine, a U.S. Naval Institute publication.