Fon Birdell Huffman (August 19, 1913 – September 4, 2008) was a United States Navy veteran who is believed to have been the last survivor of 1937 attack on gunboat USS Panay, which became known as the Panay incident. The United States and Japan were not yet at war at the time of the attack. The sinking of USS Panay marked the first act of aggression by the Imperial Japanese against the United States prior to World War II.
Huffman enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was just 16 years old with his father's signature.
Huffman was serving as a 24-year-old boilerman in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet on board Panay at the time of the attack on December 12, 1937. The fleet's mission was to patrol the Yangtze River to protect American interests as part of a treaty between the United States and the Nationalist government of China.
The Japanese attack and sinking of Panay in the Yangtze was captured on camera by Universal news reporter, Norman Alley. Huffman gave his own lifejacket to Alley during the attack. There are several still photographs and film footage of Huffman throwing an improvised flotation device off Panay.
Huffman met his future wife, Lillian (Homberger) Schwarz, in Norfolk, Virginia, while on leave from the Navy. The couple were married in November 1945. They had two daughters - Nancy, born in 1946, and Gayle, who was born in 1949.
The Huffman family moved to Golden Valley, Minnesota, following his retirement in 1949. They built their first home in the town. Huffman worked for the local school district before taking a position with the Soo Line Railroad, where he worked as a stationary engineer. He continued to work for the railroad for more than thirty years until his retirement.
Fon and Lillian Huffman moved to Summerville, Florida from Minnesota, in 1972 before settling permanently in Titusville, Florida. They continued to reside in Titusville until Lilian's death in 2006. Huffman moved to Sierra Vista, Arizona, several months after his wife's death to live with his oldest daughter, Nancy, and her husband. Just prior to his death, Huffman was interviewed about his wartime experience by filmmaker Nick T. Spark for the website USSPanay.org.
Fon Huffman died in his sleep in a nursing home in Sierra Vista, Arizona, on September 4, 2008, at the age of 95. He was survived by his daughters, Nancy (Steve) Ferguson of Sierra Vista, Arizona, and Gayle (Rusty) Pickus of Fairbanks, Alaska; and his grandchildren – James Pickus and Jeffrey Pickus.
Huffman was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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- Sierra Vista Herald: Fon Birdell Huffman obituary
- USSPanay.org Video presentation about Fon Birdell Huffman's experience aboard USS Panay created by Nick T. Spark
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