In the early morning of Saturday, 8 January 1921, a 32-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant assigned to the USS Albany (PG-36/CL-23), docked some distance away in the port of Vladivostok, noted the time was fast approaching 0400. He took his leave from a group of Siberian friends gathered to celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas and, saying one last goodbye, slipped on his regulation overcoat to ward off the night chill and stepped outside.
The streets were mostly unpaved, icy, and hard to navigate. The young lieutenant, Warren H. Langdon, moved gingerly down the poorly lit thoroughfares. Carrying a flashlight in his right hand, he must have realized what a curious sight he presented to the locals, were they awake.
Vladivostok in 1921 was very much in the vortex of the Russian Revolution, and few, if any, of its 10,000 residents were likely to be about town at that early hour. Every night desultory echoes of gunfire rang through the darkened boulevards and past the abandoned waterfront.
Checking his watch, Langdon realized it was already 0420 by the time he crossed onto the wide street named for Peter the Great. Farther on, the Albany (a cruiser temporarily classified as a gunboat) was berthed between a Chinese man-of-war and the legendary Japanese cruiser Mikasa, flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo when his armada destroyed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905. His path took him past the Japanese Army’s 11th Division headquarters, located in a handsome building in the warehouse district. Langdon was almost opposite the headquarters when a Japanese Army sentry, rushing some 75 feet across the street from his post, suddenly confronted him.
The sentry, Teshigoro Ogasawara, menacingly held his rifle with fixed bayonet and inquired “Americanski?” Langdon affirmed this was so and stepped by him. Without hesitation, at a distance of no more than six feet, the sentry discharged a single shot that struck Langdon in the back and exited through his chest just above the heart. Within seconds the stocky officer somehow returned two shots from his service revolver, while the Japanese sentry fired once more. All these missed their marks. Ogasawara hastened back to his post, returning to the scene once reinforcements arrived. All they could find was blood and Langdon’s revolver. The wounded lieutenant was stumbling back to the Albany in a race against time.1
When he reached the ship’s gangplank, the lieutenant returned the salute of the sentry on duty and collapsed. Shipmates who had heard the crackle of gunfire some 500 yards away quickly met him, and Langdon was promptly taken below decks. Despite immediate medical attention from the ship’s doctor, he died at 1421 the following day from blood loss.
Background to Tragedy
The U.S. Army had been in Siberia since the waning months of World War I, the Navy even longer. Their complicated mission included protecting home-bound Czechoslovak Legion troops, preventing Allied military stores from falling into Bolshevik or German hands, and deterring Japanese aggression. But by the fall of 1920, the German threat and the Legionnaires were gone, and with the recent evacuation of U.S. soldiers, only the Albany remained to keep a wary eye on the Japanese Army, which was intent on preventing Bolshevik gains in the region. Rancor between U.S. and Japanese forces was palpable, as the United States’ neutrality in the Russian Civil War was misinterpreted as communist sympathy.2
the time of the shooting, Admiral Albert Gleaves, the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, was far away in the Philippines, at Olangapo, on board his flagship, the USS Huron (CA-9). One month from a desk job and one year from retirement, Gleaves contemplated nothing more demanding than his upcoming voyage from Hong Kong to Vancouver. But then the admiral was notified of Langdon’s death on 10 January by the Albany’s new skipper, Captain Louis Richardson. Without waiting for orders, Gleaves informed the Navy Department of his intention to sail within two days to investigate the tragedy.3
While en route, the admiral received his first detailed explanation of events from Richardson, including the accounts of both Langdon and the Japanese sentry. A few days before the shooting, a U.S. sailor had been disciplined for the petty offense of attempting to rip the flag from a Japanese Army staff car. Certainly no love was lost between the two forces. Richardson believed Langdon was shot because of the “sentry hating Americans.”4
There was reason to doubt Japanese claims of an accident. Imperial army regulations authorized sentries in the field to fire their weapons in the event there was no response to a challenge given three times. Both Langdon and the Japanese sentry agreed that before being shot Langdon was permitted to pass after being challenged once. The regulations further prohibited sentries from leaving their posts or discharging rifles while on garrison duty. Ogasawara violated those rules.5
More telling was a letter an officer formerly with the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, wrote to Rear Admiral Andrew Long, head of Naval Intelligence, concerning the Langdon shooting:
[N]umerous cases of similar nature were investigated by me while at Vladivostok. . . . It was my duty as intelligence officer to investigate all such matters and in one instance I was authorized by Capt. Larimer to draw up a plan whereby the American patrols and sentries and the Japanese would mutually cooperate. . . . The Japanese command [was] represented by Capt. Nakajima, Asst. Intelligence Officer and the Capt. [i]n charge of sentries, M.P.’s and gendarmes. This report followed an attempt on the part of the Japanese patrol in wiping out [a U.S.] patrol.6
After the shooting, General Oi Shigemoto, commander of Japanese troops in Vladivostok, immediately ordered the practice of halting U.S. military personnel to desist. Nonetheless, a squad of Japanese soldiers stopped three uniformed U.S. sailors ordered ashore to search for Langdon’s revolver three hours after the shooting. The sailors were quickly surrounded, no fewer than ten bayonets pointing at them. After an anxious eight minutes, the Japanese allowed them to return to the Albany.7
Nor was that the end of the rough treatment. At 2320 that Saturday night, an enlisted man was returning from liberty when four Japanese soldiers halted him. Despite identifying himself and being in full uniform, he was searched.
Shortly thereafter, he was stopped again before being permitted to proceed after providing identification. A half hour later, south of the main thoroughfare where Langdon was shot, a Japanese sentry confronted yet another sailor. After the seaman stated he was “Americanski,” the Japanese sentry motioned with his bayoneted rifle for him to pass.8 Was the Japanese Army looking for trouble in Siberia?
On 13 January, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels collared Acting Secretary of State Norman H. Davis and Roland S. Morris, ambassador to Japan, who by chance was in Washington, for an impromptu candid conference. Morris told his colleagues that the Japanese were “heady” and dared to police everyone in Vladivostok. The three statesmen recalled an earlier beating of a Red Cross official by Japanese soldiers merely because the man had walked through a public area arbitrarily placed off-limits by Shigemoto’s troops. When Daniels returned to his office, he wrote a formal recommendation to the State Department to protest Japanese policing of Americans and to obtain justice for Langdon’s murder.9
The Japanese government extended all the proper condolences. Its popular ambassador to the United States, Kijuro Shidehara, personally called at the State Department to express Tokyo’s regrets. Shidehara also informed Washington of the sentry’s court-martial, which was convened immediately after the shooting.10 The War Ministry in Tokyo released a statement delicately placing the blame for the tragedy on the men’s inability to communicate, although Japanese newspapers alleged Langdon fired first.11 A few days later, after meeting with Shigemoto, Gleaves recorded: “[N]othing was left undone or unsaid by the Japanese highest authorities at Vladivostok to show their regret. I think they realized the limit has been reached.”12
Admiral Investigates Shooting
While Ogasawara faced court-martial, Gleaves began his own fact-finding mission, comprising several senior officers and himself. Basing their conclusions primarily on personal interviews conducted with Captain Richardson and General Shigemoto, the panel spent less than 36 hours investigating the shooting before sailing back to the Philippines. The report of the Navy’s investigators found Langdon entirely blameless.13
The lieutenant had served on board the Albany for three years. His responsibilities as chief engineer of the cruiser, which was docked for the winter, were neither hazardous nor unpleasant. Langdon did not smoke or drink, and when given the chance for leave, he returned to his parents’ home in Massachusetts. The lieutenant was remembered as very popular with both peers and crew, in large part because of his “remarkably even temper and great self-control.”14
The human face of the tragedy was kept in the public mind by news accounts of how Langdon’s mother collapsed on receiving the news of his death. “I had a premonition of danger awaiting my son. I told him before he left me that I hoped he would see service anywhere but in Siberia,” Idella Langdon cried.15
Even before the Gleaves panel had completed its investigation, the Acting Secretary of State delivered the nation’s formal protest. After a brief recitation of the facts, Davis cut to the heart of disaffection:
The government of the United States is convinced that the government of Japan will make prompt and suitable reparation for the utterly unjustified action of the Japanese sentry. If this were an isolated instance of misdirected activity, it might be possible to regard it as no more than a deplorable incident without particular significance. It is, however, merely the most serious of a number of like cases of interference with American citizens in portions of Siberia where Japanese troops are stationed. The Japanese forces there have apparently assumed supervision and control which would be justified only in a land where their government exercised sovereignty and which cannot but result in irritations and misunderstandings.”16
A Possible Bribe
In an effort to de-escalate the crisis, Japan quickly moved to satisfy the U.S. request for compensation. On board the Albany, Richardson received an unofficial visit one week after the shooting from a Major Furojo, who stated he was assigned to general headquarters. Furojo claimed it was customary to donate to the family of an officer who was killed, and he inquired if he could pay the captain directly. Richardson replied any payment would be arranged between the two governments after the Gleaves investigation was completed.17 Whether the “donation” was an attempt at bribery or was offered to compensate Langdon’s parents to avoid the politically explosive issue of indemnity, which implicitly admitted responsibility for the shooting, any such payment clearly would have been outside official channels.
During the court-martial, the Japanese sentry altered his original story and admitted to firing first. (Ogasawara had originally claimed his rifle had discharged accidentally on approaching the U.S. officer, who was facing him.18) The court eventually determined that Langdon had been mortally wounded in the back from a shot fired with intent. It criticized the sentry’s actions as contrary to army regulations and without justification, but they were held to be neither malicious nor premeditated because he had not been properly trained in his duties.19
Political pressure probably influenced the court-martial’s measured decision, as Japanese nationalists had already expressed outrage. Imperial army representatives were forced to refute charges by the press that the guard had been coerced by the government, under U.S. duress, to contradict his prior statements blaming Langdon for the tragedy.20 More dangerous, 1,200 Japanese Army reservists from the sentry’s hometown of Muroran demonstrated to protest any punishment being levied against him for proper execution of his duties.21
U.S. Military Infuriated
The crisis continued to hover over the two nations into late January. While the American public gradually lost interest in the case, the killing upset U.S. military personnel. Navy officers were said to be “considerably provoked” by the death of one of their own. The roughly 8,000 former members of the American Expeditionary Force, which had left Siberia the previous spring, were believed to have influenced the American Legion’s vocal hostility to Japan.22
The Japanese court-martial’s scope of inquiry extended far beyond the sentry. Major General Tamagoro Nishihara was removed as commander of the 11th Division’s 22nd Brigade, which had provided guards for Japanese headquarters in Vladivostok, and reduced in rank.23 Several officers of lesser rank were also punished, being placed on home suspension ranging from 7 to 30 days.24 Major General Takayanagi Yasutaro, Shigemoto’s chief of staff, also was sanctioned, although ostensibly for malfeasance unrelated to the Langdon tragedy. He was suspended for giving imperial cigarettes to a geisha in Vladivostok. However, by July 1921, he was back on active duty in Vladivostok.25
Shortly after the court-martial results were released, the War Ministry announced that 54-year-old Lieutenant General Saito Suejiro, commander of the 11th Division, had died on 25 February of an unspecified illness.26 But in late April, the Japanese press reported Suejiro had committed suicide, possibly by seppuku, on 26 February at his headquarters in Vladivostok.27
As for the sentry, Ogasawara was exonerated for shooting Langdon, which the military court attributed to miscommunication, thereby appeasing army regulars and reservists, as well as public opinion in Japan. However, he was convicted of making false preliminary statements to the tribunal. He was sentenced to 30 days confinement at hard labor, which minimally addressed U.S. demands for punishment and personal accountability.36 Bainbridge Colby, who had become Secretary of State, buried the dispute, declaring the sanctions to be “prompt and sincere.”28
While Langdon’s parents requested an indemnity of $100,000, the State Department quickly modified the amount to a still sizable $45,000. When the Japanese countered with an offer of $15,000, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo pushed for settlement. It feared the Japanese Army, still smarting from the disciplinary sanctions imposed, would once more fan the controversy into crisis, and the question was finally settled with the $15,000 payment.29
Death Foreshadows War
Perhaps the only loser of the power game in Siberia was Langdon. Japanese actions would claim the life of no other U.S. serviceman until the 12 December 1937 attack on the USS Panay (PR-5). And just as that assault on the Yangtze River would portend a far greater blow at Pearl Harbor, the U.S.-Japanese attitudes during the Langdon incident provide context for the Panay assault.
The lieutenant’s funeral was on 18 January, ten days after he was shot. The religious/military service was conducted in the same YMCA building where Langdon’s shipmates had hosted parties over their months of service. His coffin was drowned in wreaths.30
The USS New Orleans (PG-34/CL-22) would carry Langdon’s body back to the United States. But first, a carriage bearing his casket came alongside the Albany, which was docked nearby, and the traditional three-volley salute in honor of the dead was fired. Then, as his remains were brought on board the Albany to allow his shipmates to pay their respects, “a big flag was lowered, cutting off the view of the public.”31
1. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 11 January 1921 and 13 January 1921, telegrams, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA); Reuters Pacific Service, 10 January 1921, 16 January 1921 and 24 January 1921, RG 38, NARA; Reuters Service, 31 January 1921, RG 38, NARA; Special Cable, 15 January 1921, RG 38, NARA.
2. William S. Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, 1918–1920 (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931), 68–69, 108–10, 116, 202–3.
3. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 12 January 1921, State Department Decimal File, No. 361.1123L25/3, NARA, RG 59; Albert Gleaves, The Admiral: The Memoirs of Albert Gleaves, Admiral, USN (Pasadena, CA: Hope Pub. House, 1985), 254, 260.
4. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 13 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA.
5. Japan Advertiser, 26 January 1921; Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 11 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA.
6. F. Martinez to Admiral A. T. Long, undated, ROCNO, NARA, RG 38. This letter likely references an attack on five U.S. sailors in September 1920. Japan Advertiser, 18 January 1921.
7. Log of the USS Albany, 8 January 1921.
8. Log of the USS Albany, 16–17.
9. The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels, ed. E. David Cronon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 586–87.
10. Shidehara Kijuro to secretary of state, 13 January 1921, State Department Decimal File, No. 361.1123L25/8, RG 59, NARA.
11. Japan Advertiser, 13 January 1921.
12. Gleaves, The Admiral, 256; Reuters Pacific Service, 24 January 1921, RG 38, NARA; Naval attaché (“Aluana”) to Naval Intelligence, 14 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA.
13. Gleaves, The Admiral, 256; Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 14 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA; Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Daniels, 26 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA.
14. Reuters Pacific Service, 10 January 1921, RG 38, NARA; Japan Advertiser, 15 January 1921; Gleaves, The Admiral, 222.
15. Japan Advertiser, 16 January 1921.
16. Davis to American Embassy, Tokyo, 13 January 1921, telegram, State Department Decimal File, No.361.1123L25/11a, RG 59, NARA.
17. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 18 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA.
18. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Secretary of the Navy, 17 January 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA; Japan Advertiser, 20 January 1921.
19. Japan Advertiser, 23 February 1921; Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 23 February 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA; Japan Advertiser, 23 February 1921.
20. Japan Advertiser, 10 February 1921 (citing Kokumin), 9 February 1921, 8 February 1921 (citing Yomiuri), 27 January 1921 (citing Tokyo Mainichi), 20 January 1921 (citing Yorodzu, Hochi, Yamato, and Miyako), 19 January 1921 (citing Yamato and Hochi).
21. Japan Advertiser, 11 February 1921.
22. Japan Advertiser, 19 January 1921.
23. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 23 February 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA; Japan Advertiser, 22 February 1921. CDR R. E. Ingersoll to Hurley, 28 February 1922, memorandum, RG 38, NARA.
24. Commander in Chief, Asiatic, to Operations, 23 February 1921, telegram, RG 38, NARA; Japan Advertiser, 24 February 1921.
25. Japan Advertiser, 28 July 1921.
26. Japan Advertiser, 27 April 1921. Japan Yearbook (1921–22) listed the date as 26 February 1921.
27. Japan Advertiser, 27 April 1921.
28. The New York Times, 23 February 1921.
29. Henry P. Fletcher to Secretary of War, 24 March 1921, State Department Decimal File, No. 361.1123L25/-.
30. Charles Evans Hughes to Henry Cabot Lodge, 11 August 1921, Foreign Relations, 1924, II, 419–21.
31. Japan Advertiser, 21 January 1921.