During the first half of the 20th century, very few American soldiers were involved in as many military engagements as a man born and raised in Casselton, N.D.
John H. Lang not only served in both World War I and World War II, but he was also active in combat activities between the wars. He received two Navy Crosses (the highest military honor solely awarded by the U.S. Navy) and 14 Purple Hearts. Lang was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal from Great Britain, and according to a Wikipedia site, he became the first of three Americans to receive the Order of the Chrysanthemum from Japan. The other two are Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
One of the chapters of Paul Edwards’ book, "Between the Lines of World War II," is titled, “The Incredible John H. Lang.” Lang falsely claimed that he was 18 when he enlisted with the Canadian Militia during World War I, and after seeing extensive action during the war, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After World War I, Lang was involved in Japanese-U.S. operations against warlord forces in China. In World War II, he was in the heat of action in the Pacific.
John Henry Lang was born July 9, 1900, in Casselton, to William and Della (Bills) Lang. William was a conductor for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and when John was old enough, he got a job loading and unloading cargo from the rail cars.
On Aug. 12, 1915, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, as a dominion of the British Empire, automatically also found itself at war. John Lang was of English descent and believed that it was his duty to get involved, but since the U.S. was not yet at war, he decided to join the Canadian Militia.
Great Britain passed the Military Service Act in 1916, which lowered the enlistment age from 19 to 18 in both Great Britain and Canada. However, Lang still had a problem enlisting because he was only 17, so he traveled to a Canadian recruiting office in Milwaukee, Wis., and listed his birthdate as July 17, 1899. Lang was then sent to train with the Canadian Militia as an engineer.
In 1917, Lang was sent to Europe as a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to take part in the Flanders Offensive, and one of the key objectives was the town of Passchendaele in Belgium. Fighting began on July 31 in what became known as the Third Battle of Ypres, and casualties were high, largely because the Germans began employing widespread usage of mustard gas. “The campaign ended in November when the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele,” and Lang was awarded the British Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery and actions in the engagement.
Upon Lang’s return from Europe and his discharge from the Canadian Militia, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Feb. 4, 1919, in Minneapolis. He was assigned to the Asiatic Squadron aboard the USS Palos, a gunboat on the Yangtze River in China that was to provide protection of American interests in China. This included serving as a convoy for “U.S. and foreign vessels on the river, evacuating American citizens during periods of disturbance, and providing a credible presence to U.S. consulates and residences in various Chinese cities.”
This was a period of great unrest in central China because many warlords distrusted the American presence in their territory. In the 1920s, the Japanese government made the decision to embrace “the Washington System that formed the basis of international order” and agreed to work with the U.S. on a joint effort to guard against Chinese warlords who endangered foreign enterprises in Central China.
In 1928, “a warlord made the mistake of besieging one of the foreign legations located along the river.” The Palos rushed to the site and fierce fighting soon ensued. Despite being wounded, Lang distinguished himself for his heroism and “actions in commanding Japanese sailors and marines” in repelling the warlord’s henchmen, which became known as the Nanking Incident. In December, Lang became the first American to be awarded the Japanese Order of the Chrysanthemum. Because of his courage and actions in the incident, the U.S. Navy also awarded Lang his first Navy Cross.
Unfortunately, the Washington System was not a fixed system, and there was no consensus between Japan and the U.S. as to how to respond to China’s move toward restoring national sovereignty and reunification. On Sept. 18, 1931, some Chinese dissidents planted a bomb along the tracks of the Japanese-owned Manchurian Railway, and despite the fact that the bomb did not do any damage, Japan responded by sending in troops of the Imperial Japanese Army that occupied Manchuria. The League of Nations condemned Japan’s actions as being too punitive, so Japan withdrew from the League and became diplomatically isolated. Japan also withdrew from the joint effort they had with the U.S. in patrolling the Yangtze River.
Throughout the 1930s, Japan began to take over more of China, and this intensified the value of the Palos and other U.S. gunboats on the Yangtze, which were needed to evacuate communities along the river that were endangered by the advancing Japanese army. In October 1934, the Palos was decommissioned, and in 1936, Lang was assigned to another gunboat, the USS Panay.
In December 1937, Japanese forces moved into Nanking, massacring over 300,000 people. On Dec. 11, the crew of the Panay evacuated the remaining Americans in the city and loaded them onto the gunboat. Japanese planes bombed the Panay on Dec. 12, wounding Lang and the commanding officer of the boat. “Although badly injured, Lang tended to the officer and then courageously operated the machine gun battery against the attacking planes.”
With the Panay sinking, Lang then helped evacuate the people from the boat and secured their safety. For his action and bravery, Lang received his second Navy Cross.
To recover from his bad wounds, Lang returned to his home in Cincinnati, where he became a naval recruiting officer. At the start of World War II, Lang was again able to resume combat duty and was assigned to the battleship USS Massachusetts, in preparation for the invasion of French North Africa (Algeria and Morocco). When that mission was completed, the ship sailed to the Pacific Ocean for operations against Japan.
In 1943, Lang was transferred to the battleship USS North Carolina, where he participated in the Battle of Saipan in the summer of 1944. Lang was given command of a Landing Ship Tank vessel that was sunk as it was making its way to shore in the invasion of the Admiralty Islands, north of New Guinea.
He was then named executive officer of an Underwater Demolition Team, directing frogmen to remove mines on a reef off of Saipan, when a mine nearby detonated and badly wounded him and killed several of his men. Lang was sent to his home in Los Angeles to recuperate and was discharged on Nov. 24, 1945.
After recovery from his injuries, he became a hydrographer for the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. John H. Lang died on March 12, 1970.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.