By Henry Sakaida

One of the most obscure and shortest wars involving two competing military super powers happened in the summer of 1938.  This action lasted just 2 weeks and pitted the Japanese against the Soviets on the ill-defined border separating Manchuria, Korea, and the Soviet Union. The armed conflict is called the Battle of Lake Khasan, also known as the Changkufeng Incident to the Japanese, which started on 29 July and ended on 11 August 1938.

The skirmish started when Japanese troops encroached on Soviet territory. The Japanese noticed Soviet soldiers building positions on the mountaintop overlooking the Korean port city of Rajin (now in North Korea). The Japanese attache in Moscow filed a protest, but it was ignored. On the night of 31 July 1938, the Japanese sent over a thousand soldiers to dislodge the Soviets from the hill and they were successful. The Soviets retaliated immediately and in force.

The battles involved tanks, artillery, aircraft, and thousands of casualties. The area remains as desolate today as it did in 1938. The border issue was finally resolved in 1998 when Russia, China, and North Korea clarified the boundaries through lengthy negotiations.

Lake Khasan 1938 map

Soviet territory is to the right of the demarcation line, Manchuria to the left. Tyumen River (Тумень Ула) is to the left on the map while Lake Khasan (оз. Хасан) is on the Soviet side.

Khasan mt.

Both the Soviets and the Japanese fought for the strategic mountaintop overlooking Lake Khasan.


Japanese pictorial magazine October 1938 issue.

Master Sergeant Trofim Vasilyevich Gavrish was a casualty of this conflict, long forgotten until I bought a 1938 Japanese magazine on eBay. In an article about this war,  there is a very small photo of a Soviet ID booklet. It belonged to Gavrish. Then I wondered: “Who was this guy and what did he do? What happened to him? Why is his photo ID booklet pictured in this magazine?”

The caption for the small ID photo reads “Articles of a deceased Russian airman and his identification. ” A Japanese soldier is holding up a small parachute, and you can see a gas mask and other small items on the ground. The large headline reads “Cease fire and conclusion of truce.”

Captured Russian Lake Khasan copy

On the right is a Soviet soldier who surrendered during the battle. His gear is pictured below him. On the left is the Communist Party ID booklet of Trofim Gavrish.

Captured Russian Lake Khasan2 copy

An enlargement of the picture above. The ID booklet was found in the wreckage of his SB bomber.

The information in the order booklet reads: ALL UNION COMMUNIST PARTY. Workers of the world, unite! Card No. 012520, Gavrish, Trofim Vasilyevich. Birthdate: 1909. Year when he became candidate (for the party): October 1932. Terms of candidate service: 6 months. Organization which gave the card: Political department of the 8th Cavalry Division. Card was issued 27 September 1936.

On 1 August 1938, the Soviets launched an air raid against the occupied border strip. Fifteen Tupolev SB medium bombers, 21 Polikarpov P-5 biplane bombers, and 56 I-15 fighters assaulted the enemy positions. By using massive air power, the Soviets hoped not to commit ground troops on the Manchurian side of the border and end the war from the start.

The bombers were loaded with parafrags. Each 2.5 kg bomblet was attached to a small parachute and packed 30 to a canister which was dropped from a thousand meters altitude.  It would break open and scatter the explosives over a wide area. In theory, it was a great idea.

SB bomber

Soviet SB bomber from a period Japanese enemy aircraft identification booklet.

Khasan parafrags

Drawing  from a Russian book on the Battle of Lake Khasan, published in 1939, shows parafrags being dropped from Soviet light bombers on the Japanese.


Soviet political poster with caption: “It rains in Khasan.”

The mission was not successful. The Soviets lost 2 bombers and one fighter. Most of the ordnance fell into the lake. Japanese AA gunners badly damaged one bomber, but it made it back to base and was written off as destroyed. One I-15 fighter was shot down into the Tyuman River and Lt Ivan G. Solovyov was killed. Japanese aircraft stayed grounded to prevent “mission creep.”

The bomber of Trofim Gavrish fell out of the sky and crashed in the position occupied by the Japanese. There was suspicion that one of the bombs exploded prematurely due to a faulty fuse. The  commander of the bomber unit counted 73 holes in his own plane from a mishap. Everyone was worried about snagging a parafrag on the tail of their bomber!  The Soviets immediately suspended their use.

Ten days after Gavrish was killed, the conflict ended. Holding onto the newly gained positions would have required the Japanese to widen the conflict, which they were not willing do. In the end, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow asked for peace and the Soviets agreed.  The Red Army had taken a severe beating. Japanese troops withdrew and both sides saved face. However Stalin was shocked at their losses and pinned the blame on General Vasily Blyukher; he was arrested by the NKVD, tortured, and executed in November 1938  (he was politically rehabilitated in 1956).

Master Sgt Trofim Vasilyevich Gavrish lived in the Samoilovsky District in the Saratov region of Russian. His wife’s name was Lydia Ilinishna. Where is the ID booklet pictured in the magazine? Who knows?! It’s long gone. I think I better search for the next-of-kin to let them know about this.

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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