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A chilly time in Siberia

Remembering the ill-fated American Expeditionary Forces
A well-made captain’s tunic worn by a member of the Russian Railway Service Corps, technicians on the Trans-Siberian rail road.

A well-made captain’s tunic worn by a member of the Russian Railway Service Corps, technicians on the Trans-Siberian rail road.

Brought about by the Tsar’s failed monarchy and costly participation in the “War to End All Wars”, the Russian Revolution ended with Nicholas II and his family gunned down in a politically motivated execution. General bedlam then ruled in the Russian countryside as the Communists and loyalists fought a bloody civil war for total control. World War I still raged in the west with the Central powers, and some Russian soldiers continued to reluctantly participate, though often demoralized by the internal chaos of the civil war, lack of supplies and changing leadership.
American President Woodrow Wilson and his staff were not sure who to deal with this unstable country, but wanted to foster any chance at democracy which might have surfaced from the turmoil. In addition, the new Communist government had negotiated a peace with the Central powers, meaning that Germany and her allies would be able to concentrate an additional 40 divisions towards the west. The Russian railway system, which carried much of the food, coal, fuel and munitions to the allied friendly Russians was in a state of disrepair, and subject to continued attacks and sabotage. Along with this, the Japanese, with the help of the Russian Cossacks, were eyeing much of eastern Russian territories for their own political expansion. With pressure from his British and French allies mounting, Wilson decided to try to stop these events in the summer of 1918.

This captain had two years overseas service, so may have been in the earlier group to land in Vladivostok.

This captain had two years overseas service, so may have been in the earlier group to land in Vladivostok.

Wilson’s military and diplomatic staffs designed a makeshift (but sorely undermanned) plan to help Russia reorganize an autocratic, or democratic, pro-American government to keep the east front open against the Germans. The goal was to ensure the safety of 40,000 pro-allied members of the marooned Czech Legion (made up of ex-prisoners of war, Czech army volunteers and Austrian Hungarian deserters), revamp the neglected Trans-Siberian railway and to guard the over huge amount of excess arms and equipment left in Vladivostok and Murmansk that had been sent by the U.S. to aid Imperial Russia during WWI. The inventory consisted of steel, copper, brass, lead, barbed wire, rails, automobiles, trucks, tools, arms and munitions stored in warehouses and outside under canvas covers.

This plan was to become the ill-fated American Expeditionary Force – Siberia (AEFS). Some 3,000 U.S. troops of the 85th Michigan National Guard, 339th infantry, 310th engineers, 337th hospital and 337th ambulance corps along with a small detachment of Marines and 50 sailors from the USS Olympia disembarked for Russia in June 1918. While on route, 100 died and 300 were later hospitalized due to an outbreak of Spanish flu. The first force was followed later by commanding officer Maj. Gen. William S. Graves and an additional 4,950 officers and enlisted men of the army’s 8th Division, 27th, 31st, 12th, 13th and 62nd infantry regiments.

The distinctive Siberian Expedition shoulder patch with a long “S” over a bear silhouette.

The distinctive Siberian Expedition shoulder patch with a long “S” over a bear silhouette.

The main force sailed for the port of Vladivostok in converted cattle carrier ships and arrived on Sept. 3, 1918 to begin this imposing mission in a dangerous, corrupt and politically charged country. They would be joined by 70,000 Japanese, 1,400 Italian, 829 British, 107 territorials, and Canadian (CSEF – Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force) troops to complete the mission.

Graves’ first step was to guard the U.S. equipment and arms along the rail system until it could be later retrieved or dispersed to the appropriate recipients. These caches had been prime targets for raiding thieves and Cossacks (encouraged by the Japanese who promoted general disorder) under the former Tsarist military leader, Atamah Gregori Semenoff. Semenoff had, at first, been viewed as an American ally against the Bolshevik government, but was later seen as a virtual Cossack “warlord”, profiteering from the spoils left behind during the Russian civil war and exploiting anyone he could. Semenoff’s men often stole entire trainloads of arms, supplies and other goods, commandeered locomotives to turn into armored cars, used train cars for private coaches, and took over entire rail stations. While in control of these stops, they grossly overcharged travelers for tickets, harassed station personnel, and intimidated yard workers and shopkeepers. In addition to taking economic advantage of some Russian people, they brutalized others by accosting, robbing or raping them as they saw fit.

Conditions for those of the small American security force in Siberia was harsh, both in weather and in lack of supplies. The Siberian summer, with its lengthy sleep depriving daylight hours, was uncomfortably hot for troopers plagued by hordes of mosquitoes, midges and horseflies. The long, dark winters were legendary, causing men to develop frostbite and equipment becoming stiffly frozen and useless. The men grew weary of dealing with the constant threat imposed by gangs of marauders who suddenly appeared, attacked, then disappeared into the countryside or small towns.

RRS collar devices designate this officer as belonging to the railway specialists brought in to revamp the neglected Siberia rail system.

RRS collar devices designate this officer as belonging to the railway specialists brought in to revamp the neglected Siberia rail system.

For the railway technicians assigned to the force, the Siberian rail system, much of which had engines and cars supplied by the Western powers, was found to be often neglected and in a state of shambles. Most members of the 285 US Russian Railway Service Corps (RRSC) were plucked from the Northern Pacific and Great Northern rail systems and brought to Siberia to maintain and repair the teetering stock, rails and stations. As civil contractors incorporated into the army system as commissioned officers, these seasoned rail men worked diligently in the face of horrid hardship, lack of supplies and long hours to keep the stock rolling and stations functioning.
Though the standing order for regular army troops was to not engage or take sides in the Russian Civil War (“only to fire if fired upon”) many railroad workers, though sometimes lightly armed, were faced with threats of dangerous attacks. These could occur at any moment from bandits or small groups of Semenoff’s men, many of whom wore no uniforms and appeared to be civilians. In addition, Japanese allies sometimes attacked Americans at random in territorial or military disputes.

In 1919, American troops were to be given some relief when the in Inter-Allied Railway Agreement was signed by members of the WWI Allies. For the most part, the only actual effect was the lessening of the area to be guarded by the U.S., while the Japanese expanded their hold on the eastern areas for their own political gains. Two of the largest advocates of the agreement, France and Great Britain, sent no additional troops and criticized the Americans’ efforts.

Areas left unguarded slowly fell to the Red Army as it beat back the remnants of the loyalist White Russian army and secured the Communist government’s position across Russia. The 40,000 members of the Czech Legion had been drained, but they had been able to escape by rail under the watchful eyes of the Red Army. They did this through the help of the Allies (for which Graves received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919) and by turning over the Siberian anti-communist provincial governor, Imperial Russian Admiral Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak, to the Red Army for his eventual execution. By 1920, Semenoff’s army had dissolved into small bands of disorganized gangs, pillaging and raping their way across the countryside, while the 1 billion dollars in U.S. equipment was mostly lost to continued theft and Red Army seizure. By early 1920, Graves ordered his men to return to Vladivostok in order to depart for to the US.

When the final American forces left Siberia, the Red Army took over much of the remaining areas, mopping up the remnants of the White Russian and Cossack troops. The Japanese maintained control of the eastern parts of Siberia until 1922, when they, too, were forced out by the red horde.

President Wilson’s attempt to appease his French and British allies, thrust the ideals of democracy at a burgeoning Communist regime, keep the eastern front open against the Central powers and safeguard a monumental sum in U.S. assets all failed miserably. With 339 of their comrades dying over just 19 months, the U.S. soldiers and technicians suffered extended hardships at the hands of merciless weather, deprivation and surprise attacks. For their many sacrifices they had the one small distinction of being the only U.S. troops to have fought on Russian soil. 

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