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Yanks In Siberia
SENT ON A HOPELESSLY VAGUE ASSIGNMENT BY WOODROW WILSON, AMERICAN SOLDIERS FOUND THEMSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF A FEROCIOUS SQUABBLE AMONG BOLSHEVIKS, COSSACKS, CZECHS, JAPANESE, AND OTHERS
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Thus he was able temporarily to prevent the flooding of Siberia with American arms. His argument that the security of his own forces was paramount to any other considerations could not be debated; his seventhousand-man force was broken up into many small detachments guarding bridges and other points along a two-thousand-mile section of the Trans-Siberian. If they came under a general attack, the results would be disastrous. A number of incidents indicated the likelihood of such an eventuality. One involved an American soldier waiting in the Vladivostok station for a train to take him back to his unit. An officer in Kolchak’s army called him “a __ Bolshevik.” The American started to swing but was cut down by the Russian’s pistol shot. A group of Japanese officers standing nearby went over to congratulate the murderer, who was arrested, tried, acquitted, and released within an hour.
General Graves persisted in his scrupulous neutrality despite attacks from all sides on the Siberian scene and back in the States. The Soviet government failed to appreciate his evenhandedness and rather stupidly charged—and would continue to charge through succeeding decades— that the S.E.F. participated in the plot to restore the Whites to power. Yet only one instance in S.E.F. records can be found in which the American forces operated against the Red partisans in their zone. Bolshevik sympathizers had banded together in the Suchan coal-mining district after being attacked by Kalmikov’s irregulars. The Americans had to prevent any large-scale outbreak around the mines because the coal was needed for heating and for keeping the TransSiberian operating. They drove the Cossacks out of the district, then engaged in brief skirmishing with Bolshevik sympathizers. Otherwise there was no combat between the S.E.F. and regular or irregular forces of the Moscow government.
After stalling as long as he could, General Graves was finally forced to resupply Kolchak, but he agreed to turn over the munitions only in Irkutsk, so that the guns would take longer to filter into the hands of Semenov and his lieutenants. The shipment left Vladivostok in two long trains. One reached Irkutsk without incident. The second, however, was stopped at Chita, Semenov’s headquarters, on October 24, 1919. Semenov boarded the train and demanded of the guard detachment’s officer, Lieutenant Ryan, that he hand over fifteen thousand rifles. Ryan refused, though he had only fifty soldiers to back up his defiance. Semenov replied with an ultimatum: hand over the rifles within thirty hours or be massacred. One armored train pulled up to block the munitions train from the west, another from the east. A Cossack battalion completed the encirclement.
Ryan wired Vladivostok for instructions. Don’t give up a single rifle, he was ordered, and open fire if attacked. Ryan and his troopers sweated out the deadline, then ten hours more, before Semenov stopped blustering and allowed the train to proceed.
Graves’s suspicion that the arms shipment would be villainously employed was confirmed almost immediately. Through a Russian agent he learned that Kolchak turned over four carloads of weapons to the Cossacks. Shortly thereafter the recipients of those weapons conducted a pogrom in the Ekaterinburg district in which a reported three thousand Jews were massacred. The American liaison officer at Kolchak’s headquarters, on questioning how the United States arms were used, was told only that ”… something … occurred at Ekaterinburg that would give the Jews something to think about.”
Whatever hopes the more fervent anti-Bolshevik officials in the Wilson administration nurtured that the Siberian expedition might be guided from peace-keeping to crusading under the Whites’ banners were blown away toward the end of 1919. In north Russia the Allied invasion force had given up and gone home. The façade of the White counterrevolution in Irkutsk had begun crumbling by the time General Graves made an inspection trip along the Trans-Siberian in the fall. The White armies had become what Graves called a “retreating mob,” with long trains heading east, their cars crammed with soldiers suffering from wounds or disease. The law of the jungle, Graves reported, now ruled the Siberian tundra. On December 27 he recommended the immediate withdrawal of the S.E.F.
Three weeks passed before the War Department cabled permission to withdraw. Evacuation would be a delicate and dangerous process because of the far-scattered deployment of the American forces. Just how touchy the situation had become, with Semenov, Kalmikov, and company itching to send the S.E.F. on its way with a bloody nose, was indicated by the Posolskaya incident shortly before Washington approved of the withdrawal.
On January 9, 1920, Semenov’s chief lieutenant, General Bogomolets, was terrorizing towns along the American sector of the Trans-Siberian. His armored train was The Destroyer , Semenov’s personal conveyance, and it roared into Verkhne-Udinsk to arrest the Stationmaster because he had protested the seizure of American property. A detachment of United States infantry arrived from the nearbypost just in time to prevent the stationmaster from being executed.