- Historic Sites
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
In a violently anti-American mood General Bogomolets then steamed sixty miles west to the desolate station of Posolskaya, where Lieutenant Paul Kendall and thirty-eight enlisted men stood guard. The Americans were attacked by cannon and machine-gun fire from the armored train as they slept in a wooden railway car that had been converted into their barracks. Though heavily outnumbered and badly outgunned, Kendall and his troopers tumbled out of their shelter and into the subarctic night to attack the train with rifles and grenades.
A United States sergeant dashed up to the locomotive of The Destroyer and dropped a grenade into its boiler before he was fatally wounded. With doughboys swarming all over his armored cars and firing through the slits of his turrets, Bogomolets lost interest in the battle and called for a withdrawal.
His engineer managed to get up just enough steam for The Destroyer to crawl away like a gravely wounded snake. Three miles up the line, hotly pursued by enraged Americans, Bogomolets ran up the white flag. A greater humiliation came with the discovery that twelve of his Cossacks had deserted during the battle. Five others had been killed (to two Americans), and seven Cossack officers (including Bogomolets) and sixty-six men surrendered. Then the train and its whole cutthroat crew were taken in tow back to Verkhne-L’dinsk.
The expeditionary force thus ended its year and a half of largely peaceful occupation of eastern Siberia on a victorious note. Graves and his staff embarked with the final echelon on April 1, 1920, after he and his G-2, Colonel Robert Eichelberger, who twenty-odd years later would command an army under MacArthur in the southwest Pacific, made a final inspection of the outskirts of Vladivostok. Along the slope above the First River they saw Japanese troops building fortifications and settling down for a long stay (but not as long as they planned; under Soviet pressure they withdrew from Siberia in October, 1922). As the last American transport sailed out of the Vladivostok harbor the soldiers on deck heard a Japanese band serenading their departure from the docks. The tune was “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Graves and his command had performed a difficult, almost impossible, task with great forbearance and honor. It it easy to imagine the consequences if he had been a glory hunter or one who succumbed to political and journalistic pressures. He believed that 90 per cent of the Siberian populace was anti-Kolchak and anti-czarist—though not pro-Bolshevik—and that any aggressive action by the American forces would have resulted in a protracted struggle which a disillusioned America would not have borne without violent dissension. His own career continued on an unspectacular trajectory—command of troops in the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone—until he retired in 1928 to tend his garden in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and write his memoirs. He died in 1940.
There was a bitter footnote to the Siberian venture and the passions it aroused. On their return to their homeland Graves and his comrades were accused repeatedly of having favored the Bolshevik cause and of having let our allies down by refusing to join in a crusade beside the disintegrating White forces.
Such charges evidently were taken seriously in the upper reaches of the Harding administration. One evening in November, 1921, General Graves, Admiral Austin Knight (commander of the Asiatic Fleet when it was providing naval support for the S.E.F. ), and about sixty other Siberian veterans held a reunion banquet at the Commodore Hotel in New York. A stranger who appeared, uninvited, at the banquet table was asked to identify himself. The gate-crasher showed a Department of Justice badge and muttered threats about what would happen if he were asked to leave. General Graves, who had carried out with skill and moral courage one of the most difficult missions ever given a United States general officer, was “mortified” that his own government should feel compelled to spy on him. It was, one is tempted to say today, the shape of things to come.