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Logistics in Reverse: The U.S.
Intervention in Siberia, 1918–1920

In the chaos following the Russian Revolution and Russia's withdrawal from World War I, U.S. forces were deployed to Siberia and northern Russia. This little-remembered mission offers some interesting lessons in strategic logistics.

The American Soldier patrolling the switching yard in Verkhne-Udinsk, Russia, slapped his hands together to warm them. He grabbed the sling of his rifle and shifted the heavy weapon from his right shoulder to his left. Though his heavy coat had been sufficient protection against the weather months earlier when the 31st Infantry Regiment had arrived from the Philippines, it was not working well now. Adding to his discomfort was the statement from his platoon sergeant that this was just the start of the winter season.

He hoped that the relief guard would arrive soon so he could return to the barracks and get warm. At least this time he had something interesting to tell the guys back in the warehouse building they called home. During his guard tour today, two trains had passed through, heading west into the snowy distance. The first train was filled with Japanese infantrymen on their way to guard another stretch of the long railway. Shortly afterward, a second train passed by, this one filled with Chinese soldiers on a similar mission.

Wherever they were going was just fine with the American sentry. He was just as deep inside of Siberia as he ever wanted to be. If America’s Japanese and Chinese allies wanted to head deeper into Russia, they could go with his best wishes.

U.S. Army involvement in military coalition opera-tions is something that we take for granted in our current environment. However, the first real instance of U.S. forces serving on foreign soil with the armed forces of other nations did not occur until the 1900 campaign against the Boxers in China. However, the Boxer Rebellion was relatively short lived and involved only a small contingent of U.S. Soldiers and Marines.

The first U.S. participation in coalition operations on a massive scale occurred less than 20 years later, when over 2 million American doughboys deployed to France in 1917 and 1918 to support the Allied countries of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Russia in their struggle against the German and Austro-Hungarian armies. A plethora of material describes the U.S. Army's actions in World War I and its important role in ending that conflict. What is not so well known is our Nation's participation in two separate campaigns that continued even after the war had ended. What is even more significant is that both of these campaigns took place in Russia.

In this article, we will examine some of the logistics and operational considerations involved in the Siberian campaign of 1918 to 1920. In a subsequent article in the March–April 2012 issue of , we will review the Army's involvement in the Northern Russia campaign.

Warmly dressed doughboys
(Photo courtesy of the Army Military History Institute)

Russian Revolution Leads to U.S. Involvement
To understand why the U.S. Army was in Russia requires a basic understanding of the events of 1917. Czarist Russia had entered World War I in 1914 as a full partner of Great Britain, Belgium, France, and a number of other smaller nations aligned against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. By 1917, the war had changed the world dramatically. Belgium and a large part of France were occupied by the German Army. Soldiers from Great Britain and its Commonwealth were fighting German soldiers in Africa and Turkish soldiers in the Middle East. Most significantly, Russia's woeful performance in the war had provided the spark to light the fuse of civil war and revolution in that nation.

The Allies, primarily Britain and France, were barely holding the line in France and feared the arrival of fresh German units should the Russian Army be knocked out of the war. They had sent massive amounts of military aid to the Czarist Army in a vain attempt to keep Russia active in the war.

However, Russia's greatest asset, its enormous landmass, had also proven to be its fatal handicap. The Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk in the north near the Arctic Circle and Vladivostok in the Far East on the Pacific became giant depots containing military supplies of all types. Unfortunately, the infrastructure required to transport these supplies forward to the Russian Army did not exist, so critical supplies remained in place while the Czarist forces facing the German Army went without them. By 1917, an estimated 725,000 tons of supplies (including barbed wire, cars, trucks, tools, weapons, and ammunition) valued at over $750 million sat in the Vladivostok area alone. Over 4,000 miles away, the ports of Archangel and Murmansk had similar stockpiles.

Poorly trained, poorly led, and without the supplies and ammunition it needed, the Czarist Army collapsed. The Czar was forced to abdicate, and he and his family were taken prisoner by the revolutionaries. The Russian Government, controlled after November 1917 by the Bolsheviks (or Communists), was forced to agree to peace terms dictated by the Germans.

With Russia sliding quickly into chaos, the poorly equipped Communist "Red" forces tangled with the equally poorly equipped remnants of the Czar's Army and other anti-Bolshevik forces (usually referred to as "Whites.") Under these conditions, it was little wonder that the large stockpiles of supplies and equipment at the ports became of great interest to both sides.

Events had reached such a critical point in July 1918 that British, Japanese, and Chinese forces landed in Vladivostok to seize the port and prevent the local Bolsheviks from removing the supplies. A detachment of Marines from the USS Brooklyn also landed to protect the U.S. consulate facility in the port.

As the trench fighting on the Western front con-sumed the great majority of their armies, the British and French Governments looked across the Atlantic to their newest ally as another source of manpower. The United States had joined the fight against the Germans in April 1917 and was soon involved in building an army and deploying it to France. By early 1918, U.S. troops were beginning to flow through British and French ports en route to training bases before assuming actual combat duty in the trenches.

Against the counsel of his own military advisers, President Woodrow Wilson agreed to the Allies' request to provide military forces to protect the Russian supply depots and gave the order to divert 8,000 Soldiers to Siberia and another 5,000 to northern Russia. Most of the troops headed to Siberia were from bases in the Philippines (the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments) and California, while the Northern Russia expeditionary force consisted primarily of the 339th Infantry Regiment, a largely draftee unit drawn mainly from the Midwest.

Though he probably harbored some doubts about the wisdom of sending U.S. troops to Siberia, Wilson had another reason for deploying them. Imperial Japan had already made some inroads into the Asian mainland and had been looking to expand northward into Manchuria and western Russia. Using their role as an ally of Great Britain and France as justification, the Japanese quickly agreed to send military forces into Siberia. It was Wilson's hope that perhaps the presence of American troops would prevent further Japanese encroachment into that area.

U.S. Soldiers march down one of Vladivostok's streets

The Czech Legion
When it arrived at Archangel in September 1918, the 339th Infantry Regiment found itself part of a multinational force consisting of British, French, Italian, and Canadian soldiers under the command of a British brigadier general. Thousands of miles farther east, in Siberia, the U.S. forces became part of a much larger Allied command that included 70,000 Japanese soldiers and smaller groups of Chinese, British, French, Canadian, and Romanian troops. Also awaiting the Americans in Siberia was an unusual organization known as the "Czech Legion."

Consisting mainly of Czech and Slovak soldiers hoping to gain support in their quest for an independent homeland, the Czech Legion had become a significant presence in Russia. Numbering almost 50,000 men, the legion had served in the Czarist Army against the Germans and their Austrian allies. With the collapse of the Czarist government and subsequent Russian peace arrangements with Germany, the legion's presence in Russia became an international issue. The Germans wanted them disarmed, the Bolsheviks wanted them out of Russia, the Allies wanted them out of Russia and transported to the Western front to fight the Germans, and the Czechs just wanted to go home.

In the end, the Allied position prevailed, and it was decided that the legion would move eastward through Siberia and exit via Vladivostok en route to the Western front. However, as the best-trained and most well-equipped force in Siberia in 1918, the legion soon found itself fighting the Bolsheviks in support of the White Russians. They were especially vigorous in fighting for control of their ticket out of Russia: the Trans-Siberian Railway. Because of their earlier less-than-favorable experience as part of the Czar's army, the legion's soldiers also had no great love for or loyalty to the White Russians.

With the end of the war in November 1918, the legion, weary of the tension and double-crossing coming from both the Red and White Russians, began to act as an independent force and seized parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway in their quest to move eastward and out of the country. Ultimately, the Czech legion was able to successfully depart Russia by 1920 and return home to the newly formed Czechoslovakia.

The Trans-Siberian Railway
Historically, the sequence of events in a military expedition starts with the deployment of combat forces and is followed by a buildup of the logistics and distribution capability required to support those forces. What was taking place in Russia was just the opposite: War materiel was already in place, and the combat forces were being deployed to ensure the safety and proper distribution of that materiel.

Complicating the mission further was the fact that, with the signing of a peace treaty between Germany and the provisional revolutionary Russian Government, the Allied soldiers were not exactly sure to whom they were supposed to issue the supplies. Along with safeguarding those supplies, the newly arrived Allied forces were also expected to maintain and protect the critically important logistics pipeline provided by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The railway's construction was initiated by the Russian royal family in the late 19th century. Its main purpose was to connect Moscow with Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, allowing better travel and communication for the Russian people. The Trans-Siberian Railway was actually a set of three routes that ran from northern Russia all the way to China, making it the longest rail route in the world—stretching approximately 5,700 miles.

Russia's leaders had hoped that building this railway would entice Russian citizens to move to Siberia, thereby increasing the Russian population in that sparsely-populated region while reducing the overpopulation of the westernmost Russian cities. Along with some success in moving the Russian population eastward, the railway became a vital link for Russia's trade and industry by providing direct access to Vladivostok, Russia's largest Pacific port.

Unfortunately, after many years of poor maintenance, by 1917 the Trans-Siberian Railway had fallen into disrepair and was dilapidated along many stretches. To address the problem even before he agreed to commit U.S. Army forces to the area, President Wilson decided that the United States would organize what became known as the Russian Railway Service Corps. The corps was an all-American organization, consisting of railway experts and engineers, that was tasked with the sole purpose of inspecting, analyzing, and providing expert advice on the tracks and trains within the Russian railway system.

Similar in many ways to today's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) contracting efforts, these experts were expected to provide their services on site and in direct support of the military operation. Wilson even had these men appointed as officers in the Army and issued uniforms. Along with sending this organization of professional railroad men, the United States also provided 300 locomotives and over 10,000 railroad cars.

A short while later, in 1919, the Allies Inter-Allied Railway Agreement to provide better management and control of the railroad. The Allies recognized the continued importance of the railway to the logistics support of their forces and the Whites, so they decided that the United States, China, and Japan would each patrol and maintain a portion of the railway.

Ultimately, control of the railroad in its role as the logistics pipeline became the key to most operational decisions made in Siberia. However, the complexities of distributing supplies, supporting the evacuation of the Czechs, and limiting Japanese expansion complicated the American mission far beyond Wilson's original intention.

U.S. Army Relations With Red and White Russians
Making matters worse was the inconsistent behavior of the White Russian forces in Siberia. As non-Bolsheviks, these forces were the logical claimants for the Allied military supplies. The nominal leader of the White Russians in Siberia was a former Czarist naval officer, Admiral Alexander Kolchak. The bulk of his anticommunist forces were deployed fighting the Reds in western Siberia. However, the White Russian warlords operating in eastern Siberia, while ostensibly fighting Red guerilla bands, appeared to be more like opportunistic bandits than anticommunists.

Among the worst of these was Grigori Semenov, a former Czarist Army officer. Major General William Graves, the overall commander of the U.S. forces in Siberia, called Semenov "the worst scoundrel I ever saw or heard of." Semenov commanded a number of armored trains carrying fuel, weapons, troops, and supplies and thus had the mobility to move quickly through the vast open spaces of Siberia.

Semenov also had a number of prison trains used to transport Bolshevik prisoners of war. His prisoners often either were executed along the way or slowly starved to death. U.S. Soldiers guarding the railroad learned to dread the appearance of these trains because of the awful stench of the dead and dying prisoners coming from the railcars.

Ironically, after the Reds completed the conquest of Siberia, Semenov fled to the United States seeking asylum. When his request was refused, he returned to Asia. He was eventually captured and hanged by the Soviet Army after the end of World War II.

Initially, the Bolshevik leaders in Siberia had avoided direct confrontation with the U.S. forces, preferring to stay away from those areas where the American Soldiers were stationed. In the summer of 1919, this relatively peaceful period came to an end when the 31st Infantry Regiment fought a series of small but violent battles against Red units.

Attempting to keep the rail lines to the coal mines near Novitskaya open, the "Polar Bears" (as the members of the 31st soon became known) quickly found themselves in a struggle against the local Red forces. The coal mines were a critical fuel source for the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the scattered units of the 31st fought a series of sharp outpost skirmishes attempting to maintain access to the coal supply. The 31st suffered the highest American casualties of the entire campaign during these actions, with over 30 Soldiers killed and more than 50 wounded. They also lost 139 Soldiers to disease and accidents.

Disenchantment and Withdrawal
By January 1920, most of the U.S. Soldiers in Siberia had come to doubt the true value of their presence in Russia. The logistics stockpiles they had been sent to protect and distribute were dwindling more from pilferage than from being issued to anticommunist forces. Of the supplies they managed to send westward to support Kolchak's forces, many were captured by the advancing Red Army. In one dismal episode, the Whites lost 40 cannons, nearly 1,000 machineguns, and several thousand railcar loads of supplies before they could even be issued.

Supplies required by the U.S. forces to support their own operations defending the rail lines often took 6 weeks to arrive. At times, the temperature was 40 degrees below zero, and while the Soldiers were equipped with fur boots, hats, and gloves, they had no furlined coats. The troops subsisted primarily on a diet of corned beef and hardtack crackers, and they learned to survive by trading with local inhabitants whenever possible. One Soldier wrote that his basic pay came to "about eighty-six cents a day," and even that was usually 6 weeks late in arriving.

Even worse, the railroad the U.S. Soldiers had been ordered to guard and maintain was being used by Semenov's renegade White Russian forces to prey on the local population. As could be expected, each atrocity committed by the White forces drove more of the local citizens into the Bolshevik camp. As a result, one White Russian officer reported, "Even women and twelve-year-old children are fighting against us." In fact, relations between Allied and White forces reached an all-time low when U.S. Soldiers from the 27th Infantry Regiment (still known today as the "Wolfhounds" because of their Siberian service) attacked and captured the Bronovik, one of Semenov's heavily armored trains, at the cost of four American lives.

Fortunately for the U.S. forces in Siberia, the U.S. Government had also finally reached the same opinion of the expedition that the Soldiers had. In April 1920, the U.S. forces were withdrawn from the Russian mainland and returned to their bases in the United States and the Philippines. The large Japanese contingent remained in Siberia for 2 more years, supporting the remnants of the White forces and still serving as part of Japan's plan for expanding its influence in that region.

Lessons Learned
What lessons can we take away from the U.S. campaign in Siberia? We believe there are several.

In coalition operations, pick your teammates wisely. Don't fall for the popular saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." On the contrary, sometimes avoiding a fight altogether is the best strategy. It should be obvious, in hindsight, that the U.S. Government had no business sending the Army to Siberia in 1918. Granted, the British and French had proven themselves to be staunch Allies on the Western front, but for the good reason that American manpower and American industrial strength were needed in their fight against the Germans. While most of the world was sympathetic to the plight of the Czech Legion, the addition of U.S. forces to the volatile mix in Siberia did little or nothing to resolve that problem.

Preventing Japanese expansion into Siberia would have required many more U.S. Soldiers than were available for the task. With the Japanese islands only a few hundred miles from Vladivostok, Japan's ability to deploy and sustain a force in Siberia was much greater than that of the U.S. Army, whose supply chain stretched much farther—to the Philippines and several thousand miles beyond to the west coast of the United States.

In a quirk of fate, the 31st Infantry Regiment encountered the Japanese Army again only 22 years later while defending the Philippines against Japanese invasion. Sadly, this time the 31st was forced to surrender to their former Siberian expedition comrades. Even more sadly, the American intervention in Siberia (and in Northern Russia) later became valuable fuel for the Communist propaganda machine. In a tirade against U.S. imperialism, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would boast, "Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil. Those are the facts."

The inherent value of military supplies cannot be overestimated. Far beyond just the dollar cost to purchase them, military supplies being provided to another nation become a national resource for both the giver and the receiver. Recovering and protecting those supplies is a valid military mission, provided that it can be accomplished. All of the U.S. and Allied efforts to keep the Trans-Siberian Railway secure and send supplies across several thousand miles of Siberia eventually failed because the White Russian commanders lacked the capability and the desire to issue the supplies to their troops.

As the United States would unhappily discover again in China during World War II, to a warlord, large amounts of military supplies and modern weapons are actually more valuable in storage than in the hands of his troops. In storage, they provide tangible evidence of the support of "powerful" friends, whereas, if issued to soldiers, they actually might be turned against the warlord.

Protecting and operating a logistics pipeline is the key to operational success, but maintaining discipline within that pipeline is equally important. At various times during the Siberian campaign, military forces and supplies being moved to the front were delayed to allow refugee or dignitary trains priority passage on the rail lines. Even the deployment of the paramilitary Railway Service Corps to operate the railroad was plagued with problems. The chaotic conditions they encountered in December 1917 upon arriving at Vladivostok caused them to leave the country. It was another 3 months before they would return to begin their work.

Given an impossible mission, U.S. Soldiers proved resilient and performed admirably under the most extreme conditions. Their ability to persevere despite daily uncertainty about who their real allies were and to maintain security for their assigned section of the Trans-Siberian Railway is unquestioned. The eventual collapse of White forces and the final victory by the Reds were most likely inevitable because of circumstances well beyond the control of any of the Allied forces.

In the article in the March–April 2012 issue of Army Sustainment, we will see that the Americans who were deployed to northern Russia took a much more active role in fighting against the Reds under even harsher environmental conditions. Ultimately, that campaign also led to many painful, frustrating, and controversial episodes in dealing with coalition operations and "logistics in reverse."

For now, we can wrap up the Siberian campaign by using the observations of two of the actual participants. One Soldier wrote a poem describing his Siberian experience that included the stanza, "And the average American soldier/Would rather be quartered in hell." Another participant commented many years later, even more poignantly, while talking about the death of his best friend from pneumonia, "He was buried in a wooden box about three feet in the ground . . . As far as I know, his remains are still in Siberia."

Alexander F. Barnes is a logistics management supervisor in the Enterprise Systems Directorate of the Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia. A former enlisted Marine and Army warrant officer, he holds a master's degree in archeology from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is the author of In a Strange Land: The American Occupation of Germany 1918–1923.

Cassandra J. Rhodes is an inventory management specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency. She holds a bachelor's degree in international studies with a concentration in Russian and Eastern European studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master's degree in national security studies from American Military University.

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