By Duncan Birdsell, Journal-Standard City Editor, Freeport, Illinois, 1972
Their numbers around Freeport have dwindled to a handful. They are the ex-Doughboys, who back in the final tumultuous days of World War I were tucked away in a remote corner of the world while the Allies beat the German Hun into submission. Jog the memories of Clement Clarke, Harry Hoyman, and Fred Niemeier these days, when the winter cold nips the air and the news wires are full of President Nixon's impending visits to Peking and Moscow. The three retired men, all in their 70s, were part of a somewhat bizarre role played by America's soldiers in World War I. In a sense, they and some 7000 fellow American troops were the forgotten men of their times. Their lot was not the flaming battlefields of St. Mihiel, Chateau-Thierry, and the Meuse-Argonne in France.
The three veterans interviewed for this 1972 article:
Harry Hoyman:Born February 20, 1892 died May 1, 1989Fred Niemeier:Born January 2, 1896 died May 1974
Clem Clarke:Born November 3, 1898 died August 1981All died in Freeport, Illinois.
RAILROADS — THE KEY
Their story hinged on the railroad tracks that cut through the wastelands of Eastern Siberia— places like Khabarovsk, Spasskoe, and Verkhne-Udinsk, where the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Siberia, were sent to aid Allied troops and secure the Trans-Siberian Railroad and Allied war material after the collapse of the Czarist regime in Russia. "When we went over there, we called ourselves 'the American Exiled Forces, Siberia'." laughs Clarke.
|Guarding Railroads Was a Primary Mission
Hoyman draws a parallel to the present arguments about the American role in Vietnam. "Those fellows in Vietnam think they had the original experience," Hoyman reflects. "I didn't know why I was over there in Siberia until I got home."
Historians are still trying to assess the American role in Siberia during the 20 months from August 1918 to April 1920 when the last troops left Vladivostok. The Doughboys were under orders to walk a tightrope with the intrigue and brutality of Cossack leaders vying for power among themselves and with the Bolsheviks (Communists) in the leadership vacuum of Russia.
Other Allied troops in Siberia, the English, Japanese, French, and Czechs, were often pushing national interests. The Americans had been sent to aid the Czechs in leaving Siberia to join the other Allies on the Western Front, but the Czechs showed no yen to depart.
A SURPRISE DESTINATION
As often happens in the fortunes of war, Clarke, Hoyman, and Niemeier and some 50 other Freeport area soldiers had no idea that Siberia was their destination when they entered the service. "I grew up in Tama, Iowa, and enlisted back in 1916 when I was 17 years old, drove down to the Mexican border and fight Pancho Villa," said Clarke. Visions of Mexico disappeared for Clarke while he was at Ft. Logan, Colorado. He recalls the drill sergeant "telling us we could go to the Philippines and drink ice water or go to the border and drink sand, so we all went to the Philippines."
|Surprised to Be in Siberia
Clarke had been in Manila for about a year when the message came that sent Clarke and some 1600 men of the 27th Infantry Regiment from the tropics to the Siberian icebox in August 1918.
Clarke's Company M docked at Vladivostok and was immediately put to work guarding Allied equipment at the harbor before spending two weeks as a flank for a Japanese force fighting the Bolsheviks.
DRAFTED IN 1918
For Hoyman and Niemeier, their Siberian odyssey began at Camp Fremont, California. Both men had been drafted in May 1918 at Freeport and gone to the camp with other Freeport area men to learn trench warfare as infantry replacements in France. "We didn't know where we were going until we got on the train at Fremont to take us to the boat," Niemeier said. "I never heard of Siberia until I got over there."
Both Hoyman and Niemeier set foot on Russian soil at Vladivostok on 2 September 1918, after a two-and-a-half-week troop ship passage across the Pacific. "We were put to guarding the railroad," Hoyman said. "I remember that it rained every day. We later met up with the 27th (Infantry) who had been fighting the Bolsheviks."
That winter of 1918-19 for the Freeporters revolved around a set of barracks at Khabarovsk once used by the Czarists during the Russian-Japanese War of 1895 period. Khabarovsk was an important rail center on the Amur River, along the Manchuria border, located 400 miles up the railroad from Vladivostok.
"Cold? It was colder than hell," recalls Clarke, in reference to nights when the outside temperature sank to 50 and 60 below. "No matter how cold, we'd get outside during the day to drill, exercise, and practice firing," Clarke said. But the troops were well fitted to combat the cold, all three agreed. "We had the best wool clothes there were, regular snow packs and lambskin lined coats," Niemeier observed. Hoyman remembers the Russian natives saying that the Americans would freeze to death in the barracks, but the Yankees quickly devised a good circulation system for the wood burning stoves.
One startling experience shook the Americans that bitter winter. One Sunday afternoon at dusk, with the temperature over 50 below the compound quiet was shattered by the approach of more than 500 Cossack soldiers who were seeking protection from reprisal after their bloody coup against their officers was unsuccessful. Clarke retains today a dog-eared diary which describes the night, when his company was awakened from standby duty. "Was awakened at 2 a.m. by a whistle and someone flashing a lantern in my face," he wrote. "I dressed hurriedly as the whole company was preparing for something. We were ordered outside and hiked to the YMCA. There were about 600 Cossacks who had deserted Kalmikoff and come to us for protection."
The surprised Americans let the deserters build big bonfires within the compound to stay warm through the night and stood guard to protect them.
About 2000 armed and menacing supporters of Kalmikoff gathered during the late night and morning to demand the return of the deserters. The American commander stood firm, refused to surrender them, and later arranged for the safe conduct of the deserters to distant points in Manchuria.
Hoyman remembers a nerve-wracking incident that followed after the deserters were turned loose. "We had to send a guard of honor, detail of about 100 men, to the funeral of Cossack leaders the deserters had shot," Hoyman said. "Our captain told us he didn't know if we'd get our heads shot off or not. Fortunately, the Cossacks didn't take it out on us. They fired a salute at the cemetery and that was it."
|Working with the Red Cross in Siberia
While American soldiers were returning to civilian life in the spring and summer of 1919, the AEF in Siberia scattered to widely separated points along the railroad. Clarke's unit wound up far inland near the shores of Lake Baikal after a long train ride through Manchuria. "We had our mules on the train. Every time we turned them loose for exercise we had a heck of a time getting them back in," Clarke laughed.
Company M set up camp along the railroad using the abundant fir trees of the area for tent sideboards. Two basketball backboards were erected in a grassy area in front of the tents. The Americans guarded the tracks from sabotage but generally remained aloof from the Russian internal conflict. Clarke remembers seeing one train loaded with 3000 presumed Bolshevik prisoners who were reported taken from the train and slain. Every week the Americans would walk the 20 miles from their camp to a nearby town checking the trackage.
Although far from home and two months by mail, that area of Siberia did offer diversions. "You could go back of the camp, put a net in the stream, and pull out all the trout you'd want," Clarke said. "There were a lot of brown bear around and an awful lot of deer, just terrific. We lived high on the hog."
Clarke returned to the United States in September 1919 after a run-in with an officer, was furloughed to the reserves, and discharged in June 1920.
During the summer of 1919, Niemeier's unit, Company H of the 27th Infantry was moved back closer to Vladivostok to the town of Spasskoe, where they guarded the railroad. "It was pretty quiet," Niemeier recalls. "Several times someone got into a railroad engine and wrecked some cars. I'd ride some sentry duty on trains."
Niemeier was relieved of duty on 7 December 1919 and remembers the date still because the temperature was about 15 degrees below zero. He returned shortly to the United States where he and Freeporter Ira Sprague were discharged in January 1920 at the Presidio in San Francisco, California.
Some of the other Allied and captured enemy troops which were in Siberia provide Hoyman with some of his most vivid memories. The Freeporter spent the summer of 1919 at Verkhne-Udinsk far in the Siberian interior with a supply unit of the 27th Infantry.
"We had a track meet that summer with some Czechs. I don't know if they ever got home to their own county," Hoyman said. "Then another time we heard a grand opera performed by a band of captured Austrian soldiers." he continued. "They lacked two bass horns so we loaned them the instruments. Our soldiers sat on the edge of their seats for three hours and drank in the music. And you know how soldiers are."
|Czech Legionnaires on Parade
Granted the limited number and long distances between the American troops, what accounted for the relatively few attacks on them by the Bolsheviks and sometimes hostile Cossacks, Hoyman believes that the respect for America and its potential was a key. "We carried the American flag with us and I bet a few bucks that's why we're here today," he said.
The trio of Americans brought back some pleasant impressions of the Russian peasants along with the customary wartime souvenirs, which they still have tucked in spots around their homes.
"The Russian peasants were just like anyone else. They'd been trampled on and they'd appreciate anything you'd give them," Niemeier recalls. "They were always friendly to you, at least 95 percent of them."
Hoyman remembers the Russian civilians as "just ordinary people who had no conception of what was going on in the world." Their poverty was typified to him by constant presence of women and children begging outside the Americans' tents, even when the winter temperatures fell to 60 degrees below.
At one time the Siberian veterans of the Freeport and Rockford areas would gather regularly for meetings, but they were discontinued in the early 1940s. If they have the chance would the Freeporters want to return, if briefly, to the Siberian lands? "If they could fly me over and fly me back immediately, "I'd do it," exclaimed Hoyman. "I tell you, that climate over there. At night you could almost reach up and grab a star it was so clear."
Niemeier has no desire to return. "I still think about those days quite often. I would take a million for what I heard and saw, but I wouldn't give a nickel to go through it again," he said.
For Clarke, Siberia today has plenty of allure. "Go there again? I sure would." he exclaims. "I'd be very much interested. I read articles awhile ago by a fellow from the Chicago Tribune who traveled across Siberia and I have a notion to write him."
Sources and Thanks:
Friend and contributor Alice Horner, once a citizen of Freeport, Illinois, found this article.