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American Armed Forces in Siberia, 1919

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

While World War 1 was still raging in Europe in mid-1918, President Woodrow Wilson decided to send American troops to Siberia.

Russia was in the middle of a civil war, and President Wilson sent troops to Siberia not necessarily to meddle in the civil war (although Americans were mostly anti-communist) but for three reasons: (1) to safeguard military supplies and railroad stock that the US had provided to Russia when the latter was engaged on its eastern front in World War 1; (2) to liberate 40,000 Czech troops in Siberia in the hope that they could go west and fight in Europe; and (3) to steady any attempts at self-governance should the Russians ask for assistance.

Some 3,000 American troops arrived in Siberia by August 1918, and at its peak, the Amercian Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Siberia numbered nearly 8,000 troops. The whole affair was considered a failure, and the last Amercian troops departed in April 1920. During the mission, about 200 American troops died from all causes (i).

As was the case for AEF troops in Europe during World War 1 (see this blog for a letter from that period), AEF soldiers in Siberia and their families kept in touch through the mail. The letter sheet shown in Figures 1 through 3 is one example.

Soldiers could send mail home free of charge as long as they followed proper procedure. They simply had to note on the letter "Soldier's Mail," which Private John W. Beauvais did correctly in the upper left-hand corner of Figure 1.

Of course, to prevent disclosing any sensitive information that would benefit the enemy, soldier's mail was routinely censored. Private Beauvais's letter has a "A.E.F. Siberia CENSORED" stamp in the lower left-hand corner of Figure 1. A lieutenant with the first initials "G.S." and a last name that can't be discerned, signed off on Private Beauvais's letter.

The letter sheet has a clear "U.S. Postal Agency Siberia" circular date stamp from 10:00 a.m. on May 15, 1919.

The letter sheet also has a receiving date stamp on the back (Figure 2): 1:00 p.m. on June 3, 1919. Two things are peculiar about this postmark. First, the year "1919" is upside down. Second, why did a soldier's letter dispatched in all likelihood from Vladivostok in eastern Russia end up in Chicago before being delivered to its destination in Salt Lake City? From what I've read, transports ran more or less regularly between Vladivostok and San Francisco during the AEF's time in Siberia. If this missive arrived in San Franciso first, why was it shipped 2,100 miles east before backtracking 1,400 miles west to Salt Lake City? Sounds like a post office snafu to me!

Based on the auction catalog listing (see lot 4289 here), consulting with some collectors on Stamp Community Forum, and using Google Image to translate the characters, the letter sheet used by Private Beauvais is of Japanese origin. The stamp printed on the letter sheet does not have any denomination, but the characters translate to "Postal Service." The script on the left-hand side roughly translates to "Printing Press Warlords [Military Commander?] of the Great Army." My guess is that this was printed by the Japanese military for use by its soldiers to send letters home. I don't think it was printed by the Japanese postal service.

During World War 1, Japan sided with the US, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary. President Wilson asked Japan to send troops to Siberia as part of an international coalition. After much debate, Japan decided to send forces to Siberia, and Japanese troops arrived in Siberia around the same time as the AEF, but not as part of an international coalition; they remained under Japanese command.

Given that the US and Japan shared a common mission (more or less) in Siberia, it would not be surprising if Private Beauvais interacted with his Japanese counterparts and had access to their writing materials. Maybe he even considered the letter sheet a souvenir of his time in Siberia.

Private John Wilbur Beauvais (Figure 4) was born in Raton, New Mexico sometime between 1889 (the year on his Word War 1 draft registration card) and 1891 (the year on his gravestone). At a fairly young age, his family relocated to Arizona because one of his sisters was born there around 1892 and that seemed to be his official residence until after the war when he and his family permanently settled in California.

The connection to Salt Lake City was his wife, Drucilla May Parker. She was born there in 1890 and gave birth to her first two children in "The Crossroads of the West" in 1918 and 1920. The letter that John sent to his mother was actually delivered to the residence of Drucilla's mother, "Mrs. Parker," who was Ida Parker residing at 178 Navajo Street in Salt Lake City. It seems a reasonable assumption that John's wife and mother moved to Salt Lake City during John's time in the military.

I don't know when John was drafted or enlisted, but I do know he departed for Siberia on August 14, 1918, from San Francisco aboard the US Army Transport Thomas (Figure 5). He returned to San Francisco aboard the Thomas on October 6, 1919.

The letter John wrote to his mother was:

May 11, 1919

Mrs. Mary R. Beauvais

Dear Mother

Today is another day. So I am writing these few lines to selabrate [sic] this great day, and it happened to find me over-sea's.

Have no news only that I am in fine health and heres [sic ] hopeing [sic] you are in good health and the rest of the folks.

Don't know just when I will be home but guess it is not far off.

I got the good news that Sister Onamay has a Girl Baby. Wish Onamay and Soldier Husband Good luck in all their efforts.

Onamay was John's younger sister born in 1902. The record on her is slim, but it does show she gave birth to a daughter Drucilla sometime in 1919.

After returning to the US and moving to California, John worked as a carpenter and was briefly in real estate. He completed his draft registration card for World War 2, but he did not serve in the military during that conflict. He was in his early 50s by that time, and he worked at a US Navy yard, which I'm sure was deemed a critical, war-related occupation.

John died in Virginia in 1966 at age 74 (assuming he was born in 1891) and was buried at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. His wife Drucilla passed away in 1958 and was buried in the same cemetery.

Figure 1 - Front.

Figure 2 - Fully opened letter sheet.

Figure 3 - Letter

Figure 4 - Private john Wilbur Beauvais

Figure 5 - U.S.A.T Thomas in dock at Fort Mason, California April 1920. (USAT = US Army Transport)

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