American Prisoners of War
CAPTIVE DOUGHBOYS IN BOLSHEVIKDOM
Doughboy Captives Still Coming Out Of Red Russia--Red Cross Starts Prisoner Exchange In Archangel Area--White Flag Incidents In No Man's Land--Remarkable Picture Taken--Men Who Were Liberated--Sergeant Leitzell's Gripping Story Of Their Captivity.
In August, 1920, came out of Bolshevik Russia, as startlingly as though from the grave, Corp. Prince of "B" Company, who had been wounded and captured at Toulgas, March 1, 1919. This leads to our story of the captives in Bolshevikdom. One of the interesting incidents of the spring defensive was the exchange of prisoners. It was brought about quite largely through the efforts of the American Red Cross, which was very anxious to try to get help to the Americans still in interior Russia, especially the prisoners of war. When the Bolsheviki captured the Allied men at Bolsheozerki in March they took a British chaplain, who pleaded that he was a non-combatant and belonged to a fraternal order whose principles were similar to the Soviet principles. Thinking they had a convert, the Soviet Commissar gave Father Roach his freedom and sent him through the lines at the railroad front in April.
News was brought back by Father Roach that many American and British and French prisoners were at Moscow or on their way to Moscow.
Accordingly, the American Red Cross was instrumental in prevailing upon the military authorities to open white flag conversations at the front line in regard to a possible exchange of prisoners. A remarkable photograph is included in this volume of that first meeting. One or two other meetings were not quite so formal. At one time the excited Bolos forgot their own men and the enemy who were parleying in the middle of No Man's Land, and started a lively artillery duel with the French artillery. At another time the Americans' Russian Archangel Allies got excited and fired upon the Bolshevik soldiers who were sitting under a white flag on the railroad track watching the American captain come towards them. Happy to say, there were no casualties by this mistake. But it sure was a ticklish undertaking for the Americans themselves later in the day to walk out under a flag of truce to explain the mistake and inquire about the progress of the prisoners exchange conversations going on. At Vologda, American, British and French officers were guests of the Bolshevik authorities. Their return was expected and came during the first week of May.
One American soldier, Pvt. Earl Fulcher, of "H" Company, and one French soldier were brought back and in exchange for them four former Bolshevik officers were given. Report was brought that other soldiers were being given their freedom by the Bolshevik government and were going out by way of Petrograd and Viborg, Finland. It was learned that some American soldiers were in hospital under care of the Bolshevik medical men. Every effort was made by military authorities in North Russia to clear up the fate of the many men who had been reported missing in action and missing after ambush by the Reds who cut off an occasional patrol of Americans or British or French soldiers.
But the Bolshevik military authorities were unable to trace all of their prisoners. In the chaos of their organization it is not surprising. We know that our own War Department lost Comrade Anthony Konjura, Company "A" 310th Engineers, while he was on his way home from Russia, wounded, on the hospital ship which landed him in England. There his mother went and found him in a hospital. An American sergeant whose story appears in this volume, says that while he was in Moscow six British soldiers were luckily discovered by the Red authorities in a foul prison where they had been lost track of. Even as this book goes to press we are still hoping that others of our own American comrades and of our allies will yet come to life out of Russia and be restored to their own land and loved ones.
Corporal Arthur Prince, of "B" Company, who was ambushed and wounded and captured in March, 1919, at Toulgas was, finally in August, 1920, released from hospital and prison in Russia and crippled and sick joined American troops in Germany. His pluck and stamina must have been one hundred per cent to stand it all those long seventeen months. His comrade, Herbert Schroeder, of "B" Company, who was captured on the 21st of September, has never been found. His comrades still hope that he was the American printer whom the Reds declared was printing their propaganda in English for them at Viatka.
Comrade George Albers, "I" Company, in November, 1918, was on a lone observation post at the railroad front. A Bolo reconnaissance patrol surprised and caught him. He was the American soldier who was shown to the comrades at Kodish on the river bridge after Armistice Day. He was afterward sent on to Moscow and went out with others to freedom. With him went out Comrades Walter Huston and Mike Haurlik of "C" Company, who had been taken prisoners in action on November 29th near Ust Padenga on the same day that gallant Cuff and his ten men were trapped and all were killed or captured. These two men survived. In this liberated party was also Comrade Anton Vanis, of Company "D" who was lost in the desperate rear guard action at Shegovari. Also came Comrade William R. Schuelke, "H" Company, who had been given up for dead. And in the party was Merle V. Arnold, American "Y" man, who had been captured in March at Bolsheozerki. Six of our allied comrades, Royal Scots, came out with the party. These men all owed their release chiefly to the efforts of Mr. L. P. Penningroth, of Tipton, Iowa, Secretary of the Prisoners-of-War Release Station in Copenhagen, who secured the release of the men by going in person to Moscow.
With the return of Comrade Schuelke we learn that he was one of the "H" Company patrol under Corporal Collins which was ambushed near Bolsheozerki, March 17th. One of his comrades, August Peterson, died April 12th in a Bolshevik hospital. His Corporal, Earl Collins, was in the same hospital severely wounded. His fate is still unknown but doubtless he is under the mossy tundra. His comrade, Josef Romatowski, was killed in the ambush, comrade John Frucce was liberated via Finland and his comrade, Earl Fulcher, as we have seen, was exchanged on the railroad front in May.
On March 31st two other parties of Americans were caught in ambush by the Reds who had surrounded the Verst 18 Force near Bolsheozerki. Mechanic Jens Laursen of "M" Company was captured along with Father Roach and the British airplane man wounded in the action which cost also the life of Mechanic Dial of "M" Company. And at the same time another party going from the camp toward Obozerskaya consisting of Supply Sergeant Glenn Leitzell and Pvt. Freeman Hogan of "M" Company together with Bryant Ryal, a "Y" man, going after supplies, were captured by the Reds. These men were all taken to Moscow and later liberated. Their story has been written up in an interesting way by Comrade Leitzell. It fairly represents the conditions under which those prisoners of war in Bolshevikdom suffered till they were liberated:
"On March 31st, 1919, at 8:30 a. m. I left the front lines with a comrade, Freeman Hogan, and a Russian driver, on my way back to Obozerskaya for supplies. About a quarter of a verst, 500 yards, from our rear artillery, we were surprised by a patrol of Bolos, ten or twelve in number, who leaped out of the snowbanks and held us up at the point of pistols, grenades and rifles. Then they stripped us of our arms and hurried us off the road and into the woods. To our great surprise we were joined by Mr. Ryal, the Y. M. C. A. Secretary who had been just ahead of us.
"At once they started us back to their lines with one guard in front, three in the rear and three on snow skiis on each side of the freshly cut trail in the deep snow. We knew from the signs and from the fire fight that soon followed that a huge force of the Reds were in rear of our force. After seven versts through the snow we reached the village of Bolsheozerki. On our arrival we were met by a great many Bolsheviks who occupied the villages in tremendous numbers. Some tried to beat us with sticks and cursed and spat on us as we were shoved along to the Bolshevik commander.
"One of the camp loiterer's scowling eyes caught sight of the sergeant's gold teeth. His cupidity was aroused. Raising his brass-bound old whipstock he struck at the prisoner's mouth to knock out the shining prize. But the prisoner guard saved the American soldier from the blow by shoving him so vigorously that he sprawled in the snow while the heavy whip went whizzing harmlessly past the soldier's ear. The Bolo sleigh driver swore and the prisoner guard scowled menacingly at the brutal but baffled comrade. The American soldiers needed no admonitions of skora skora to make them step lively toward the Red General's headquarters.
"One of the first things we saw on our arrival was a Russian sentry who had gone over from our lines. They demanded our blouses and fur caps, also our watches and rings. In a little while we saw three others arrive--Father Roach of the 17th King's Company of Liverpool and Private Stringfellow of the Liverpools, also Mechanic Jens Laursen of our own "M" Company who had escaped death in the machine gun ambush that had killed his comrade Mechanic Dial and driver and horse. Later Lieut. Tatham of the Royal Air Force came in with a shattered arm. His two companions and the sleigh drivers had been mortally wounded and left by the Bolsheviks on the road.
"After that we had our interview with a Bolshevik Intelligence Officer who tried to get information from us. But he got no information from us as we pleaded that we were soldiers of supply and were not familiar with the details of the scheme of defense. And it worked. He sent us away under guard, who escorted us in safety through the camp to a shack.
"Here we were billetted in a filthy room with a lot of Russian prisoners, some the survivors of the defense of Bolsheozerki and some the recalcitrants or suspected deserters from the Bolo ranks. We were given half of a salt fish, a lump of sour black bread and some water for our hunger. On the bread we had to use an ax as it was frozen. We managed to thaw some of it out and wash it down with water. After this we stretched in exhaustion on the floor and slept off the day and night in spite of the constant roar of Bolo guns and the bursting of shells that were coming from our camp at Verst 18. By that sign we knew the Bolo had not overpowered our comrades by his day's fighting. It was the only comforting thought we had as we pulled the dirty old rags about us that the Reds had given us in exchange for our overcoats and blouses, and went to sleep.
"We woke up in the morning midst the roar of a redoubled fight. A fine April Fool's Day we thought. We were stiff and sore and desperately hungry. But our breakfast was the remainder of the fish and sour bread. Later the guard relieved us of some of our trinkets and pocket money, after which they gave us our rations for the day, consisting of a half can of horse meat, a salt fish, and twelve ounces of black bread.
"Then we were taken to see the General commanding this huge force. He gave us a cigarette, which was very acceptable as we were quite unnerved, not knowing what would happen to us afterwards if we gave no more information than we had the day before. He tried to impress us by taking his pistol and pointing out on a map of the area just where his troops were that day surrounding our comrades in the beleagured camp in the woods at Verst 18 on the road, as well as many versts beyond them cutting a trail through the deep snow to the very railroad in rear of Obozerskaya. He boasted that his forces that day would crush the opposing force and he would move upon Obozerskaya and go up and down the railroad and clear away every obstacle as he had done in the Upper Vaga Valley, where he boasted he had driven the Allied troops from Shenkursk and pursued them for over sixty miles. Then he informed us that we were to be sent as prisoners to Moscow.
"Later in the morning we were started south toward Emtsa on foot. We could hear the distant cannonading on the 445 front as we marched along during the day on the winter trail which if it had been properly patrolled by the French and Russians would not have permitted the surprise flank march in force by this small army that menaced the whole Vologda force. Our thirty-five verst march that day and night--for we walked till 10:00 p. m.--was made more miserable by the thought that our comrades were up against a far greater force than they dreamed, as was evidenced to us by the hordes of men we had seen in Bolsheozerki and the transportation that filled every verst of the trail from the south. We made temporary camp in a log hut along the road, building a roaring fire outside. We would sleep a half hour and then go outside the hut to thaw out by the fire, and so on through the wretched night.
"At 4:00 a. m. we started again our footsore march, after a fragment of black bread and a swallow of water, and walked twenty-seven versts to Shelaxa, the Red concentration camp. Here we underwent a minute search. All papers were taken for examination. Our American money was returned to us, as was later a check on a London bank which one of my officers had given me. I secreted it and some money so well in a waist belt that later I had the satisfaction of cashing the check in Sweden into kronen in King Gustave's Royal Bank in Stockholm. After a meal of salt fish and black bread fried in fish oil, and some hot water to drink, we were given an hour's rest and then started on the road again to Emtsa, twenty-four versts away, reaching that railroad point at midnight. Here we were brought before the camp commandant who roughly stripped us of all our clothes except our breeches and gave us the Bolshevik underwear and ragged outer garments that they had discarded. And buddies who have seen Bolo prisoners come into our lines can imagine how bad a discarded Bolo coat or undershirt must be. After this we were locked up in a box car with no fire and three guards over us.
"Next morning, April 3rd, the car door was opened and the Bolshevik soldiers made angry demonstrations toward us and were kept out only by our guards' bayonets. We were fed some barley wash and the rye bread which tasted wonderful after the previous food. I paid a British two-shilling piece which I had concealed in my shoe to a guard to get me a tin to put our food in, and we made wooden spoons. That night we were lined up against the car and asked if we knew that we were going to be shot. But this event, I am happy to say, never took place. We went by train to Plesetskaya that day. Father Roach was taken to the commandant's quarters and we did not see him till the next day, when he told us he had enjoyed a fine night's sleep and expected to be sent back across the lines and would take messages to our comrades to let them know we were alive and on our way to Moscow."
It is interesting to note that the American Sergeant's insistence that he and his companions be given bath and means to shave, won the respect and assistance of the guard and the Bolshevik officer. Of course in making the two day's march in prisoner convoy from Bolsheozerki to Emtsa there had been severe hardship and privation and painful uncertainty and mental agony over their possible fate. And they had not stopped long enough in one place to enable them to make an appeal for fair treatment.
Imagine the three American soldiers and the "Y" man and the two British soldiers sitting disconsolately in a filthy taplooshka, hands and faces with three days and nights of grime and dirt, scratching themselves under their dirty rags, cussing the active cooties that had come with the shirts, and trying to soothe their itching bewhiskered faces. Here the resourceful old sergeant keenly picked out the cleanest one of the guards and approached him with signs and his limited Russki gavareet and made his protest at being left dirty. He won out. The soldier horoshawed several times and seechassed away to return a few minutes later with a long Russian blade and a tiny green cake of soap and a tin of hot water. Under the stimulation of a small silver coin from the sergeant's store he assumed the role of barber and smoothed up the faces of the whole crowd of prisoners. And then followed the trip under guard to the steaming bath-house that is such a vivid memory to all soldiers who soldiered up there under the Arctic Circle. In this connection it may be related that later on at Moscow the obliging Commissar of the block in which they were quartered hunted up for them razors and soap and even found for them tooth brushes and tubes of toothpaste which had been made in Detroit, U. S. A., and sold to Moscow merchants in a happier time.
"On April 5th we left Plesetskaya, after saying good-bye to the English Chaplain who seemed greatly pleased that he was to get his freedom and had his pockets full of Bolshevik propaganda. We reached Naundoma after a night of terrible cold in the unheated car and during the next two days on the railway journey to Vologda had nothing to eat. On April 7th we reached that city and were locked up with about twenty Russians. Here we got some black bread that seemed to have sand in it and some sour cabbage soup which we all shared, Russians and all, from a single bucket. Next day we thought it a real improvement to have a separate tin and a single wooden spoon for the forlorn group of Americans and British.
"At Plesetskaya we were questioned very thoroughly by a Russian officer who spoke English very well and showed marked sympathy toward us and saw to it that we were better treated, and later in Moscow saw to it that we had some small favors. In three days' time we were again on the train for Moscow, travelling in what seemed luxury after our late experience. The trains to Moscow ran only once a week as there were no materials to keep up the equipment.
"On our arrival we found the streets sloppy and muddy, with heaps of ice and snow and dead horses among the rubbish. Few business places were open, all stores having been looted. Here and there was a semi-illicit stand where horsemeat, salt fish, carrots or cabbage and parsnips, and sour milk could be bought on the sly if you had the price. But it was very little at any price and exceedingly uncertain of appearance. We were sent to join the other prisoners, French, English, Scotch and Americans who had preceded us from the front to Moscow. They had tales similar to ours to tell us.
"The next morning at 10:00 a. m. we were wondering when we would eat. The answer was: Twelve noon. Cabbage soup headed the menu, then came dead horse meat, or salt fish if you chose it, black bread and water. Same menu for supper. We learned that the people of the city fared scarcely better. All were rationed. The soldiers and officials of the Bolsheviks fared better than the others. Children were favored to some extent. But the 'intelligenza' and the former capitalists were in sore straits. Many were almost starving. Death rate was high. The soldier got a pound of bread, workmen half a pound, others a quarter of a pound. In this way they maintained their army. Fight, work for the Red government or starve. Some argument. Liberty is unknown under the Soviet rule. Their motto as I saw it is: What is yours is mine.'"
Captivity with all its desperate hardships and baleful uncertainties, had its occasional brighter thread. The American boys feel especially grateful to Mr. Merle V. Arnold, of. Lincoln, Nebraska, the American Y. M. C. A. man who had been captured by the Red Guards a few days preceding their capture. He was able to do things for them when they reached Moscow. And when he was almost immediately given his liberty and allowed to go out through Finland, he did not forget the boys he left behind. He carried their case to the British and Danish Red Cross and a weekly allowance of 200 roubles found its way over the belligerent lines to Moscow and was given to the boys, much to the grateful assistance of the starving allied prisoners of war.
But they became resourceful as all American soldiers seem to become, whether at Bakaritza, Smolny, Archangel, Kholmogora, Moscow or wherenot, and they found ways of adding to their rations. Imagine one of them lining up with the employees of a Bolo public soup kitchen and going through ostensibly to do some work and playing now-you-see-it-now-you-don't-see-it with a dish of salt or a head of cabbage or a loaf of bread or a chunk of sugar, or when on friendly terms with the Bolshevik public employees volunteering to help do some work that led them to where a little money would buy something on the side at inside employees' prices. Imagine them with their little brass kettle, stewing it over their little Russian sheet-iron stove, stirring in their birdseed substitute for rolled oats and potatoes and cabbage and perhaps a few shreds of as clean a piece of meat as they could buy, on the sly. See the big wooden spoons travelling happily from pot to lips and hear the chorus of Dobra, dobra.
They will not ever forget the English Red Cross woman who constantly looked out for the five Americans, the thirty-five British and fifteen French prisoners, finding ways to get for them occasional morsels of bacon and bread and small packages of tea and tobacco. On Easter day she entertained them all in the old palace of Ivan the Terrible.
How good it was one day to meet an American woman who had eighteen years before married a Russian in Chicago and come to Moscow to live. Her husband was a grain buyer for the Bolshevik government but she was a hater of the Red Rule and gave the boys all the comfort she could, which was little owing to the surveillance of the Red authorities.
And one day the sergeant met an American dentist who had for many years been the tooth mechanic for the old Czar and his family. He fixed up a tooth as best he could for the American soldier. The Reds had about stripped him but left him his tools and his shop so that he could serve the Red rulers when their molars and canines needed attention.
The American boys gained the confidence of the Russians in Moscow just as they had always done in North Russia. They were finally given permission to participate in the privileges of one of the numerous clubs that the Red officials furnished up lavishly for themselves in the palatial quarters of old Moscow. Here they could find literature and lectures and lounging room and for a few roubles often gained a hot plate of good soup or a delicacy in the shape of a horse steak. Of course the latter was always a little dubious to the American doughboy, for in walking the street he too often saw the poor horse that dropped dead from starvation or overdriving, approached by the butcher with the long knife. He merely raised the horse's tail, slashed around the anal opening of the animal with his blade, then reached in his great arm and drew out the entrails and cast them to one side for the dogs to growl and fight over. Later would come the sleigh with axes and other knives to cut up the frozen carcass. On May day the boys nearly lost their membership in the club, along with its soup and horse-steak privileges because they would not march in the Red parade to the gaily decorated square to hear Lenin speak to his subjects.
Was the Red government able to feed the people by commandeering, the food? No. At last the peasants gained the sufferance of the Red rulers to traffic their foodstuffs on the streets even as we have seen them with handfuls of vegetables on the market streets of Archangel. Prices were out of sight. Under a shawl in a tiny box, an old peasant woman on Easter Day was offering covertly a few eggs at two hundred roubles apiece.
Imagine the feelings of the boys when they walked about freely as they did, being dressed in the regular Russian long coats and caps and being treated with courtesy by all Russians who recognized them as Americans. Here they found themselves looking at the great hotel built on American lines of architecture to please the eye and shelter the American travellers of the olden times before the great war, a building now used by the Red Department of State. Here they were examined by one of Tchicherin's men upon their arrival in the Red capital. Further they could walk about the Kremlin, and visit a part of it on special occasions. They could see the execution block and the huge space laid out by Ivan the Terrible, where thousands of Russians bled this life away at the behest of a cruel government.
Or they could stand before the St. Saveur cathedral, a noble structure of solid marble with glorious murals within to remind the Slavic people of their unconquerable resistance to the great Napoleon and of his disastrous retreat from their beloved Moscow.
They cannot be blamed for coming out of Moscow convinced that the heart of the Slavic people is not in this Bolshevik class hatred and class dictatorship stuff of Lenin and Trotsky; equally convinced that the heart of the Russian people is not unfearful of the attempted return of the old royalist bureaucrats to their baleful power, and convinced that the heart of this great, courteous, patient, longsuffering Slavic people is groping for expression of self-government, and that America is their ideal--a hazy ideal and one that they aspire toward only in general outlines. Their ultimate self-government may not take the shape of American constitutionalism, but Russian self-government must in time come out of the very wrack of foreign and internecine war. And every American soldier who fought the Bolshevik Russian in arms or stood on the battle line beside the Archangel Republic anti-Bolshevik Russian, might join these returned captives from Bolshevikdom in wishing that there may soon come peace to that land, and that they may develop self-government.
"We finally received our release. We had known of the liberation of Mr. Arnold and several of our North Russian comrades and had been hoping for our turn to come. Mr. Frank Taylor, an Associated Press correspondent, was helpful to us, declaring to the Bolshevik rulers that American troops were withdrawing from Archangel. We had been faithful (sic) to the lectures, for a purpose of dissimulation, and the Red fanatics really thought we were converted to the silly stuff called bolshevism. It was plain to us also that they were playing for recognition of their government by the United States. So we were given passports for Finland. The propaganda did not deceive us.
"At the border a suspicious sailor on guard searched us. He turned many back to Petrograd. The train pulled back carrying four hundred women and children and babies disappointed at the very door to freedom, weeping, penniless, and starving, starting back into Russia all to suit the whim of an ignorant under officer. Under the influence of flattery he softened toward us and after robbing us of everything that had been provided us by our friends for the journey, taking even the official papers sent by the Bolshevik government to our government which we were to deliver to American representatives in Finland, he let us go.
"After he let us go we saw the soldiers in the house grabbing for the American money which Mr. Taylor had given us. They had not thought it worth while to take the Russian roubles away from us. Of course they were of no value to us in Finland. After a two kilometer walk, carrying a sick English soldier with us, my three comrades and I reached the little bridge that gave us our freedom."--By Sgt. Glenn W. Leitzell, Co. M, 339th Inf.*****
Table of Contents