The plan for a Siberian Intervention was hatched by the Allied High Command around the same time as the North Russian Intervention, and with a similar mission. The first two objectives were the same as the North Russian Intervention: to protect the Allied war material stockpiles in Siberia and to help the Czechoslovak Legion to leave Russia and get it to the Western Front.
The third objective was different. The anti-Bolsheviks were much stronger in the east and it seemed possible that a powerful government could be formed, either by Admiral Aleksandr V. Kolchak (1874 – 1920), who had set up shop in the Siberian city of Omsk, or the dashing Cossack Lt. Gen. Grigory Semyonov (1890 – 1946), operating in the Trans-Baikal region (who proved to be more of a gangster than a patriot). The Intervention force was tasked with advising, supplying and supporting the formation of an alternative government that would renounce the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, restore foreign property rights and reaffirm Russian indebtedness.
Commitments were sought for the units to make up the force. The Japanese were asked for 12,000 soldiers, the Americans 10,000, the Canadians 4,500, the French 3,000, the Italians 2,400, the Chinese 2,300 and the British 1,500. Altogether this force would be far larger than that deployed to north Russia, and it would get much larger still.
Over several days in August 1918 more than 70,000 Japanese troops either disembarked at Vladivostok or crossed the Manchurian border at several points. This size and speed of this deployment made all of the Allies suspicious of Japanese intentions. On September 5th the leading elements of the Japanese force linked up with the vanguard of the Czechoslovak Legion around Lake Baikal, and that objective was accomplished.
U.S. Maj. Gen. William S. Graves (1865 – 1940), who had been the commander of the 8th Division during its training, was re-assigned to command the US Siberian Expeditionary Force of about 7,950 officers and enlisted men, including Army’s 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments taken from the garrison in the Philippines, plus elements of the 12th, 13th and 62nd Infantry Regiments of the 8th Division, which had not left for France. To operate the Trans-Siberian railroad, the Russian Railway Service Corps was formed with U.S. personnel.
Although Graves did not arrive in Siberia until September 4th, 1918, the first 3,000 American troops had already disembarked in Vladivostok between August 15th and 21st. They quickly assumed guard duty along the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuriski to the north.
Unlike his Allied counterparts, Graves believed their mission in Siberia was to provide protection for American-supplied property and to help the Czechoslovak Legion exit Russia, and that it did not include fighting against the Bolsheviks. As a result the Americans killed or died numbered only 48.
Graves wasn’t the only leader who redefined his mission; there never was a united front or even a unified command. The Japanese were eying conquest, occupying most of the cities east of Lake Baikal. The Canadians decided that their task was to secure and police Vladivostok, the British went off to advise and support Adm. Kolchak, the French contingent, which was mostly made up of Poles and the Italian group, which was ex-Austrian POW’s, both affiliated themselves with the Czechosolvaks and the Chinese troops guarded Chinese property in Vladivostok.
Canadian Maj. Gen. James H. Elmsley, commander of the British and Canadian forces, described the situation:
‘The general situation here is an extraordinary one—at first glance one assumes that everyone distrusts everyone else—the Japs being distrusted more than anyone else. Americans and Japs don’t hit it off. The French keep a very close eye on the British, and the Russians as a whole appear to be indifferent of their country’s needs, so long as they can keep their women, have their vodka, and play cards all night until daylight. The Czechs appear to be the only honest and conscientious party among the Allies’.
The mission was only successful in enabling the extraction of the Czechoslovak Legion. The greater goal of building an anti-Bolshevik state failed. Kolchak’s army was defeated in the fall of 1919 and Kolchak was killed in February 1920. Semyonov held on longer but ultimately fled to Manchuria in October 1921.
All of the allies except the Japanese withdrew their forces in June 1920. The Japanese were forced to negotiate the withdrawal of their forces from Trans-Baikal after the collapse of Semyonov and the loss of American control of the railroad. However, the Japanese did remain in the Vladivostok area until October 1922. It is estimated that the Japanese lost about 5,000 soldiers in Siberia, mostly due to disease and cold weather.
In 1921 the U.S. 27th Infantry regiment was officially designated “The Wolfhounds” in recognition of their Siberian service. It was attached to the Hawaiian Division, and became part of the 25th Division in 1942 when the oversized Hawaiian Division was split up. It has remained associated with the 25th to the present day, serving in the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 31st Infantry, which gained the official designation “Polar Bears”, took most of the U.S. casualties in Siberia. Resuming service with the Philippine Division in 1920, the 31st was again detached in 1932 to protect American interests in Shanghai, then returned to fight to exhaustion before surrender at Bataan in 1942. Eight years later they heroically covered the withdrawal of the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. In Vietnam they served with the 9th Division and later joined the 10th (Mountain) Division, where the 4th Battalion serves today.