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Maintaining a Lifeline

By Michael W. Dorsey

In the fall of 1917, as World War I raged, the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd, the Russian capital, taking a major step toward the creation of a Communist Soviet state. Amid this turmoil, the fate of a 5,772-mile-long rail line, the longest uninterrupted stretch of track in the world, took on enormous importance.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, extending from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, was a vital conduit for supplies and troops headed to the Western Front. As the war reached its climactic moments and Russia hovered on the brink of civil war, keeping the railway operational became a strategic interest for the United States.

When President Woodrow Wilson learned that the line was barely functioning, he sent an advisory commission to inspect it. One member, William L. Darling, WPI Class of 1877, had earlier helped build the first transcontinental line across the northern United States. Wilson’s stated purpose was keeping the railway operating, but historians say he was also interested in seeing the anti-democratic Bolsheviks fail.

The advisory board recommended major operational improvements, and Wilson created the Russian Railway Service Corps to implement them. Among the applicants was Benjamin O. Johnson, Class of 1900, a civil engineer who had risen through the ranks of the Northern Pacific to become a superintendent by the age of 39. “I never personally wanted anything in my life as badly as I want this opportunity,” Johnson wrote to his superiors, asking to be given leave to travel to Siberia.

Commissioned a major in the new unit, Johnson sailed for Vladivostok on Nov. 19, 1917, with more than 200 other RRSC officers and 75 machinists. Over the next five years, he played a pivotal role in the work of the Corps, which kept the railway working despite constant dangers posed by increasingly bitter warfare between the Bolsheviks and counterrevolutionary forces.

For many months, Johnson was preoccupied with efforts to evacuate the Czechoslovakian Legion, a hardened band of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army eager to return to the fight. The Bolsheviks first granted them free passage to Vladivostok, but after signing a peace treaty with the Central Powers, reneged, fearing the legion would join the counterrevolutionary forces. The legion’s subsequent revolt led President Wilson to send American troops to Siberia. Johnson helped lead the legion out of the country and took charge of rebuilding tracks and bridges destroyed by the Bolsheviks. In November 1918, he became the only American to receive the Czechoslovakian War Cross during World War I.

In 1919, the Inter-Allied Railway Commission was established to supervise the railway. Johnson twice served as acting president of the IARC’s Technical Board, which managed the line’s technical and economic aspects. In the fall of 1919, after significant setbacks for the counterrevolutionaries, Johnson took charge of managing their retreat by train. Later, as the country fell further into chaos and as typhoid and smallpox broke out among the troops, Johnson took charge of the evacuation out of Siberia and was on the last train out of Omsk, just a day before the Bolsheviks occupied it. In a letter, Johnson described the scene in the city: “twenty below, confusion, and the most extreme case of madhouse that a person can imagine.” Families froze on the platform waiting for trains, he wrote. Everywhere he looked he saw “the haunting, unpleasant look of panic on everyone’s faces.”

In 1920, Johnson was promoted to colonel and named commanding officer of the RRSC and chief inspector for the Trans- Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways. He was also responsible for the continuing efforts to get the last Allied troops to Vladivostok and onto ships for home.

Before departing Russia in 1922, Johnson received the Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor from France for his courage in helping evacuate French troops. Japan and China also decorated him for his work as acting Technical Board president. Back home in Montana, he resumed his job as a railroad executive.

In 1923, Johnson returned to WPI, where he was given the honor of speaking at Commencement. But when the Institute later asked him to become its president, he wrote that he was a “railroad man, not a college man.” On a return trip to Russia in 1930, the government asked him to head its railway system, but Johnson turned down that offer, too, due to failing health. He died in 1932 at the age of 54.

Johnson had hoped the work of the RRSC would be remembered fondly in Russia, but the organization and the U.S. intervention came to be viewed as evidence of America’s imperialist and anti-Bolshevik intentions. Historians agree that the work of Johnson and the other railway men who helped rebuild the Trans-Siberian Railway probably contributed to the advent of a rift between the Soviet and American governments that lasted through much of the twentieth century.

Editor’s Note: Almost one century after Johnson worked on the Trans-Siberian Railway, WPI alumna Anne-Marie Chouinard ’02 traveled along the same stretch of track.

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Last modified: Dec 22, 2005, 11:17 EST
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