In 1918, a group of American Red Cross volunteers helped save the lives of hundreds of Russian children, cut off from their parents by war and revolution.
During World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, conditions were harsh in the capital city of Petrograd, known today as St. Petersburg. Squalid living conditions, hunger and disease were rampant. The country’s involvement in World War I had cost millions of lives and severely disrupted Russia’s struggling economy.
In May 1918, parents in Petrograd put as many as 11,000 children on trains headed south to the Ural Mountains to enjoy a summer of fresh air and nourishing food with a group of teachers serving as chaperones. At the end of the summer, most of the children returned to Petrograd — but for almost 800 of them, the trip became a nightmare when they were caught between fighting factions in the Russian civil war. Their three-month trip was extended indefinitely when train lines were cut, making it impossible for the children to get home.
AS AUTUMN APPROACHED, THE CHILDREN HAD ONLY SUMMER CLOTHES and were growing cold and hungry in the forests of Siberia. Adding to the dangers, released prisoners of war from different countries were also trying to get back home, and the children and their teachers were forced to escape eastward across the forbidding expanse of Siberia.
AMERICAN RED CROSS VOLUNTEERS WERE DOING RELIEF WORK at the time in more than 20 countries across Europe. Wounded soldiers were pouring into the Russian city of Vladivostok, where inadequate treatment facilities awaited them. The country asked for help, and the Red Cross rushed men and supplies from the United States. They equipped and operated hospitals for American and Allied troops and refugees; equipped and maintained an anti-typhus train and isolation hospital for typhus patients; distributed comfort kits to American and Allied soldiers; and helped the soldiers communicate with loved ones back home.
A group of American Red Cross workers in Russia heard about the children and set off to rescue them. Riley Allen, a newspaper editor from Hawaii, headed the group with fellow Red Cross workers Burle Bramhall and Hannah Campbell. Threatened by snow and ice storms, lack of food, boxcar fires, typhus epidemics, bandits and gunfire of the civil war, the Red Cross reached the children and put them on trains to Vladivostok — the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year journey around the world to get the children and their chaperones home. Accompanying the group, the Red Cross workers made sure the children were fed, had a place to stay, medical care and schooling.
THE CHILDREN TRAVELED BY RAILCARS WITH THE RED CROSS SYMBOL painted on the sides in the hope that they would not be mistaken for troop transports and attacked on the long trip back across Siberia. U.S. army troops provided armed guards for the trains. When they arrived in Vladivostok, a former military barracks nearby on Russian Island served as an icy winter home for the children until the next summer in 1920.
Still, traveling over land back to Petrograd remained impossible, so Allen decided the only alternative was to bring the children home by ship, sailing east across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. He leased a Japanese freighter, the Yomei Maru, and had it outfitted with sleeping areas, toilets and other basic amenities.
In July 1920, the children boarded the Yomei Maru with their teachers, 17 American Red Cross staff and some 80 former POWs from different nations who would perform menial jobs on the ship in return for passage to Europe.
THE SHIP SAILED FIRST TO JAPAN FOR REPAIRS AND PROVISIONS, then made its way across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. From San Francisco, the Yomei Maru sailed through the Panama Canal, traveled north along the East Coast and arrived in New York. From there, the group set sail for France to a port in Finland close to Petrograd. By February 1921 — two-and-a-half years after leaving home for a summer retreat — the children returned to Russia, marking the end of their journey around the world.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.