Fighting a revolution -- and that's no Bolshevik

Letters from Russia shed light on soldiers' thoughts

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— Vladivostok, Siberia

(For the last time)

October 7, 1919

Dearest Home Folks:

I am going on board the transport this morning and we sail tomorrow via Hong Kong, Manila and Honolulu for the United States. Some birthday present to leave Siberia on the Great Northern with such a nice trip in prospect and a final joy of getting home. I expect to get home in time for Thanksgiving dinner is about as near as I can estimate. I will wire from San Francisco.

Sunday night April 13, 2003, was an occasion to celebrate as seven soldiers headed home. And it was an opportune time to reflect on thousands of life paths forever altered. I have no firsthand experience in the matter, but I have read that for soldiers who go away to war, that event and the experiences contained within it become the defining moment of their lives. And so it will be for the seven former prisoners of war who began the journey home yesterday and for their many comrades in arms. As it was for my grandfathers.

If I told you that my grandfathers fought in World War I, you might say, "So did mine!" If I told you that one of my grandfathers fought side by side with the Japanese against the Bolsheviks in Siberia during World War I, I dare say, you might look puzzled.

My paternal grandfather, Floyd Angus Ross, was a corporal who manned a field artillery battery in France. His job involved sighting the artillery piece and jumping down from the barrel before the round was fired. He came home with life and limb intact, and raised a small family.

For reasons that should be apparent, I remain eternally grateful for his safe return. But there was another war, a war that was not fought in Europe.

It was my maternal grandfather, Vernon I. Basler, who wrote from Vladivostok for the last time on Oct. 7, 1919.

Most of us have never made the connection between the Russian revolution and World War I, but they overlapped, and the Western allies were profoundly concerned about how the turmoil in Mother Russia would upset the balance of power in the Pacific.

During the first half of 1918, anti-Bolshevist Russian elements organized a military campaign. They fought in the Caucasus and Georgia, and they fought in Siberia.

By August 1918, it appeared that forces interested in a democratic future for Russia might succeed in advancing on Moscow. The United States sought to aid that effort by sending soldiers to guard critical railroad lines in Siberia. The American Expeditionary force, although it was allied with the Japanese in the effort, was also there to keep Japanese imperialism in check.

First Lieut. Vernon Basler, commanding Company M, 31st Infantry, was in the thick of it. The troopship carrying Company M took 23 days to travel from San Francisco to Nagasaki, and a few more days to reach Vladivostok.

From there, it was a difficult trip inland by horse drawn wagons. They guarded the mines at Suchan, and they exchanged fire with the "Bolshevikis" while guarding railroad trains.

Vernon wrote it all down in a tiny leather bound diary.

On June 6, 1919, Vernon wrote that "all precautions were being taken" because Bolshevik soldiers had been rumored to be lobbing grenades into Americans' tents.

Vernon Basler was something of a teetotaler, but he loved to party, if that makes sense.

A day was not regarded a success unless there had been a dance with local ladies or a game of cards.

On June 22, Vernon wrote, two American officers took the pursuit of recreation a little too seriously, and were captured by the Bolsheviks while fishing.

Vernon was in a party that set out to attempt to rescue the officers.

"The Bolsheviks captured Lieutenant Fribley and Lieutenant Reed while they were fishing in the Suchan River," Vernon wrote in his diary. "We pursued them to Novitskay and had a nasty fight from 8:20 p.m. until 9 p.m. Four killed and two wounded. Returned in the rain and mud at 1 a.m."

Five days later, Vernon was in command of soldiers guarding a train when it was fired upon.

"We returned fire hotly. Two men wounded."

After nine months in Siberia, Vernon learned from his superiors that he and his men could go home, but only if they could get to Suchan Bay before the waiting ship set sail.

He scrambled up some wagons and they got the hell out of Siberia.

Vernon returned to his home in Oregon where he had several careers. He cleared sagebrush and juniper by hand from his own farm. Later he taught high school.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was in his mid-forties, but tried to enlist anyway. They told him he was too old, so he took a job with the Veterans Administration in Portland and helped soldiers return to civilian life.

Upon retiring, he became a stockbroker. Although he rarely answered questions about Siberia, his diary tells the story for him.

Vernon Basler lived into his 90s, and it was a life well lived.

Here is to old soldiers and their children.

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