Thomas Earl Hunsaker, a returned missionary from Malad, Idaho, and recent World War I draftee, saw an odd notice on a bulletin board at Camp Fremont, near Palo Alto, in August of 1918. Hunsaker was in basic training, assuming he would be sent to France along with the rest of his regiment in the coming weeks. He had recently married, along with several other LDS soldiers in his regiment, and had taken an off-base apartment with his new wife, Laura.
The notice was a piece of paper asking for volunteers who would be willing to go to Siberia. We can’t really know what Hunsaker was thinking, but it is fair to speculate that he probably knew little about Siberia, other than it wasn’t France, where million-man armies faced each other across a deadly no-man’s land on a front of a few dozen miles. He perhaps knew of friends or relatives who were already serving in Europe, and there was certainly no shortage of newspaper reports about the brutal grind of trench warfare. Perhaps Siberia sounded exotic, but for certain, anything he did know about Siberia and Russia may well have been that it was on the opposite side of the world from the war in Europe. Whatever his thinking, he agreed to volunteer for Siberian service. He had a reputation for volunteering. Upon his return from the Southern States Mission in 1918, he had volunteered to be among the first drafted that spring.
Within a few weeks, Hunsaker, along with some thirty other LDS soldiers in the 31st Infantry Regiment, found themselves on transport ships, heading west across the Pacific Ocean. As a result of the spring 1918 draft drawing primarily on the Western states, Camp Fremont likely had a higher percentage of LDS inductees than previous drafts. Many of these soldiers were older, returned missionaries with wives. Some had actually been missionary companions, others had connections through relatives or through their close-knit Mormon communities. They quickly found each other in basic training, and spent free time together. On board the transports, they held informal church meetings, and sang hymns together. A couple of LDS soldiers aboard the transport with Thomas were disappointed after one stop in Japan, where the majority of the US soldiers on board immediately got drunk and began to cause trouble ashore. As a result, all soldiers were banned from shore leave on their next stop, regardless of who had been drunk or not.
Hunsaker and the other Siberian LDS soldiers found themselves in a military mission that had more to do with diplomatic posturing and pressures than any specific strategic goals. In addition, the US intervention in Siberia came with very specific instructions to General William Graves, commander of the 8th Army Division, which included both the 27th and 31st Infantry regiments. General Graves was given his orders in a note written by President Woodrow Wilson via Secretary of War Newton Baker at a midnight meeting at a railroad station in the middle of the night in Omaha, Nebraska. The instructions, now known as the Aide-Memoire, advised General Graves to maintain strict neutrality, and avoid taking any sides in the Russian revolution, and instead to concentrate on securing the docks and warehouses filled with military supplies in Vladivostok, and help keep the Trans-Siberian Railway open. Secretary Baker offered this final advice to Graves: “You will be walking on eggs, filled with dynamite.”
Once in Vladivostok, the soldiers had to deal with the enforced neutrality, which initially meant not much to do outside of KP and guard duty. Boredom and questions about their deployment began to set in. The LDS soldiers, though, banded together and started holding more regular meetings, as outlined in my earlier post about the Red Triangle Club. Samuel Zwahlen was named as Branch President, and he selected Sheridan Ballard as his first counselor, and Thomas Hunsaker as his second counselor. The regular meetings of the Red Triangle Club became an anchor for young men involved in an otherwise uncharted and misunderstood military mission, with the LDS servicemen attending as often as they could.
But after the extremes of the Siberian winter of 1918-1919, and the end of the war in Europe with the armistice, the Siberian theater of operations began to heat up. The US troops, in spite of their strict efforts at neutrality between the Bolsheviks and loyalist forces, began to be viewed by the local population as aligned with the increasingly brutal campaigns of self proclaimed Siberian leader, Admiral Kolchak, and the Cossack war lords Generals Seminov and Kalmikov. These leaders and their forces controlled the Trans Siberian Railway across Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains. They were quick to harass, torture, or kill anyone with Bolshevik sympathies. This only turned more of the peasants against them and towards the Bolshevik forces. As the American troops and other allies were associated with keeping the railway open, and with the railway controlled by Kolchak’s forces, the common people began to perceive that the American’s were tacitly, if not explicitly, supporting the autocratic and brutal rule of the anti-Bolsheviks.
This led to direct action against the American troops starting in the spring of 1919, much of it in the area north and east of Vladivostok near the Suchan coal mines and their supporting railroad spur. Thomas Hunsaker became involved in an early deadly encounter, when a Bolshevik infiltrator, dressed in an American officer’s uniform, appeared in their ranks when returning from duty in the field one evening. Word was passed ahead to notify the regimental command without alerting the intruder. A sergeant guided the infiltrator to an office and instructed Hunsaker to stay with him. As they sat across the table, Hunsaker noticed the imposter getting nervous. Suddenly, the imposter pulled out an automatic pistol.
“Before he had time to aim,” Hunsaker related in a newspaper interview, “I reached across the table and grabbed the hand which held the gun. I thought my only chance would be to keep the barrel pointed toward him, at least, until the six rounds which the magazine held had been discharged.” The first shot went between the two struggling men as they stood fighting over the table. The second shot hit the imposter in the upper pelvis. A third shot struck Hunsaker’s leg, but “I did not know where I had been hit until later.” When a fourth shot struck the imposter in the abdomen, “he collapsed into my arms and died.”
Hunsaker had also become close friends with Ron Gibbs, another LDS soldier in a different platoon. Word came down one morning to Hunsaker’s platoon that the next platoon up the railway from them were under attack by the Bolsheviks. His platoon was quickly loaded on a train and rushed six miles to the town of Romanovka, where a surprise attack had killed more than twenty American soldiers, and pinned the rest of them down in the train station and some nearby log homes. Hunsaker’s platoon quickly routed the Bolsheviks, killing some, and capturing a few others. Hunsaker found Gibbs in good condition, slightly wounded on the wrist, but with eight bullet holes in his uniform.
As the conflict heated up, the Americans withdrew from Suchan and the coal mines, hunkering down in Vladivostok. Coal could still be obtained from more mines further up the railway. By late September, 1919, Hunsaker and his companions were back on the transports, heading back to California, where they would finally be released from active service, almost a year after the armistice formally ended World War I.
Thomas returned to Cache Valley, and opened a small mercantile store. The store failed during the depression, so Thomas turned to public service. He became Cache Valley’s first highway patrolman, serving with the Utah Highway Patrol for thirty years. He later was elected mayor of Logan in 1958, and reelected in 1960, fulfilling two terms. Thomas and his wife Laura Higginson, raised six children in Logan. Thomas Earl Hunsaker died in Ogden, Utah, in 1985 at the age of 91.
Thomas Hunsaker (right) and Ron Gibbs (left)
Thomas Hunsaker as mayor of Logan