ROCK SPRINGS — A Rock Springs soldier was among the Americans killed in Russia in a little-known chapter in U.S. military history.
World War I began in August of 1914, with the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia on one side, and the Central Powers of German and Austria-Hungary on the other. Three and a half bloody years later, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered the war on the side of the Entente. By that time, Russia was in chaos. First, the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for 300 years came crashing down, and only nine months later, the Provisional Government that replaced it was itself overthrown by the November (Communist) Revolution. The new regime, led by Vladimir Lenin, made peace with the Central Powers and took Russia out of the war.
What followed next was six years of horrific anarchy and civil war in Russia, principally between the “Whites,” (anti-Communist forces led primarily by Admiral Alexander Kolchak), and the “Reds,” comprised of the Bolshevik (Communist) forces that had usurped the Provisional Government. At least six million combatants and civilians died; many historians put the death count as high as nearly twice that.
Encouraged by the other Allied leaders, President Woodrow Wilson sent military expeditions to northern Russia and eastern Siberia to secure the Trans-Siberian Railroad and huge Allied supply caches, (there were about 725,000 tons of such goods and equipment in Vladivostok alone), and to aid the 40,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion – Czech and Slovak volunteers who fought on the side of Russia against the Central Powers.
The Legion was stranded in Russia when Lenin pulled out of the war, and strove to travel by train the 9,700 miles to Vladivostok, there to take ship for transport to the Western Front to resume their fight against Germany and Austria. It was also hoped that, in some manner, alternatives to Communist rule could be created. Inevitably, that would lead to clashes with Red troops.
Ultimately, nearly 8,000 American troops served in Siberia from 1918 to 1920, including elements of the 31st Infantry Regiment. Private Gus Johnson of Rock Springs, born in Sweden in 1886, was among them, a member of “A” Company.
As described in The American Legion, 100 Years, 1919-2019, a very special project of the High Desert Chapter of the National Society of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, “On 25 June 1919 his [Johnson’s] platoon of 75 soldiers was attacked at Romanovka near Vladivostok at sunrise while sleeping in tents by a 400-man Red Russian unit. Twenty-five men in his unit were killed, 25 were wounded, and 25 withstood and repelled the attack with reinforcements, the greatest single loss of American lives in Siberia.” Johnson was among those killed. On September 1, 1919, he was interred at the San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio.
While the Czech Legion was successfully extracted from Russia, by every other measure the American intervention was far less successful. The supplies stockpiled in Russian ports were lost, and no progressive, non-Communist government was established. The last American troops in Siberia were withdrawn on April 1, 1920. In total, 189 soldiers died there from all causes.
In Bunning Park in Rock Springs stands a century-old statue: The Spirit of the American Doughboy. It is a monument that honors the veterans and casualties of World War I and bears the names of the servicemen of Sweetwater County who died in that conflict. Among them is Private Gus Johnson, A Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, the only Sweetwater County man to die during the 1918-1920 American military intervention in Siberia.