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They Kept the Trains Running: The U.S. Russian Railway Service Corps in Russia’s Civil War, 1917-1920

Kenneth L. Knotts, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In the midst of Russia's Civil War, a group of 288 U.S. railway men for two years operated the Trans-Siberian Railway, keeping Russian trains running on that vital transportation link in support of Allied forces in Siberia. After President Woodrow Wilson in April of 1917 ordered U.S. troops to France, Wilson also tried to find ways to support America's faltering ally, Russia. In a manner that today would be called "out-sourcing," the Army in the fall of 1917 contracted with a group of civilian rail men to provide critical railway aid to the Provisional Government of Russia. This group, the Russian Railway Service Corps, RRSC, was recruited from fourteen railways in the U.S. Midwest. RRSC troops wore U.S. Army uniforms, carried side arms, and were often under enemy fire. They saw themselves simply as American soldiers who answered their country's call to arms. Due to a mutual failure of the U.S. Army and RRSC leadership to clarify their status, after RRSC members returned to the United States, they were denied official U.S. veterans’ status. They would not receive that recognition until 1973, when the U.S. District Court, Washington, D.C., granted them veterans' status. Why had President Wilson ordered military and civilian personnel to Russia near the end of “the Great War?” Whom and what mission did the RRSC support in Siberia? And why did they not receive the official recognition for their military service, which all of them believed they deserved? After describing the background for U.S. involvement in the Allied intervention, this study briefly examines President Wilson’s reasons for sending two contingents to Russia. Unlike previous works about the RRSC, this study covers the unit from its inception, examines in detail their more than two years of service in Russia and the Far East, and then traces their more-than-50year quest for official recognition as U.S. Veterans, until they achieved that goal. Therefore, this is the first detailed study which traces the full story of the Russian Railway Service Corps.

Subject Area

Military history|Russian history|International Relations

Recommended Citation

Knotts, Kenneth L., "They Kept the Trains Running: The U.S. Russian Railway Service Corps in Russia’s Civil War, 1917-1920" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30488811.