It was 90 years ago that a group of very tired Russian refugees landed at Angel Island after a nine-month journey that started in Vladivostok.
"Buffeted about by storms at sea, driven from port to port, threatened by plague and starvation, 526 Russian refugees are in San Francisco harbor on board the transport Merritt today hoping that they will be allowed to land in America," Oakland Tribune reported July 2, 1923.
Adm. Uri Karlovich Stark of the Imperial Russian navy had taken command of the Siberian flotilla based in Vladivostok, which was still in the hands of the White Russians. However, the Red Army was closing in on the city.
By October 1922, it was clear the city would fall. Twenty-three ships set sail with 7,000 to 8,000 refugees. Some of the vessels headed for Manchuria; the rest went to Japanese-ruled Korea. The Japanese already had realized that imperial Russia was gone and denied asylum to the refugees at the Korean port of Wonsan. The Russians stayed on board as supplies dwindled.
Finally, the Japanese allowed the sick to come ashore to a makeshift hospital, but supplies had to be bought with cash.
The only ports open to the refugees were Shanghai, China, and Manila, Philippines.
It was now December. Stark headed for Shanghai, but his fleet was hit by a typhoon. One ship sank with its passengers and crew. Other ships were blown off course, and at the Japanese port of Nagasaki they got enough coal to get to Shanghai.
At Shanghai, word came that the refugees would be welcomed in Manila. However, most of the 8,000 who had started the trip did not want to return to Stark's battered fleet and remained in Shanghai, making plans to find a new place to live.
Stark sold some of his fleet and used the money to buy supplies. In February, 12 ships with 1,000 refugees headed for Manila, and again the fleet was hit by a typhoon. One ship, the Ajax, sank with all of its passengers and crew except for 10 people. Only 11 ships reached Manila.
The American naval base near Manila gave the refugees asylum. Gen. Leonard Wood, the U.S. governor-general of the Philippines, persuaded the U.S. government to provide passage to San Francisco on the Merritt, an American Army transport vessel. On May 26, 526 refugees left Manila for the United States. Some of the others went to Australia, while many stayed in Manila and got jobs.
The American Red Cross helped finance the trip and assisted the refugees to San Francisco in finding jobs and homes.
A few weeks ago, Eugenia Bailey sent us an email about these sturdy and courageous souls who undertook this difficult voyage to get to the United States. Her parents, Paul and Mary Nikonenko, were among the 526 passengers on the Merritt.
Early Monday afternoon at Angel Island, a small gathering will remember this event. For more information, email email@example.com.
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