In November of 1920, a crisis occurred in Constantinople that for a time drew attention away from events in mainland (Anatolian) Turkey. Virtually overnight, the residents of the city awoke to find over 120 Russian, French, and American ships steaming into the straits and anchoring near the city. Nearly 146,000 White Russian refugees were aboard these vessels.1 Refugees on some ships were standing, packed so tightly that they could not move. “You realized with a shock, as the morning light grew clearer, that what had appeared at first to be piled-up superstructure was in reality a solid mass of men,” commented an American reporter.2
Many of these wretched people were half crazy with thirst, having received no food and little water for several days; most had to defecate in place. Americans who boarded the ships reported that the crowding and filth were indescribable.3 Drawn to these wretches like carrion birds, Levantine boatmen extorted wedding rings, watches, and fur coats in exchange for bottles of water or loaves of bread.4 Eventually, most would be tended to briefly by the Allies and the Americans (particularly the American Navy), but their numbers would overwhelm a city already occupied by tens of thousands of refugees.
The evacuation from the Crimea that produced these fugitives in late 1920 was one of the last pages of a horrific story, for as it convulsed Russia and inundated Europe, the Russian Revolution also sent successive waves of terrified refugees down the Bosporus. A few Russians had fled to Constantinople immediately after the fall of the Aleksandr Kerensky government in late 1917. Then, in the spring of 1919, as successive evacuations of Odessa by French and Russian troops had pushed thousands of refugees into the Crimea, some vessels had steamed farther south.5 In April of that year, before traveling on to Hadjin, relief worker Alice Clark had written home about seeing ships carrying thousands of Russians in Constantinople’s harbor. Many of these Russians were newly impoverished aristocrats.6
For some time afterward, White Russian forces headed by General Anton Denikin fought back against the Reds, but a series of disasters broke Denikin’s army. In February of 1920, the wing of the White army under General Schilling fell back on Odessa again and began evacuating its troops on ships steaming toward Constantinople, resulting in yet another panic.7 In the harbor at Odessa were the American destroyer Talbot and later the Biddle, one of which was carrying Lieutenant Commander Hamilton Bryan, the representative of the U.S. high commissioner to Turkey, Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol.8 Bryan watched as snipers fired at the crowds on the docks from nearby houses and then as mobs rushed the Russian transports. Seamen aboard one of these Russian vessels, itself already filled to the gunwales, used machine guns to drive off additional maddened hundreds.9
Moved by the people’s desperation and incensed at seeing a Greek destroyer hoist a piano aboard instead of evacuees, Bryan commandeered the American merchant ship Navahoe, which happened to be in port, and filled it with hundreds of Russians, one of whom was future Broadway composer Vernon Duke, then known as Vladimir Dukelsky.10 Bryan had all these people taken down to Constantinople. The commander’s action earned the admiral’s ire, for Bryan had no authority to take control of the merchant vessel, and Bristol would talk of taking the costs out of Bryan’s pay.11 Eventually, however, the admiral got the Red Cross to underwrite the Navahoe’s expenses, and he settled for dressing Bryan down.
According to Duke’s memoir, the scene at the port of Odessa had been worthy of Hogarth or Doré: “Literally thousands of frenzied citizens pushed and kicked madly, all codes of decency abandoned, with men fighting women, lost children howling in a maze of luggage, bundles, and even furniture.”12 When the ships began to steam out of Odessa’s harbor, the crowds left behind went down on their knees in their great distress.13 It was to no avail: thousands were left behind. These ships eventually deposited some 10,000 refugees in Constantinople, though en route they first had to weather a terrific blizzard in the Black Sea.14 Of one such evacuation, American naval officer John Waller told his son, “It was heart-breaking. We bodily had to throw them off the ship; they were hanging on the lifelines. We would have lost them during high seas.”15
The White Russian army fought on. Serving with that army as an observer was American Rear Admiral Newton McCully. McCully had served two significant naval tours in Russia, first as a mid-grade officer observing the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and later in 1914, when he was assigned as naval attaché at St. Petersburg. By 1916 he could speak Russian and had become a perceptive observer of events.
He informed the State Department that food shortages, corruption of officials, and general disintegration of morale might soon force Russia out of the war. In 1917 he witnessed the beginnings of the Russian Revolution. Shortly after this, he was sent back to sea duty in the Atlantic, but just before the war’s end, McCully was put in charge of some American sailors serving under a British admiral in Murmansk, when the British and Americans were helping to support Allied intervention there.16
Such work was discouraging, for the Russians did not seem to want the Allies. McCully also recognized that the Russian forces they were working with were not dealing successfully with the land distribution problem. The suffering of the Russians at every hand greatly moved the American officer (before this, McCully had been troubled by the plight of the Poles), and he recommended to his superiors that America send grain to these starving people. That recommendation was turned down. McCully later made a plea that America provide asylum in Alaska for the tens of thousands of Russians who faced likely reprisals from the Bolsheviks. Although approved by naval superiors, this request was rejected by the State Department.17
The American contingent in which McCully served was withdrawn from northern Russia in July of 1919. Admiral Bristol then suggested that his friend and Naval Academy classmate McCully be given orders to travel with General Anton Denikin’s White Russian Volunteer Army as an observer. Wanting eyes in Russia’s interior, the State Department agreed. So McCully took passage to the Black Sea via Constantinople in January of 1920. While traveling with Denikin, McCully and his assistant, Commander Hugo Koehler (also fluent in Russian), kept in close touch with Bristol by letter and occasional visit, for Bristol was providing successive destroyers as base, and McCully once or twice rode a destroyer down to Constantinople to confer with Bristol and others.18
As McCully grew pessimistic about the growing problems of the politically inept Denikin, he continued to feel for the Russian refugees. Admiral McCully now recommended the United States grant asylum to the Russians massing in Black Sea ports, but the State Department once again said no.19 Although McCully and Bristol were friends, the contrast in their outlooks was sharp. Bristol made clear to McCully that he would not tolerate yet another unauthorized shipload of Russians on his hands like the one Bryan had saddled him with; in the event of yet another evacuation, McCully should bring no more than 250 refugees down the straits.20
In March of 1920 an evacuation of over 80,000 troops and refugees from Novorossisk became imminent. Following Bristol’s instructions to the letter, McCully selected about 200 upper-class women and children, some of them wives and children of Denikin’s staff officers, and had them shipped to the island of Proti in the Sea of Marmara. The cruiser Galveston and destroyer Smith Thompson took part in this evacuation.
On board the destroyer, finding only one of their 29 Russian passengers spoke anything but Russian, officers detailed two of their ship’s crew as translators; both the sailors spoke excellent Russian.21 McCully also used American ships to transport 1,000 refugees from Novorossisk to the Crimea, where the White army was preparing a last stand, thinking that was the least that America could do in the circumstances.22 Meanwhile, besides the troops and refugees pouring into the Crimea, some 50,000 more Russians steamed down the Bosporus on Russian ships. Although a majority of this group would travel on to other countries, maybe 20,000 of these refugees remained in the city, this on top of many thousands of Russians already there.23
The tidal wave of refugees was still to come. The Russian general Denikin was replaced by the more politically astute General Peter Wrangel in April of 1920, and Wrangel tried to rally White Russian forces in the Crimea. McCully admired this man, although he knew that Wrangel faced nearly impossible odds.24 For a while things augured better for the White Russians, and the Bolsheviks were locally held to a stalemate. Over several months, besides travel, liaison, and reporting, McCully began visiting orphanages. He had become so frustrated by America’s refusal to help the suffering Russians that he was considering a relief project of his own. McCully started writing Bristol and his diary of his notion of personally adopting maybe half a dozen Russian waifs.25
back in February McCully had discovered a lice-covered 11-year-old boy living in the water closet of an abandoned railroad car in Sebastopol, and after placing him in a hospital and visiting him regularly for three weeks (the child had developed typhus), the admiral had him taken to a refugee camp on one of the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara.26 Now he began befriending other children whom he found living in ghastly conditions in the Russian orphanages.27
Soon he would have a couple of young Russian girls taken down to that same refugee camp. Eventually, recognizing that his requests to adopt children through regular channels would likely be snarled in red tape, he decided to engage a 19-year-old Russian governess, take seven children home with him, and present the matter to the State Department as a fait accompli. He anticipated receiving some disparagement here and there, but he was an admiral, and Navy gossips could safely be ignored.28
Occasionally, the American Navy ships would get a glimpse of the Russian conflict. In early June, Admiral McCully had the Smith Thompson carry him and Commander Koehler from Sebastopol toward the Sea of Azov; McCully had heard of a White Russian landing to be carried out in Eastern Russia from within that body of water. So the American destroyer entered the Kerch Strait on June 6, keeping to the port side away from the Bolshevik batteries to starboard. They were taken under fire, and the first shot came very close. The ship came up to 25 knots, turned even further to port, and hugged the western side of the strait. Despite a brief fusillade, the Smith Thompson made it through unharmed and eventually joined the Russian ships supporting the troop landing.
McCully and Koehler left the destroyer and joined the Volunteer Army to observe the battle. After several hours, McCully returned with ten badly wounded Russians, and the Smith Thompson took them aboard. That night the destroyer exited the Kerch Strait at darken ship, this time without being noticed by the Bolshevik batteries. On the ship’s arrival in Sebastopol, a boat from the British ship Ajax took the wounded Russians aboard. Apparently McCully stayed in the city, while the Smith Thompson steamed on.29
In late October, the slight prospects of Wrangel’s small army completely dissolved. General Wrangel had counted on the tidal marshes at the neck of the Crimea to hold out the Bolsheviks, but when in November a series of extremely low tides drained many of the marshes and a violent cold snap froze the rest, the Bolsheviks suddenly poured across the frozen marshes and sent Wrangel’s army into full retreat.30 That the end was near was very clear now; everybody had to go.
McCully cabled a request that the United States be allowed to aid in the evacuation but did not wait for the State Department’s response. He ordered Commander Alexander Sharp of the destroyer John D. Edwards to gather a group of refugees and then steam to Constantinople to present a letter to Bristol asking for more ships. Sharp collected 550 Cossacks and other Russians off the Sebastopol dock. As the destroyer sped south, these men, women, and children spread all over his ship and hungrily wolfed down as much food as his cooks could dish up.
The ship moored at the city, and the destroyer’s captain reported personally to the admiral. According to Sharp, on reading McCully’s letter Bristol ordered up all the ships he could find.31 The John D. Edwards offloaded its passengers at the Russian summer embassy and soon headed back north. In its wake were four other destroyers, the American merchant ship Faraby, and the cruiser St. Louis. The destroyer Overton (already at Sebastopol) also took part in the evacuation.32
Although most of this final rescue operation was carried out by French and Russian vessels, the American ships took human cargo too. Besides evacuating all the American citizens in the vicinity (consuls, relief workers, Red Cross and YMCA workers, and more), over several days the American ships loaded some 1,300 or 1,400 refugees from Sebastopol and Yalta. Seven hundred refugees piled on the Faraby, 500 boarded the Humphreys, a few dozen boarded other destroyers, while the St. Louis took 78.33
When the latter vessel had initially arrived in Sebastopol, Charles Olsen had been astonished to see the people on all the ships there all packed in, “Nothing to eat and all exposed to the cold.” Apparently most refugees had already gotten away there, so the next day the cruiser loaded some upper-class passengers at Yalta.
The young Russian women who came aboard told of their parents having been killed, of their money inflating to nothing, of having no food at all, of only possessing the clothes on their backs. One woman had been parted from her mother, sister, and baby on the docks, and Olsen took her back to look for them without success. The last boat brought out the sister and the baby, but the missing mother had not been found when the St. Louis put to sea.
Though Olsen was angry that some officers quartered a group of pretty Russian women near the wardroom and ignored the rest, he himself talked with many of the White Russian refugees, and the St. Louis’ crew fed and helped them in every way they could. On an evening en route to Constantinople, the wardroom showed movies, after which a Russian girl danced, her husband played the piano, and the two sang a number of Russian songs. It was a pleasant evening.34
Much less pleasant was the ship’s encounter with a big Russian steamer named the Rion. Although many other refugee ships that the St. Louis passed had neither food nor medical supplies, they did have fuel enough to reach port. The Rion, however, was adrift when the cruiser ran across it in the midst of the Black Sea, having run out of coal. The St. Louis sent a party to investigate, under the direction of one Lieutenant A. C. Hoyt. Hoyt reported that the 6,000 men, women, and children on the ship, packed like “sardines in a box,” had had nothing to eat for days, and for drink had only been able to scoop a little rain from the ship’s waterways.
The cruiser sent over some bread and water and ordered a destroyer alongside the transport to transfer a thousand gallons of water, but heavy swells forced the destroyer to desist. Fortunately, the weather was relatively calm; had it not been, not only the Rion but many of the Russian ships would have foundered, being little better than derelicts. As the St. Louis officers estimated they were only 48 miles from port, they took the Rion in tow at three knots.35
When the cruiser reached the Bosporus, a tug took over their tow. The St. Louis offloaded its own refugees on the evening of November 16, and then Hoyt returned from the Rion. He reported the continuing distress of its passengers: “two suicides, two insane, and one childbirth” in the short time he had ridden the ship, with conditions on board ripening toward an epidemic. Sailors and officers passed a hat and collected several hundred dollars. On taking provisions aboard the Rion, Olsen was astonished at the Russians’ civility: the men stood aside to ensure that women, children, and the wounded all ate first.36 As the Navy relief party left, it was given three cheers, and a letter of thanks from the Russian women on the Rion followed soon after.37
Still, Olsen knew that many Russians were in even worse shape, and indeed, two days later McCully was to count 54 vessels in the Russian refugee fleet at Buyukdere Bay, most of them still loaded with an average of 1,000 refugees apiece.38 Prospects for all these Russian people were very grim. There was little work to be gotten in Constantinople, and about the only thing the women among the refugees would be able to do, Olsen thought, was to turn to the streets. That trade, however, was already very much overpopulated.39
Admiral McCully left Yalta with the Overton, the last American ship to leave Russia; another destroyer had brought McCully’s own remaining orphans down a bit earlier. When he arrived in Constantinople, the admiral discovered that the State Department had at last officially authorized the Navy to help with the Crimean evacuation. While recognizing that had he known of this order earlier he could have saved even more, McCully was pleased that the Americans had accomplished what they had.
During the next several weeks, the admiral again attempted to get America to offer some Russians asylum; once again he was unsuccessful. Hearing that the Near East Relief had filled a hospital with 300 children from the Rion, he found himself wishing he could take a dozen more children home.40 However, he already had quite enough to manage. At the end of November, with his small charges and their governess, Admiral Newton McCully took passage home in the Navy tanker Ramapo, noting in his diary, “We are off on the biggest adventure I ever undertook—an old bachelor with seven children.”41 Though the immigration officials initially balked and kept the children at Ellis Island, McCully’s “fait accompli” eventually worked.
2. P. R. Butler, “Grief and Glamour of the Bosphorus,” Blackwood’s Magazine (February 1921), 203–12, 204.
3. Caleb Frank Gates, Not to Me Only (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940), 276.
4. Butler, “Grief and Glamour of the Bosphorus,” 206; Kenneth L. Roberts, “The Constantinople Refugees,” Saturday Evening Post 194 (July 16, 1921), 56.
5. Kenneth L. Roberts, Why Europe Leaves Home (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1922), 127.
6. Alice Keep Clark, Letters from Cilicia (Chicago: A. D. Weinthrop, 1924), 13; Andrew Ryan, The Last of the Dragomans (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951), 132.
7. H. H. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919–1923: The Operations of the American Relief Administration (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1927), 451.
8. Charles J. Weeks Jr., An American Naval Diplomat in Revolutionary Russia: The Life and Times of Vice Admiral Newton A. McCully (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 208.
9. C. E. Bechhofer, In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919–1920 (London: W. Collins Sons, 1921), 212–13.
10. Vernon Duke, Passport to Paris (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1955), 66.
11. Weeks, An American Naval Diplomat, 209. Letter to McCully of March 5, 1920, March 1920, Mark Bristol Collection, Library of Congress, Washington DC (hereafter MBC).
12. Duke, Passport to Paris, 65.
13. Bechhofer, In Denikin’s Russia, 212–13.
14. H. H. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 451.
15. Author’s phone interview with Tony Waller, early April 2000.
16. Charles J. Weeks, “A Samaritan in Russia: Vice Admiral Newton A. McCully’s Humanitarian Efforts, 1914–1920,” Military Affairs 52, no. 1 (January 1988): 12–13.
17. Ibid., 13–15.
18. Cf. P. J. Capelotti, ed., Our Man in the Crimea: Commander Hugo Koehler and the Russian Civil War (Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 1991).
19. Weeks, “A Samaritan in Russia,” 16.
20. Bristol letter to McCully of March 5, 1920, March 1920 General Correspondence (hereafter GC), MBC.
21. McCully letter to Bristol of March 26, 1920, March 1920 GC, MBC; Bert Berthelsen, Tin Can Man: Memoirs of Destroyer Duty after World War I (New York: Exposition Press, 1963), 29–35, 211–12. A smaller evacuation from Theodosia and Sebastopol followed soon after; cf. Berthelsen, Tin Can Man, 203, 212–13.
22. Weeks, “A Samaritan in Russia,” 16.
23. H. H. Fisher, The Famine in Soviet Russia, 451; Eugenia S. Bumgardner, Undaunted Exiles (Staunton, VA: McClure Company, 1925), 4.
24. Weeks, An American Naval Diplomat, 221.
25. McCully letter to Bristol of May 11, 1920, May 1920 GC, MBC.
26. Weeks, An American Naval Diplomat, 213; McCully diary, February 17 to March 9, 1920, McCully Papers, Library of Congress.
27. McCully diary, April through May 1920.
28. Weeks, An American Naval Diplomat, 237–38.
29. Berthelsen, Tin Can Man, 68–72.
30. Roberts, “The Constantinople Refugees,” 10.
31. Sharp memoir, privately printed, provided to the author by Sharp’s son, George.
32. Weeks, An American Naval Diplomat, 243; Henry P. Beers, “U.S. Naval Detachment in Turkish Waters, 1919–1924,” in Administrative Reference Service Report No. 2, Office of Records Administration, Navy Dept., June 1943, reprinted in Military Affairs 7, no. 4 (winter 1943), 216.
33. Weeks, “A Samaritan in Russia,” 17; Berthelsen, Tin Can Man, 203; McCully diary, November 14–15, 1920, McCully Papers; Beers, “U.S. Naval Detachment in Turkish Waters,” 216.
34. Charles Olsen letters to Edna of November 14–16, 1920, Olsen Papers, Olsen family.
35. Ibid., November 15–16, 1920.
36. Ibid., November 17, 1920.
37. Berthelsen, Tin Can Man, 205–6.
38. McCully diary, November 18, 19, 1920, McCully Papers.
39. Charles Olsen letter to Edna, November 17, 1920, Olsen Papers.
40. McCully diaries, November 16 and 22, 1920, McCully Papers.
41. Weeks, “A Samaritan in Russia,” 17.