Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Marching Through Siberia

American history students generally focus on "our" wars: the Revolution, Civil War, the "Great War," WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, and now Iraq 1 & 2. How much do we know about Japanese history, outside of WWII? The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 included many ethnic Poles among the 300,000 troops who were transported across Siberia to the Manchurian front in the winter of 1904. Family lore has it that our grandfather, Piotr Szymanowicz, was conscripted by the Cossacks and traveled to Harbin, and probably further toward the front. Before he died, his remarks about being in China were recorded in the hospital record. This may have been "his" war.

Nothing is known about Peter's early life in Poland. The vital records in his own hand are his date of birth, recorded on his petition for Naturalization, his parents' names, recorded on his Social Security application, his marriage, his children. We have no information about any siblings. The ship manifest says his last place of residence was Siedlce, which was the Polish province south of the Bug River. He was a fisherman who came from a fishing region.

Born in 1881, he would have been 23 when the Japanese attacked the Chinese coast at Port Arthur in February 1904. The Russians may have wanted a diversion from domestic political unrest, and wanted to secure the valuable trading center of Harbin, but their participation in the war went badly and became very costly. The Navy suffered from the length of the trip from the west to the East China Sea, and the infantry was seriously delayed coming across Siberia in the winter. Was Peter among them? The photo came from Google images, but it gives an idea of what they might have looked like at that time.

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