Saturday, June 29, 2013

90th Anniversary USAT Merritt

An occasional newsletter from the Museum of Russian Culture in San Francisco has alerted me to a story of which I knew nothing, the impending 90th Anniversary of the arrival of a group of Russian refugees into San Francisco.

July 1st, 2013 - Anniversary at the Immigration Station on Angel Island
Maria Sakovich, Eugenia Bailey 
Ninety years ago, on 1 July 1923, a special group of refugees on the American transport U.S. Army Transport Merritt arrived at San Francisco. These 526 Russian men, women, and children had been part of a flotilla of some twenty Russian vessels (under the command of Rear Admiral Yu. K. Stark) which left Vladivostok at the end October 1922 when the city fell to the Bolsheviks. After a harrowing journey plagued by inhospitable governments, poor shipboard conditions, and typhoons which sank two of the not-very-seaworthy vessels and their passengers, a remnant of the original 7,000 refugees managed to make it to Manila in the Philippine Islands, where the American government had guaranteed asylum. Consultation by Governor General Leonard Wood with President Harding and the Secretaries of War and Labor enabled the homeless and stateless Russians to come to the United States under the terms of the recently enacted quota law. The American Red Cross helped to finance the trip.Because the group was so large (the only one to come with American assistance), Angel Island immigration officials held and processed the refugees at Fort McDowell, an army installation on the west side of the island. Although great care had been taken to make sure that all were eligible to enter the country, under the immigration laws, nineteen (possibly twenty-one) were excluded. Those who appealed the order had to wait at the immigration station until final decisions were made in Washington, D.C. Ultimately four persons were deported back to the Philippines.Among the passengers were fifty families (forty-three of the children were under fifteen years of age), naval and army officers, engineers, two doctors, and a chaplain. The parents of one of the writers of this article, Paul and Maria Nikonenko, were among the refugees. Most, however, were young men, sailors and farmers, including a nineteen-year-old seaman, Prince A. Chegodaieff. After the dangers and uncertainties of the preceding months, the emigrants had found safety. Several became movers and shakers of the newly emerging Russian community in San Francisco.
For more information and details of contacts or how to get to the service at Angel Island on July 1, see Museum of Russian Culture news and an image on Flickr of USAT Merritt here.

When many countries around the world are sweating and bickering over what to do with immigrants and refugees, this serves to remind all of us who live under secure and democratic governments that we still have our role to play in rescuing and giving shelter to those trying to escape from brutal regimes.

It is sobering to think that only a remnant 526 people made it to America out of 7,000 original refugees. What happened to the rest of them? Has anyone documented their story? Or are they just another group of unwanted people who have fallen through the cracks of history ?


  1. I worked with Eugenia and help to provide the link and the photo of the USAT Merritt through continual deep internet research. Also email ~Julie (Tarakanoff) Villar