An American Nurse: In the Russian Civil War

Russian Life, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

An American Nurse: In the Russian Civil War


In 1918, Florence Emilie Hoffman was a young journalist working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. She wrote under the byline of Felicia Forrester, and many of her published writings were tongue-in-cheek spoofs; she was a master of light, frivolous or flippant pieces. Yet she also did investigative reporting, exposing such things as the squalid conditions that existed in Honolulu tenements. In reporting on a barnstormer working the islands, she became the first woman to fly in an airplane in Hawaii.

While she lived a life in relative luxury in Hawaii, Florence Hoffman longed for adventure and wanted to help those suffering in Siberia during Russia's Civil War. So, when Hoffman's editor, Riley Allen, prepared to lead a 14-member Red Cross unit to Siberia to help refugees there, she jumped at the chance to join him, setting sail for Vladivostok on November 18, 1918, aboard the Japanese ship Shinyo Maru.

What follows are a collection of the dispatches and letters that Hoffman wrote for the Star-Bulletin and for family, as well as photos she took while working in Siberia, many never before published. As one of America's first female war correspondents, she offers a first-hand perspective on the history of this era that is as colorful as it is compelling.

The materials are provided by her son Lawson Hill, who is writing a book on his mother's incredible adventures.

After arriving in Vladivostok, Hoffman and the rest of the Red Cross unit traveled by armored train on the Chinese Eastern Railroad to a Red Cross hospital in Buchedu, Manchuria. There, as a nurse's aide, Hoffman ministered to sick and wounded Czech soldiers, who were part of the powerful Czech Legion that controlled much of the Trans-Siberian rail line. The Czechs, some who had been prisoners of war and some who had fought on the side of the Tsar's army in World War I, sought to leave Russia through Vladivostok after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took Russia out of the war.

JANUARY 1, 1919 * BUCHEDU, MANCHURIA

Well, we certainly have something in store for us now. Yesterday we received a telegram announcing the pending arrival of 70 tuberculosis patients from Omsk. The train that is bringing them will take away 50 surgical patients. Our new patients will have been nearly three weeks on the train and will arrive tired and dirty and utterly dependent--we already have more than we can handle. I hate losing my nice surgical patients, they were all fine fellows. and are very much like American boys. I watched my first grown man die the other day, and I was the only person with him, and I could not help but think of his mother--he was only 22-so I held his hand a minute although he was absolutely unconscious and had been for two days.

We must get more nurses--but when we telegraphed for more nurses they telegraphed back there were no American nurses available; and our head nurse won't have any more Russians; they are dirty and carry on with the patients. But just think--a hundred and two very sick patients and only three nurses--more patients than they have at Queen's Hospital [Hawaii]. The head nurse will have to turn to and do ward work--and Alice Lynes is going to try and find the time to come over and help.

Well, this is a tremendous proposition--one that is not given to every one to face--and it will give us a chance to prove what we can do.

... The sun does not come up until half-past eight, and when we get up at 7 it seems like getting up in the middle of the night. We have two Czech soldiers for house servants, and every morning one comes up to fill up pitchers that we left outside the door, with hot water to wash in. He wears big Cossack boots and when he is filling those pitchers he makes enough noise to wake the dead. After he has finished he goes gently to each door and knocks on it for us to get up. It is too ridiculous for words. ....

When the hospital in Buchedu was closed because the Czech soldiers were sent on to Vladivostok and home, Hoffman was sent west, to Omsk. …

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