By Robert Neff
In late October 1922, a motley fleet of warships, steamers and fishing boats arrived in Wonsan, Korea. Aboard these ships were more than 10,000 White Russians and 1,500 Koreans fleeing the advance of the Red Army into Vladivostok. The authorities in Korea were unprepared for such a huge exodus but did what it could to ease the plight of these displaced people.
The majority of the refugees elected to stay in Wonsan — perhaps hoping to one day return to Vladivostok — but about a third of the fleet made its way to Busan, Korea and then to Shanghai, China. It was not an easy journey. Two ships and their crew were lost in a typhoon. According to one account, when the fleet arrived at Busan there were 1,700 naval officers and men, 800 military cadets and 500 women and children aboard the ships and they entertained the idea of possibly going to Australia as settlers.
Those who elected to remain in Wonsan were forced to live on the ships — their living conditions likened to those aboard "slave ships of the early days of colonial American history." Many of them were sick. According to one newspaper account, there were 574 Russian invalids of which 270 were treated at the Red Cross Hospital but the rest were forced to find comfort in the discarded Customs sheds, sleeping on concrete floors heated by small stoves.
According to historian Donald Clark, many of the refugees were financially unprepared for their new lives. Those who had money took passage to Shanghai aboard one of the steamers but those without "were forced to stay in Wonsan through the winter. Men offered a day's work for a cup of tea and some bread, but no one would hire them."
This seems at odds with the accounts in the contemporary press. Japanese authorities in Wonsan were said to have given away free train tickets to anyone wanting to go to China but only 1,700 accepted the offer. Another article claimed that there were many Japanese in Wonsan who wanted to employ the Russian refugees, especially the railroad which would employ a couple of thousand men. Women would be used as nurses, maids and general servants.
Clark notes that by spring many of the refugees left Wonsan. Those who remained in Korea went to small provincial cities and opened up little shops, went to work for the numerous gold mines or made their way to Seoul where they found any type of employment possible.
Of course, desperate people do desperate things. Some women sold their bodies and some men became pirates who terrorized the waters of northern Korea and Russia while others engaged in smuggling watches and jewelry.
Surprisingly, the Japanese authorities did not confiscate the large number of weapons that the refugees had brought with them. There were several incidents of illegal arms transfers to China that peppered the newspapers in the early 1920s but none of them were as serious as the one involving Capt. Lawrence D. Kearney, an American businessman in China. Kearney seems to have been quite the character. He was about 50 years old, extremely obese and had two artificial limbs.
He clandestinely purchased a large number of weapons from the Russian officers in Wonsan. The weapons were secretly loaded aboard a Russian refugee ship which was then sold to Kearney's company. The ship then sailed to China.
These weapons were to be used in an effort to make the civil governor of Chekiang, Chang Tsai-yang, president of China. As part of the plan, the foreign population in Shanghai would be poisoned by gas bombs made by a Russian chemist and dropped by former Russian aviators. Fortunately the plot was never carried out.
As for Kearney, an arrest warrant was issued but he managed to avoid — at least for a couple of years — being caught. Like many interesting, if not notorious, personalities of that era, his fate has been lost with the passage of time.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.