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Manchurian Railroad

On this date in 1918, the Great War was raging, and North Dakota boys were fighting in the front-line trenches. The first three years of the war had shown that when modern weapons for conducting warfare met older tactics, the losses were staggering.  Germany was beginning a new spring offensive.

But for one North Dakotan, his overseas duty was a more exotic adventure.  Tucked away in a little mentioned corner of the war, Lt. W. T. Hiatt, had been experiencing Eastern cultures.  Hiatt was a former dispatcher with the Great Northern Railroad at Minot, who was recruited as an engineer for the American Railroad Commission.  This commission had been sent to Eastern Russia, assigned with the task of organizing and improving the Russian railroad system.  They traveled first to Honolulu, studying the Russian language on the way, and then journeyed to Vladivostok.  Due to the Russian Revolution, they were turned away, instead making their way to Nagasaki. The Japanese were allies with the United States and Britain.

At the beginning of the war, Japan had driven Germany from Shandong Province in China, and then aligned with the Allies in hopes of obtaining more German held territory as well as a part of the Chinese mainland.  As guests of the Japanese government, the Americans In Nagasaki were treated to theater presentations, banquets and social gatherings. 

In late February, Lt. Hiatt again returned to the mainland, arriving first in Korea and then on to Chang Chun, Manchuria.  Approximately two hundred and twenty members of the American Railroad Commission were allowed to enter Manchuria to help improve the portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway not held by the Bolsheviks.  Chinese laborers were used on the railroad  and also shipped to the European battlefields to dig trenches and perform other war related jobs amid less than ideal conditions.  Hiatt assisted on a train containing fifteen boxcars, eighteen feet long, each containing approximately one hundred Chinese men, women and children destined for the war gardens in Siberia. 

By the end of the war, Lt William T. Hiatt and F W. Strange, also from Minot, along with other member of the American Railroad Commission had been successful in implementing significant changes on the Russian railroad system, thereby improving the transportation of men and supplies to the front.  After a successful tour in Manchuria, W.T. Hiatt returned home, where, among other things, he played trombone in the Minot Community Band. 

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


Ward County Independent, May 9, 1918

Ibid: August 29, 1918

Ibid: September 21, 1918

Grand Forks Herald, November 22, 1918

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