Peggy Hull was born Henrietta Eleanor Goodnough on a farm near Bennington, Kansas, in 1889. Fascinated by geography since childhood and picturing newspaper work as the best way to “see the world,” she left school at age 16 to become a typesetter for the Junction City Sentinel. In 1908 she got her first reporting job at another Kansas newspaper, the Salina Daily Union, and after that worked for newspapers in Denver, San Francisco, Honolulu, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. In 1916 she went to El Paso, Texas, to cover National Guard units sent to patrol the border as Brigadier General John J. Pershing and his troops pursued Francisco “Pancho” Villa deep into Mexico. Pershing took a liking to Hull, and the following year he helped her gain approval to spend six weeks at an American artillery-training camp in France.

In 1918, intrigued by the plans to send an American expeditionary force to Russia during the Siberian intervention, Hull set out to find a newspaper that would sponsor her for accreditation as a war correspondent. After some 50 rejections, she struck a deal with the Newspaper Enterprise Association and then secured the endorsement
of General Peyton C. March, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, whom she had met on Pershing’s Mexican expedition. (“If your only reason for refusing Miss Peggy Hull credentials is because she is a woman,” March told the War Department’s press office, “issue them at once and facilitate her procedure to Vladivostok.”) Hull thus became the first woman to be accredited as a correspondent by the U.S. War Department.

Once in Russia, Hull embarked on a nine-month, 1,000-mile tour of the Trans-Siberian Railway and reported on the suffering of the masses of refugees trying to escape both the Red and White Armies. “Siberia is on the threshold of its blackest period,” she wrote. “Twice a victim, first to monarchy and then to anarchy—its people will die by the thousands. They are freezing to death now.”

After World War I, Hull briefly lost her U.S. citizenship when she married a British ship captain; her campaign to regain it played a role in changing the law regarding the citizenship of married women. In 1939, at the dawn of World War II, she helped organize the Overseas Press Club, and in 1943 she renewed her accreditation as a war correspondent to cover U.S. military activities in the Pacific theatre, though she was deemed too old for physically hazardous assignments. She specialized in what she called her “little stories of war”—pieces about ordinary soldiers that, as one GI wrote her in 1944, “made them know they weren’t forgotten.”

Hull died at age 77 in Carmel, California, in 1967.

Vladivostok, Siberia—New horrors pounced upon me from every direction. Atrocities fade the plunder and rape of Belgium into insignificance. The Bolshevik reign is surpassing all history in premeditated viciousness.

Siberia is face to face with a power that has reverted beyond even a state of savagery—for savagery knows only brute strength, but the perpetrators of the present-day crimes over here have perverted their civilization to make their deeds more appalling.

The night the news came through of the fall of Perm [a city in western Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railway] there were tense, low-spoken groups everywhere. Solemn faces and white cheeks and eyes that glowed with apprehension, for we knew that a few thousand miles to the west madness had taken full sway, and we shuddered in anticipation.

Bulletins brought the details.

A bishop had been buried alive and his priests had been killed by driving long nails into their backs.

Then we received the details on the capture of a young Czech officer. His comrades found his body with epaulets carved out of his skin on his shoulders. Facsimiles of the buttons on his uniform were crudely cut in his torso, and there were other mutilations too horrible to write about. No one knows he long he lived under these tortures.

In a battle that followed a few hours after the body was found 400 Bolsheviks were made prisoners. Gen. [Radula] Gaida, the youthful commander of the Czecho-Slovaks, made them pay the price, and they faced the machine guns in squads of ten.

Raiding Bolsheviks along the Trans-Siberian line whip many of their captives to death. Some of the railway employees who have stuck to their posts through the various changes of government often meet a sad and pitiful end at their hands. Their favorite procedure now is to occupy territory off the railway line and to make sudden visits to stations when troop trains are not going through. Many valuable supplies are obtained in this way, and the Bolsheviks suffer no losses, as there are no armed forces to oppose them.

The “death train” episode, more than any other tragedy which has occurred since the allies came, showed how insensible the people have become to the cause of humanity.

The inmates of the train were Bolshevik prisoners rounded up in Samara [a city in southwestern Russia] last October. There were 2,100, including men and women found in the provincial jail who claimed they had been arrested by the Bolsheviks because they wouldn’t espouse their cause. Sixty people were packed into box cars which could legitimately hold but forty. There was no provision for heating, and the sanitary arrangements consisted of small openings in the floors of the cars.

This train was started for Siberia, and when it reached a small station on the western side of Harbin [a newly formed city in northeast China built by Russian colonists] early in December, American railway engineers reported to the American Red Cross that 775 had died en route. Some were shot by the guards when they tried to get food and water at the stations. Typhus, typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, and pneumonia took the largest toll. One boy of 17 was found dead across the doorway of a car when Red Cross workers entered. He was naked with the exception of a piece of gunny sack wrapped around his loins. It was five degrees below zero. Half his face had been eaten away by scurvy.

None of the prisoners had been permitted to leave the cars since their arrest, and they all wore what was left of the clothing they had on when taken into custody.

Peggy Hull (in the uniform she designed for herself) in New York City in the mid-1920s. (Kadel & Herbert/Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images)
Peggy Hull (in the uniform she designed for herself) in New York City in the mid-1920s. (Kadel & Herbert/Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images)

In spite of the rapid work of the Red Cross the prisoners were dying fifteen a day. And no one knows who was responsible for the train—no one knows who sent it to Siberia and no one knows who ordered it out of Nikolsk the evening after the worst cases had been taken off and the remainder bathed and issued pajamas. It went, and all the generals in Vladivostok stormed, but to no purpose. It went east toward Samara with 900 sick and dying men and women clothed only in pajamas, and the thermometer clinging around forty below in that direction. It was last heard of in the vicinity of Chita [a Russian city on the Trans-Siberian Railway], where [Gregori] Semenoff, the Cossack ataman, presides. That was a month ago, and it is hard to believe that any of the victims still survive. MHQ

This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Classic Dispatches | The Death Train

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