When the United States entered World War 1 in 1917, Eugene Motte’s father of same first/last name was tending a herd of sheep in Kern County. The French immigrant immediately enlisted in the Army, figuring he would be sent to fight in France.
Instead, they sent him to Siberia to fight the Bolsheviks.
“He enlisted on the West Coast, and people who enlisted on the West Coast got sent to Siberia,” explained Motte, adding that the Siberian campaign has been largely forgotten because “it’s not politically correct.”
Motte was one of several seniors interviewed at University Village in Thousand Oaks on Friday afternoon, Sept. 22, by students of Dr. Michaela Reaves, California Lutheran University’s history department chair.
This semester Reaves and students from her “World War I and America” class have made it a project to capture the personal stories of WWI veterans as remembered by their living relatives. Now in their 80s, the seniors represent the last generation of Americans who heard their parents’ stories firsthand.
Motte continued, the U.S. supported the Romanov’s czarist regime “and they didn’t want the Bolsheviks to team up with the Germans,” Motte said. The Siberian conflict became the longest one for America in WWI.
Eugene Francois Motte (Francois became Frank after he was processed through Ellis Island in 1910) was taken by boat to Vladivostok, west by train on the Siberian Railroad and marched with Company 102 of the 27th Infantry across frozen Lake Baikal.
“That’s how he got frostbite,” said Motte, who says his father got disability pay — a stipend of about $10 or $15 — from the Army for many years.
Years later when told the stipend was being stopped, his father waved a hand in a “so what” gesture and muttered, “Guess they don’t care anymore,” recalled Motte.
After the war Motte’s father returned to Kern County and became a Southern Pacific Railroad mechanic, hanging out with Basque friends who had settled in a section of Bakersfield known as Kern City.
The retired Union Oil regional director, now 86, says that his father — who learned to speak English by studying a French-to-English dictionary he bought with his first paycheck — didn’t talk much about the war except to note how poor people in Siberia were.
“He complained about his frostbitten toes but didn’t say much else,” said Motte, though one of his father’s war buddies recalled seeing the 5’6” man shoulder and fire a bulky 30-caliber machine gun.
There may be more details in the journal his father kept, written in French, which Motte still has along with his father’s bayonet.
Using National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of America grants, Dr. Reaves and her students are interviewing 20 seniors during the next few weeks.
Following oral history methods guidelines, the semester-long program of interviews and video recordings of the seniors’ stories will culminate with a reception at CLU in November.