Hannibal woman answers AMC call to duty, serving with the Czecho-Slovak unit following World War I
In April 1919, Elinor Vere Tomlinson’s brother Herbert was serving with the Hospital Corps at Savenay, France; her father (Hannibal photographer) Hubert was recently deceased; and she was in possession of a newly issued graduate nurse diploma. Patriotism resulting from the Allied victory in the war to end all wars just six months prior lured the 28-year-old Hannibal native into action.
A June 1918 graduate of the Graduate School of Nursing and Health, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, the war on foreign soil had been ongoing during her entire three-year training. Nearly all Americans were touched by the war, with loved ones serving … and dying … on a far-away continent. By the time the 250 members of her college class graduated, a full one fourth were already serving in the military. Their diplomas were issued in absentia.
Sickness from contagious diseases was rampant in the summer of 1919, both at home and abroad. The call for young women to step up and utilize their talents was intense. Recruitment meetings and stirring appeals for graduate nurses and medical students to associate with the American Red Cross were staged on college campuses, including the University of Cincinnati.
Immediately after her graduation, Tomlinson accepted a job as head nurse for the General Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. A year later, she left for for overseas duty with the American Red Cross.
Preliminary to signing up for the $70 per month job with the Red Cross was the process of obtaining a passport. Part of the application process was a loyalty pledge:
“I … solemnly swear that I am going to Siberia as a Red Cross worker; that I will make no effort to visit my brother in France under any condition, and that it is not my intention to marry an officer or soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces after my arrival in Siberia.”
Her passport application listed Tomlinson’s physical characteristics: Heavy auburn hair, fair complexion, full round face, prominent dimple in her chin, 5-foot-4, high, broad forehead, blue eyes and a short and broad nose. Her confidential report from the medical examiner listed her “in vigorous health, weight 158, height 63 ½, erect; sanguine temperament.”
The Quincy Daily Whig carried the announcement of her departure in its May 31, 1919 edition.
“She has joined what is known as the Czecho-Slovak unit composed of about 200 members who will sail June 15 from San Francisco, Calif.” Their destination was Vladivostok, Russia.
Wikipedia explains the American presence in Russia after the end of the war: “The American Expeditionary Force, Siberia (AEF in Siberia) was a formation of the United States Army involved in the Russian Civil War in Vladivostok, Russia, during the end of World War I after the October Revolution, from 1918 to 1920. The force was part of the larger Allied North Russia Intervention.”
The military’s main mission was to guard the vast railroad through the region.
Tomlinson arrived in Vladivostok on July 10, 1919, and then traveled west by train on July 19. She was assigned to Irkutsk Hospital (which the Red Cross established in the summer of 1919 in Middle Siberia) arriving there on Aug. 4. In November, her duties took her to Verkhne Udinak, where she served in the dispensary.
As American forces were pulling out of Siberia, Tomlinson left Verkhne Udinsk on Evacuation Train No. 1 and arrived in Vladivostok on Jan. 24, 1920. She left Vladivostok on Feb. 5, 1920, aboard the Transport Great Northern, arriving Feb. 18, 1920 in San Francisco.
Alice C. St. John was chief nurse for the Siberian Commission. She dictated the following for inclusion in Tomlinson’s American Red Cross personnel file: “Conduct off duty might lead to criticism. On duty, splendid.”
Both Tomlinson and her brother Herbert returned home safely. After the war, he went back to France on a photographic assignment for the Chicago Tribune. He settled in Chicago, returned to college and became an architect.
Tomlinson moved back to Ohio, where she resumed her nursing career. In June 1930 she was a member of the faculty for the School of Nursing and Health, University of Cincinnati. She was granted a one-year leave beginning Jan. 16, 1934. By 1935 she was living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she purchased property and became active in the town’s social scene. It was there that she married Lt. Elra Gene Berdan on Christmas Eve in 1945. He was a veteran of both world wars. He had recently returned from the Pacific combat theater where he commanded an attack cargo ship during 1944.
Sometime after his death in 1957, she returned to Hannibal, where she died on Jan. 3, 1961, at Beth Haven Rest Home, 1500 Harrison Hill. She is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
Mary Lou Montgomery is a writer, speaker and researcher with a specialty in history. She is the former editor of the Courier-Post.