Watson Lewis: Travels & Observations

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Lewis's Visa
Lewis’s Visa

During his time with the YMCA, Lewis was able to travel not only to his assigned destinations, but also to Britain, Japan, Hawaii, and other cities in Russia and China. He witnessed Armistice Day celebrations in London on November 11, 1918.

At 11 this morning when the great guns boomed out the tidings for which we had been waiting for several days everyone ran out into the street in a sort of daze and it was several minutes before we quite realized that it really meant peace and then pandemonium broke loose. I have been in the surging mob all day with a big wholesale furniture man from New York who has given up his business to go to Russia We have had the time of our lives.

– letter to Mildred Lewis, November 11, 1918


Lewis discusses some of the physical aspects of travel during this time, including crossing the Pacific Ocean on a ship.

We had quite rough weather for the first afternoon and night out and I believe fully 75% of the passengers were sick. it was not nearly so rough as the weather we encountered many times on the Atlantic but coming right at the entrance to the harbour before they to their [sic] sea legs got them easy.

– letter to Mildred Lewis, January 9, 1920

He was also part of an American retreat near Archangel in February 1919. He wrote to his wife:

Perhaps when you get this you will have read of the American retreat over here. Well I was at the beginning of that and all through it. Saved all my stuff during the first but had to leave it later. Walked 30 miles one night in snow. Bolos got my extra uniform and everything else. Guess we are holding them now. We are looking for heavy reinforcements to arrive anytime.

– letter, February 1, 1919

Observing New People & Places

During his travels, Lewis described for his wife his many new experiences. He talked about using chopsticks for the first time in Japan, a chimney heating method for Chinese peasant houses, and his opinions of Russian aristocrats in exile, among many other things. His work with the Y brought him into close contact with people from many different countries besides Russia and China, including Korea, Japan, Britain, Canada, and Australia. While many of the judgments and the language are not what we would use today, they offer an insight into how a midwestern American viewed and understood Asia during this time.

His political observations also put him at odds with much of what many Americans read and believed about Russia and the Russian people, particularly in regards to Communism, and the French and British roles in assisting the White Army against the Bolsheviks. He specifically asked his wife in several letters not to share these opinions with others.

Postcard from Vladivostok
Postcard from Vladivostok
Entry pass to Windsor Castle
Entry pass to Windsor Castle
Postcard from Kyoto
Postcard from Kyoto



Communications during this time were dependent on mail transit, so getting and receiving letters and other items that had to be carried by hand (as opposed to wired communications like telegrams) were often slow or delayed for long periods of time. This was especially true in war time, and the chaos in the areas where Lewis worked made the post somewhat unreliable.

Telegram from Lewis
Telegram from Lewis to his wife, March 1919

Additionally, the letters Lewis sent at the end of 1918 were all subject to review by a censor. While none of the letters show redaction marks, the envelopes have been marked by the censor’s office. Because only one of Mildred Lewis’s letters to her husband are among the papers, we are unsure whether mail directed to him would have also been censored. Their letters to each other show an irritation with the slowness of the mail, and the remaining letter from Mildred notes her fear that her letters would not reach him at all.