SMC Luncheon Speaker: John Ryder of the Michigan Heroes Museum
On March 26th, John Ryder (replacing Mike Grobbel) spoke to us about the Polar Bear Expedition of 1918-1919. The Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth celebrates Michigan’s military and space heroes and among those remembered are Detroit’s own Polar Bears. The American North Russian Expeditionary Force (ANREF), consisting of the 339th Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Ambulance Co. and the 337th Field Hospital of the U.S. Army’s 85th Division, was nicknamed the “Polar Bears.”
In 1917, the Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsar and the Bolsheviks took power. In early 1918, they withdrew Russia from World War I. A civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks and the “Whites” who opposed them. Britain and France were concerned that millions of dollars’ worth of war material that the Allies had sent to Russia would be seized by the Germans or sold to them by the Bolsheviks. John told us how President Wilson was convinced by Britain to have the US join an attempt to protect or recover the war material by invading north Russia. The 85th Division, composed primarily of draftees from Detroit, had trained at Camp Custer and shipped to England in 1918, expecting to join the Western Front. Instead, about 5,000 of them were told they were going to Russia as part of the ANREF. After further training in England, they boarded three ships and sailed north through the Arctic Ocean to arrive in the port of Archangel, Russia. Another expedition was sent across the Pacific to Eastern Russia and was known as the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia.
Upon arrival in Archangel, the ANREF troops learned that the war material had already been moved. They were sent down the railroad in pursuit of the Bolsheviks. Their British commander had planned to raise 15,000 troops from Russian civilians to join the White Russians and fight alongside his troops, but not surprisingly, this didn’t happen. The Allies had no success in locating any of the war material, but they did find Soviet troops that badly outnumbered them. The Allies quickly went from offense to defense and decided to hold their positions through the winter. In November the armistice was signed, but it had no affect on their situation other than to reduce morale. The war they had been sent to fight was over and they didn’t understand why they were still in Russia when the rest of the US troops were on their way home. In conditions as cold as 60 below zero, the ANREF troops fought pitched battles with the “Bolos,” as they called them. Effective use by the Polar Bears of their Lewis machine guns allowed them to hold off attacks by much larger forces.
Eventually, the Polar Bears were able to withdraw. John displayed the uniform of Lt. Harry Mead, who used his 45 caliber pistol to return fire during the retreat. After the battle, he discovered a bullet hole in his hat and in his uniform, but he was not wounded. The Polar Bears suffered several hundred casualties, including troops that died from Spanish Flu that infected the ships they arrived in. Despite pressure by Detroit newspapers and their families to bring them home, they were not evacuated from Archangel until the spring of 1919 after the ice had left Archangel’s port. They sailed to France and then to the US, arriving in Detroit by train in July. They were officially mustered out in a ceremony on Belle Isle on July 4, 1919, when they were issued white Polar Bear armbands.
The Expeditionary Forces to Russia in 1918 have been forgotten by most Americans, but the invasions are still remembered by the Russians. In addition to the Michigan Heroes Museum, information can be found at the Polar Bear Memorial Association website. Several books have been published about the Polar Bears, including a book by James Carl Nelson entitled The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919 published in February. You can find a recent review here in the Wall Street Journal.
Reported by George Arsenault and David Morrow