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Polar Bear Expedition History

The American military intervention at Archangel, Russia, at the end of World War I, nicknamed the "Polar Bear Expedition," is a strange episode in American history. Ostensibly sent to Russia to prevent a German advance and to help reopen the Eastern Front, American soldiers found themselves fighting Bolshevik revolutionaries for months after the Armistice ended fighting in France.

Because many of the American troops involved in the intervention were from Michigan, the Michigan Historical Collections has long been interested in documenting this episode. This guide describes the Collections' holdings of manuscripts and photographs as well as maps and primary printed source materials relating to the Polar Bear Expedition.

During the summer of 1918, the U. S. Army's 85th Division, made up primarily of men from Michigan and Wisconsin, completed its training at Fort Custer, outside of Battle Creek, Michigan, and proceeded to England. While the rest of the division was preparing to enter the fighting in France, some 5,000 troops of the 339th Infantry and support units (one battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital, and the 337th Ambulance Company) were issued Russian weapons and equipment and sailed for Archangel, a Russian port on the White Sea, 600 miles north of Moscow.

When American troops reached their destination in early September, they joined an international force commanded by the British that had been sent to northern Russia for purposes never made clear. Whatever the reasons for the intervention, however, the force was fighting the Bolsheviks who had taken power in Petrograd and Moscow the previous winter.

The strategy of the expedition's commanders was to advance south and east to join Russian and foreign anti-Bolshevik armies hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Fighting during the winter of 1918-1919 was concentrated in six areas scattered across Archangel Province in a semicircle south of the city. From east to west the areas of activity were:

  • Pinega, 80 miles east of Archangel, where garrisons met little fighting.
  • The Dvina River, flowing to Archangel from the southeast. where the goal was the railhead of Kotlas, 300 miles southeast of Archangel. The American front lines were at Toulgas, 200 miles from Archangel, scene of an Armistice Day battle that marked the beginning of a decline in American morale.
  • The Vaga River, a tributary of the upper Dvina, where the front was south of Shenkursk, 40 miles south of Toulgas. This was the Americans' most advanced position. The Bolshevik victory at Ust Padenga and the subsequent American retreat from Shenkursk in late January 1919 was an important defeat for Allied forces.
  • The Emtsa River area, with Seletskoe at its center, 100 miles south of Archangel, which provided a route between the area's two main lines of communication, the lower Dvina River and the railroad.  Fighting at Kodish around New Year's Day 1919 resulted in a Bolshevik defeat that had little lasting benefit for the Allies.
  • The Archangel-Vologda Railroad, running south almost 400 miles to the junction at Vologda.  The railroad was the scene of the first skirmishing between Americans and Bolsheviks and numerous other actions, but the objective of Plesetskaya, 130 miles south of Archangel, was never taken.
  • Onega, 90 miles west of Archangel, at the mouth of the Onega River, where little fighting took place before the battle at Bolshie Ozerki, between Onega and the railroad, in March and April 1919, which proved to be the last major fighting involving American troops.

Two companies of the U. S. Army Transportation Corps arrived in Murmansk, 400 miles northwest of Archangel, in April 1919. Their duty was to maintain and operate the Murmansk railroad, running parallel to the Archangel-Vologda railroad but 200 miles farther west.

A winter of fighting Bolsheviks and wondering why they were still in combat when the war with Germany had ended led to severe morale problems among the American troops, including an alleged mutiny in March 1919 by members of one company in Archangel, and the presentation of an antiwar petition by members of another company in the same month. The troops were ready for the new American commander who arrived at Archangel in April 1919 with orders to withdraw. As soon as navigation opened in June, the American forces left northern Russia.  British troops withdrew a few months later, but the anti-Bolshevik government they left behind held the city until February 1920.

In 1922, veterans of the campaign held their first reunion in Detroit and formed the Polar Bear Association to preserve their comradeship and perpetuate the memory of their expedition.  The organization was active at least until 1983, when 22 surviving members of the association held a luncheon meeting in Detroit.

Public attention was drawn to the expedition in 1929, when two commissions, one appointed by the governor of Michigan and the other organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for the War Department, went to Archangel to recover the bodies of American soldiers buried in Russia.  The remains they found were returned to the United States and reburied with honors in the Polar Bear Memorial at White Chapel Cemetery, Troy, Michigan.

For over twenty years the Michigan Historical Collections has actively collected the personal papers of officers and enlisted men involved in the Polar Bear Expedition.  In 1965, the library published Michigan's Polar Bears, in which Richard Doolen portrayed the experiences of the men who served in Archangel using excerpts from the collections held by the library at that time.  Since then, the number of manuscript collections held has doubled, and additional photographs, maps, and printed materials have been added.

Researchers can obtain an overview of the campaign in Ernest Halliday's The Ignorant Armies (New York, 1958) which, along with other secondary accounts, is not listed in this guide. Published primary sources listed in this guide that provide a general view of the campaign include The History of the American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki, compiled by Joel R. Moore, Harry H. Mead, and Lewis E. Jahns from the reminiscences and diaries of many participants, or from the bitter accounts of Harry J. Costello, Why Did We Go To Russia?, and John Cudahy, Archangel: The American War With Russia. The map collection of Frederick C. O'Dell covers all the areas of military activity (except the Murmansk railroad) and the photograph collections of Jay H. BonnellJoel R. MooreFrederick C. O'Dell, and the U. S. Army Signal Corps provide general information about the terrain and people involved. The microfilm edition of the records of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, is the most comprehensive manuscript collection on the expedition held by the Michigan Historical Collections.

The library's collections are strongest for men who served in the Vaga and Dvina River areas. Descriptions of life in Shenkursk, the fighting at Ust Padenga, and other incidents along the Vaga River are found in the diaries of Edwin L. ArkinsJohn S. CrissmanKenneth A. Skellenger, and Edward TrombleyHenry Katz's reportGodfrey J. Anderson's reminiscence; Dorothea York's book; and Dan Steele's novel.

Actions along the Dvina River, especially the fighting at Toulgas, are described in the diaries of Frank W. DoumaSilver ParrishClarence G. Scheu, and Gordon W. Smith; the diary and correspondence of Walter I. McKenzieHenry Katz's report; and William Henkelman's map.

The Emtsa River area and action at Kodish are described in the Fred Kooyers diary in the George Albers collection and by Charles B. Ryan's diary and correspondence.

Edward Flaherty's diary, Roy Paul Rasmussen's diary and reminiscence, and Earl Fulcher's statement describe the Onega River area and the fight at Bolshie Ozerki.

Life in Archangel is recounted in Charles E. Lewis's diary and in the Walter I. McKenzie collection.

Morale problems among the troops are mentioned in many of the collections, especially the diaries of Cleo M. Colburn and Silver Parrish.

Godfrey J. Anderson's reminiscence, Henry Katz's report, and Walter I. McKenzie's papers are useful sources of information on medical practice during the expedition.

The special work of the 310th Engineers in construction and mapping are described in Rodger S. Clark's correspondence, Jay H. Bonnell's photographs, Louis E. Schicker's photographs, and Frederick C. O'Dell's maps, plans, and photographs.

The W. C. Giffels letter in the Frank B. Kiel papers describes the Archangel- Vologda railroad, while John E. Wilson's book and Frank B. McGrath's photographs describe the Murmansk railroad.

The 1929 mission to recover the remains of men buried in Russia is described in the diaries and reminiscences of Walter F. Dundon and Michael J. Macalla.

Related collections in other repositories dealing with the expedition as a whole include the records of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, 1917-1919 (14 linear feet), part of Record Group 120, National Archives and Records Administration; the papers of American commander George E. Stewart, 1918-1940 (1 box), at the U. S. Military Academy Library, West Point, N. Y.; and a manuscript history of the Archangel expedition by John G. Gregory in the records of the Wisconsin War History Council at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison. Collections of the papers of officers and enlisted men in other repositories include the papers of Robert S. Simonds, 1918-1919 (51 items), leader of an Army band at Archangel, at the Western Michigan University Regional History Collections, Kalamazoo; Frederick E. Bury, 1898-1941 (1 box), an officer in the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, and Henry Cook, 1917-1921 (1 box), a private in the 339th Infantry, at the U. S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.; Clarence J. Primm, 1918-1919 (9 items), a lieutenant in the 339th Infantry, excerpts from letters of Lieutenant Malcolm K. Whyte in the papers of William F. Whyte, 1851-1927 (1 box), and letters from soldiers in Archangel in the papers of Carl R. Fish, 1891-1932 (15 boxes and 2 file boxes), all at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The American intervention in Siberia, undertaken at about the same time as the Archangel intervention, is much better documented, both in published and manuscript sources. For published studies, see Robert J. Maddox, The Unknown War With Russia: Wilson's Siberian Adventure (San Rafael, Calif., 1977); Betty M. Unterberger, America's Siberian Adventure, 1918-1920 (Durham, N. C., 1956); and John A. White, The Siberian Intervention (Princeton, 1950); among other works. Important manuscript sources are found at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; at the U. S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.; and at the National Archives.

(The preceding is revised from the introduction to The Polar Bear Expedition: A Guide to the Resources in the Michigan Historical Collections compiled by Leonard A. Coombs and published in 1988 as Number Eleven in the Bentley Library's Bibliographical Series. Copies of the bibliography are available from the library.)