339th U.S. Infantry, Camp Devens, July 14, 1919 (The photo below is a close-up of the section outlined in red in the photo above.).
Above, we see an entire United States Army regiment. The original photo, taken in 1919, is 41.5 inches long and 13.75 inches wide. The digital scan shown above has thus been reduced in size – a necessary measure, as the image would otherwise not fit on this page. An enlarged section appears beneath this image, providing a closer view.
The men depicted in the photo are as remarkable as the photo itself. They were Polar Bears, and they began fighting a war before another had ended.
Battling the Bolsheviks
The North Russia Expeditionary Force – known as the “Polar Bears” – arrived in Archangel, Russia on September 4, 1918. A majority of the 5,000-troop contingent hailed from Michigan, with most of these being from Detroit. Upon arrival, they were ordered to join a British campaign against the Bolsheviks.
The Marxist Bolsheviks (with Vladimir Lenin as the nominal leader) came to power after the ousting of the Russian Czar in 1917. They soon sued for peace with Germany, ending Russia’s involvement in World War I. This concerned the Allies, who wished to keep Germany occupied in the East. They also wished to guard military ordnance that the Allies had previously given to the Russians.
President Woodrow Wilson initially directed that the American Polar Bears were only to guard military stores. However, the men soon found themselves actively fighting Bolshevik troops. On November 11, 1918, an armistice officially ended World War I. That same day, the Polar Bears found themselves engaged in their fiercest battle to that date!
Bringing the Troops Home
The Polar Bears remained in Russia as a new year began. Michigan citizens started to become restless. In Detroit, they held protest meetings and circulated petitions. In Lansing, the state senate called for immediate withdrawal from Russia.
Finally, in April, General Wilds P. Richardson arrived in Archangel, carrying orders to withdraw. Withdrawal couldn’t really begin until June, however, due to frozen waterways.
The first returning group of Polar Bears reached Detroit on July 3rd. The next day – July 4, 1919 – a formal ceremony on Belle Isle welcomed them home. The troops were transported to the Isle on a steamer. As they disembarked, rockets were fired, while women and young girls of the American Red Cross showered them with perfumed flower wreaths.
Altogether, the Polar Bears had spent over nine months in Russia, suffering 245 casualties. They battled the Bolsheviks through a harsh Russian winter and beyond, remaining at war while other Americans celebrated peace.
Sources and Links
A key source for this article was Roger Crownover’s “Stranded in Russia,” published in the January/February 1999 issue of Michigan History Magazine.