The American Army’s Expedition to Russia
By Tom Morrow
Here’s a story not often told … maybe not at all: when the U.S. Army invaded mother Russia.
“The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of North Russia,” also was known as the “Polar Bear Expedition.” It was a World War I contingent of some 5,000 U.S. Army troops which landed at the Russian port of Archangel on the White Sea. The U.S. Army unit fought the Russian revolutionists (Bolsheviks) in the surrounding region during the period of September 1918 through to July 1919.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had sent the “Polar Bears” to Russia at the request of Great Britain and France to prevent stockpiles of Allied war materials from falling into German or Bolshevik hands
On July 14, 1918, the U.S. Army’s 85th Division left their training camp at Camp Custer, Michigan for the Western Front in France. Three days later, President Wilson agreed to limited participation by American troops with the stipulation they would only be used for “guarding” the stockpiled war material in Russia.
When U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing received the directive from Wilson, he changed the orders for units heading for France to be re-outfitted in England and sent to Russia. The U.S. troops arrived in Archangel on Sept. 4, 1918, coming under British command. Still, another long-forgotten World War I command was an AEF unit in Siberia, which had 7,950 American soldiers and officers sent to Vladivostok, Russia at the same time the “Polar Bears” were headed for Archangel.
When the British commanders of the Allied units arrived in Archangel on Aug. 2, 1918, they discovered the war materials already had been captured and moved by the retreating Bolshevik forces.
By the time American troops arrived one month later, for the next six weeks they were immediately put into combat action to aid in the rescue of a Czech unit. By the end of October 1918, the Allied troops were no longer able to maintain the offensive and acknowledged their fragile situation along with the rapid onset of the fierce Russian winter. They began a defensive posture.
During the winter the Bolsheviks went on the offensive inflicting numerous casualties and caused the Allies to retreat a considerable distance.
While in Russia, the AEF suffered some 210 casualties, including at least 110 deaths from battle, about 30 missing in action, and 70 deaths from disease, 90 percent of which were caused by the Spanish flu. An October 1919 report gives the casualties as 553: 109 killed in battle; 35 died of wounds; 81 from disease; 19 from accidents/other causes; 305 wounded and 4 POWs.
Following the Armistice with Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, which ended World War I, AEF family members began writing letters to newspapers and circulating petitions to their Congressional representatives asking for the immediate return of the “Polar Bears” from northern Russia. Meanwhile, the American units were aware of the Armistice, and that the port of Archangel was frozen and closed to shipping. The morale of the American soldiers plummeted as they were asking why they were fighting Bolshevik soldiers in the first place.
On Feb. 16,1919, under pressure, President Wilson directed the War Department to withdraw the AEF from Russia.
On April 17, 1919, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Wilds P. Richardson arrived in Archangel with orders to withdraw “…at the earliest possible moment.”
In early June 1919, the bulk of the AEF in northern Russia sailed for home. The AEF in northern Russia officially disbanded on Aug. 5, 1919.
A year later President Warren G. Harding called the expedition a mistake blaming the Wilson administration.
After all of the expedition members had returned home “Polar Bear” veterans lobbied to obtain funds and the necessary approvals to retrieve the bodies of at least 125 of their comrades. By 1929, additional research found that 226 fallen “Polar Bears” had originally been buried in Russia with a total of 130 sets of U.S. remains still buried in Russia.
Hampered by the lack of diplomatic recognition between the United States and the Soviet Union, it took many years before they received permission for final retrieval. In the autumn of 1929, an expedition under the auspices of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) was successful in organizing and conducting a recovery mission. The VFW found, identified and brought home the remains of 86 U.S. soldiers. In 1934, an additional 14 body remains were shipped by the Soviet Union to the U.S., which reduced the number of U.S soldiers still buried in Russia to about 30.
The remains of 56 AEF soldiers were eventually re-buried in plots surrounding the Polar Bear Memorial in Troy, Michigan. The last surviving “Polar Bear” was Harold Gunnes, born in 1899. He died on March 11, 2003.