Detroit's Polar Bears and their confusing war

Detroiters welcome home the 339th Infantry, the “Polar Bears,” July 4, 1919.

For the majority of American soldiers in the battlefields of Europe, the 1918 armistice with Germany meant an end to the horrors of war and the promise of returning home. But for one group of Detroit servicemen the end of the fighting in Europe was merely the beginning of another ordeal in the frozen reaches of Russia.

These soldiers were to become members of the American North Russian Expeditionary Force. Along with British, French and Canadian allies these “Polar Bears” were sent to the frozen frontier of Archangel, Russia, in September 1918, in a confused attempt to thwart the Russian revolution. It would be another grueling nine months before they would finally make it home in June 1919.

Few front-line soldiers understand the international complexities of war, but this chapter of WWI was particularly painful. The men who fought this battle had no idea why they were there or who was the enemy.

Detroit historian George Catlin wrote: “History in the past has extolled the great achievements in warfare. It has immortalized the commanding officers when the armies have won victories, but commonly it is silent concerning the disastrous blunders which are as common to warfare as to any other human activity. The World War had more than the usual percentage of blunders, and one which resulted in terrible hardships to more than 5,000 American soldiers was the expedition which was sent to the desolate region of northern Russia via the Arctic Ocean and Archangel in the White Sea, commonly termed the Murmansk coast.

A load of oatmeal is being unloaded at an allied warehouse in Archangel, Russia.The guard at right is a member of the American 339th “Polar Bears.”

      “This little army, which could not be styled even as a forlorn hope, included the 339th Infantry composed of young men drafted from Michigan and Wisconsin, the 337th Ambulance Company, the 337th Field Hospital Company and a battalion of the 310th Engineers. The troops arrived at Archangel Sept.4, 1918, expecting to find themselves in a country of friendly Allies who would gladly unite with them in carrying on the Allied cause. Instead they found the region stripped by the Bolsheviki, and these reds regarded them as enemy invaders.”

Although the exact mission was unclear to the 339th Infantry fondly referred to as “Detroit’s Own,” there was never any doubt that the armies of Soviet Russia regarded the Americans as the enemy. When the Polar Bears arrived in Archangel, the Bolshevik government had been in power for only a year. The Russians had withdrawn from the Allied side by making a separate peace with Germany. Turmoil engulfed both the cities and the countryside. Russia was in the throngs of a revolution with several anti-Communist “White” Russian armies

President Woodrow Wilson, who had earlier committed to a policy of nonintervention in Russian politics, had opposed sending American troops to Russia. Pressured by British and French allies, Wilson reluctantly agreed to the expedition, but later regretted his decision.

With America’s entry into the war in 1917, many of “Detroit’s Own” had been trained at Camp Custer near Battle Creek and had paraded down Woodward Avenue and Fort Street with cheering throngs of Detroiters bidding them farewell. as they boarded trains that would take them to the troop ships. Then a long boat trip to England, zig-zagging to avoid submarines, and the surprise transfer to Archangel, Russia and the bitter cold of the frozen tundra and wasteland.

The Polar Bears suffered the difficulties all soldiers suffer in every war. However, a shortage of equipment and food compared to the resources available earlier to troops on the European front caused morale to drop.

They found the region stripped of any food by the Bolsheviki. Harsh weather conditions greeted them with temperatures that often dropped as low as 56 degrees below zero.

The allied expeditionary force passed through the Barents Sea to reach Archangel.

The desolate surroundings made ordinary comforts impossible and hampered proper care for the sick and wounded, especially during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Members of the expedition could only wonder why their services were needed in this remote region.

In a Detroit News article in March 1919, Sgt. Theodore W. Kolbe told a reporter: “the men have repeatedly asked their officers for information to bolster their sinking morale but the only information they had received was a circular sent out by Lord Milner, the British minister of war, saying that the Allies had sent troops to Archangel because it would not be right to desert Russia in the plight in which the revolution left it.”

In April 1919, Company I of the 339th Infantry staged a protest, refusing to return to the front line trenches. Commanding officers called it a mutiny and demanded they go back on the line.

Company I consisted almost entirely of Detroit men. Later Sgt. Whitney McGuire of 319 Selden Ave , who had given the order to return to the front, summed up the incident which lead to the unit being branded mutineers:

“They kicked like hell, but they went and never did a better job of fighting than they did that same day. Never was a more unjust charge laid against brave men. It is safe to say no company of American soldiers in this war has shown more consistent bravery in the face of the enemy.”

Another Detroit soldier, Ralph V.Walker, in a letter to his family wrote “I have in mind a few simple but undiscussed questions regarding the present situation of the 339th now in Northern Russia. Why was “Detroit’s Own,” a regiment so highly praised and characterized for its gallant work, deprived of a chance to uphold its good name, as soldiers of facts and not phrases? Why were we kept in training camps long after our unequals were sent to France? Why are we here today as representatives of Detroit’s true patriotic people, supporting a ‘British’ expedition?

“You can probably draw your own conclusion on this situation. As soldiers of America we are satisfied to bear anything or do anything, and even give our lives as a sacrifice for our flag, but all we want to know is: Do our people, our statesmen know our present conditions? If so, we are satisfied and more than willing to carry out the mission entrusted to us.”

The 339th were kept on the fighting front until May 15, 1919, long after the main body of the American army had returned home from the European front.

The Polar Bears endured the rigors of a terrible Russian winter and a confusing war. The 339th suffered 82 killed in action; 24 dead from wounds, nine from accidental causes, 68 from disease, 32 reported missing, and nine prisoners of war in the hands of the Bolsheviki.

The body of a soldier from the 339th is unloaded from a railroad car in Detroit in 1929.

      Despite everything the men bore their hardships with fortitude and acquitted themselves with credit.

Newspapers joined the families in demanding the troops be brought home. Finally, in the early summer of 1919, the 339th began its trek home.

Detroit Mayor Frank Couzens headed a welcoming committee that met the 1,500 men in New York harbor and escorted them home where an enormous welcoming ceremony and party were held on Belle Isle.

Michigan voted to give all of her soldiers and sailors a cash bonus of $15 for each month served under the flag. The city, presented to each Detroit veteran a silver service ring and to the family of each deceased soldier a commemorative medal designed by Paul Manship.

Not all of the “Polar Bears” made it home that summer. Ten years later in December of 1929, Detroit crowds stood with bared heads in snow and biting cold as a solemn procession of 55 hearses carried the last of the Russian expedition veterans home. The motorcade passed along Fort St. to City Hall where Gov. Fred W. Green received the bodies on behalf of the state. The last of Detroit’s Own were finally coming home.

On May 30,1930, the Polar Bear Memorial was dedicated in White Chapel Park outside Detroit. The base of the memorial is black Swedish granite supporting a large white Georgia marble Polar Bear. Under the front paws of the bear lies a cross and a helmet.

The inscription contains the words of Stephen Decatur: “Our Country, in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our Country, right or wrong.”

A bugler sounds Taps next to the Polar Bear Memorial at White Chapel Cemetery.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from the clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News