THE AMERICAN INTERVENTION IN NORTH RUSSIA, 1918-1919

By Lieutenant Colonel Roderick A. Hosler, USA-Ret

Three soldiers from Headquarters, 2d Battalion, 339th Infantry, make their way through deep snow in northern Russia, 19 February 1919. The 339th was the largest component of American Expeditionary Forces-North Russia (AEF-North Russia), part of an ill-defined Allied intervention into civil-war wracked Russia in 1918-19. (National Archives)

The “war to end all wars” came to a conclusion on the Western Front with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. While the carnage between the Allies and Germany ended in France and Belgium, fighting continued in Europe and Asia. During the post-Armistice era, American soldiers continued the fight to make the world safe for democracy against another enemy in a harsh and hostile environment. 

Largely forgotten, the fighting in Russia between Allied forces, including a large contingent of American troops, and Bolsheviks would persist for another year and a half. From late summer 1918 to early spring 1920, the United States and other Allied nations engaged in combat operations against Bolshevik forces around Archangel in North Russia and around Vladivostok in far off Siberia. 

American troops were desperately needed to bolster the French and British armies slugging it out in the trenches on the Western Front in France, and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing first began arriving in 1917. At the same time, the situation on the Eastern Front was chaotic and not progressing well for Russia. Her army was in defeat and war materiel supplied by the Allies was accumulating on the wharfs and in warehouses in Arctic port cities of Murmansk and Archangel in North Russia, and the Pacific port city of Vladivostok in Siberia. The Bolsheviks gained power in November 1917 and signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in March 1918, ending the war on the Eastern Front.  

The situation in Russia was complicated and deteriorating rapidly as civil war raged, leading the British and French to advocate for Allied military intervention. President Woodrow Wilson, upon the urging of the British and French, reluctantly agreed to support the intervention. (In addition to Great Britain, France, and the United States, Canada and Australia also sent troops to support the Allied intervention in northern Russia.) President Wilson wanted to ensure American troops would not become involved in combat operations or take sides in the ongoing civil war. On 17 July 1918, Secretary of State Robert Lansing sent Wilson’s “Aide-Memoire” to the Allied ambassadors outlining and limiting the extent of American involvement. 

The United States was committed to participating in the Allied intervention and deployed two separate expeditionary forces to Russia. These contingents were known as the American North Russia Expeditionary Forces (ANREF) and later as the American Expeditionary Forces, North Russia (AEF-North Russia), and the American Expeditionary Forces-Siberia (AEF-Siberia); and were under the commands of Colonel George E. Stewart and Major General William S. Graves, respectively.      

General Graves met with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker on 5 August 1918, and was provided with a copy of the Aide-Memoire and briefed on Wilson’s intent. Before departing Baker warned Graves, “Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.”  Colonel Stewart, the commander of North Russia forces was not informed of the Aide-Memoire or briefed on it prior to his departure, and knew nothing about it.  

For the short amount of planning and preparation, American forces sent to Russia were quickly organized, assembled, equipped, and deployed. Almost 5,000 troops would land in Archangel and another contingent of over 8,000 troops sent to Vladivostok at about the same time. AEF-North Russia included engineers, but no logistical support; AEF-Siberia had logistical support, but no engineers. Each organization contained extensive medical assets. 

On 14 July 1918, the 85th Division, departed Camp Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, and, on 22 July, boarded troopships in New York Harbor sailing for Europe. Arriving at Liverpool, England, on 2 August, the division was sent to staging camps prior to movement to France. Meanwhile, General Pershing received instructions from the War Department to select units for the North Russia expedition. Pershing’s staff selected units from the 85th Division. 

AEF-North Russia was comprised of the 85th’s 339th Infantry, known as “Detroit’s Own” as many of the regiment’s personnel hailed from the Motor City, commanded by Colonel Stewart;1st Battalion, 310th Engineer Regiment (routinely called the 310th Engineer Battalion); and the 337th Field Hospital and 337th Ambulance Company and detached from the 85th Division.

Prior to deploying, units of AEF-North Russia were reequipped for the mission. American weapons were turned in and troops rearmed with a mixture of British and Russian weapons that included the Russian Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant rifle. The Mosin-Nagant used by the American soldiers were manufactured in the United States for Tsarist forces, but never shipped to Russia. Instead, they were sent to Britain and ultimately issued to American troops heading to North Russia because of the availability of Mosin-Nagant ammunition. Inferior to U.S. rifles, the American soldiers took an instant dislike to the Mosin-Nagant. 

The doughboys were also issued an assortment of British extreme cold weather clothing to augment American uniforms, including overcoats, leather jerkins, fur caps, mittens, and Shackleton arctic boots. Shackleton boots proved to be a poor winter combat boot and unpopular as well. When moving through snow and ice, Shackleton boots lacked the traction necessary for easy movement. U.S troops sent to North Russia were issued British pattern steel helmets and gas masks, whereas troops sent to Siberia were not. American soldiers in North Russia routinely wore steel helmets in combat even during extremely bitter weather. Once reequipped, the 339th Infantry and supporting units were ready for deployment.  

On 27 August, the AEF-North Russia embarked from England in three British troopships and sailed for North Russia, arriving at Archangel on 4 September. While enroute, influenza broke out on the transports, resulting in the death of seventy-two American soldiers. Once the doughboys debarked, Allied headquarters directed the 339th Infantry to be split up and placed in two combat organizations, Force A and Force C. These two forces were widely dispersed along seven tactical fronts. The headquarters of AEF-North Russia and the 339th Infantry were established in the former Archangel Technical Institute building. Co-located in Archangel, the 310th Engineers, 337th Field Hospital, and 337th Ambulance Company dispatched detachments, aid stations, and ambulances to all fronts to support Allied tactical operations. The combat area around the Archangel province constituted a 500-mile front for the Allies to defend. 

While in North Russia, American units relied entirely on the British for their basic logistical support. Doughboys subsisted on standard British army rations consisting of bully beef (canned corned beef), M&V (a mixture of meat and vegetables), hardtack, jam, lime juice, tea, and rum. These rations were considered inferior to American rations and barely provided the necessary calories for sustained combat efficiency in an arctic environment. There was little to no coffee or sugar, and shoes, socks, undergarments, and tobacco were always in short supply. Living conditions in the outlining villages were spartan at best, while conditions in Archangel and larger towns of Obozerskaya, Onega, Pinega, and Shenkurst were better.

Not long after the 339th Infantry debarked and assembled on the docks of Archangel, the British command directed it to immediately move to the “front” and engage Bolshevik forces. There was no mention of Wilson’s “Aide Memoire,” guarding war materiel, or appropriate chain of command. As the senior American officer in North Russia, and with no instruction to the contrary, Colonel Stewart complied with the British orders. 3d Battalion quickly headed south down the Archangel-Vologda Railway toward Obozerskaya to engage the Bolsheviks or “Bolos” as they were frequently called. They were quickly followed by 1st Battalion that proceeded up the Dvina and Vaga Rivers by boat, while 2d Battalion remained in Archangel. 3d Battalion received its baptism of fire on 5 September when it was shelled by the Bolsheviks.

One of the first combat actions of the 339th Infantry occurred on 16 September, at the village of Seltzo on the Dvina River, resulting in three American soldiers being killed. First Lieutenant Albert Smith of B Company was wounded while leading his platoon in an attack against a strong Bolshevik position and was the first AEF-NR soldier awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Fighting was widespread, and on 27 September near Seletskoe on the Emtsa River, elements of Companies I and K became heavily engaged in combat against Bolshevik troops. When the action ended, Second Lieutenant Charles Chappel and six other soldiers from Company K were killed and twenty-five wounded. Lieutenant Chappel was the first American officer killed in Russia; he was also awarded the DSC. American units continued spreading out to garrison the isolated villages. As they took up new positions, skirmishing with Bolshevik troops increased along all fronts. Within thirty days of arriving in North Russia, American forces suffered sixty-nine dead and 150 wounded.

Soldiers from Machine Gun Company, 339th Infantry, construct emplacements near an aerodrome used by the Allies at Obozerskaya, Russia, 22 September 1918. (National Archives)

On 30 September, 500 replacements from the 85th Division arrived to fill the ranks for those killed in action, wounded, or died of disease. Deep snow covered the ground and temperatures plunged to thirty below zero by 20 October as the long, dark Russian winter set in. As a result, the situation for the doughboys in North Russia steadily declined.

Opposing the Allies was the Bolshevik Red Army, composed of former regulars and conscripts from the old Tsarist army, under the command of Commissar Leon Trotsky. There were over 42,000 Red Army troops in North Russia supported by ninety-eight pieces of artillery and 378 machine guns. Red Army artillery dominated the battlefield with deadly precision.

Private Floyd Latta, Company M, 339th Infantry, stands guard at the entrance to barbed wire entanglements at an outpost known as Verst 466, 24 September 1918. (National Archives) 

The first major battle fought between American and Bolshevik troops occurred on 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice was signed and fighting on the Western Front ended. At that time, the Allies in North Russia knew nothing of the Armistice. The villages of Toulgas, located about 200-miles southeast of Archangel on the Dvina River, were garrisoned by Company B and one platoon from Company A, 339th Infantry, and under the command of Captain Robert Boyd; one British rifle company of Royal Scots; one section of Canadian artillery with two 3-inch field guns; and one company of White Russians, totaling 650 men. In the early morning darkness of 11 November, Bolshevik gunboats and artillery opened fire on the village, and 2,500 Red Army soldiers under Commander Melochofski launched a surprise attack. After heavy fighting, Red forces overran Lower Toulgas and captured the Allied hospital. 

An American platoon commanded by First Lieutenant Harry Dennis occupying Upper Toulgas was eventually routed during the intense attack. Canadian artillery repulsed subsequent attacks preventing the Bolsheviks from capturing the main village. During the first three-days of the battle, the doughboys and Royal Scots were pushed back but kept the Bolsheviks at bay with effective rifle, machine-gun, and artillery fire. The Allies were desperately holding on, taking concentrated fire from Bolshevik artillery in the woods and gunboats on the river. 

The Bolos continued to press their attack, firing more than four-thousand artillery shells during the four-day battle. Captain Boyd, the senior Allied commander, realized it was only a matter of time before the entire garrison would be overwhelmed. The only chance of holding Toulgas was to counterattack. In the early morning of 14 November, an American platoon commanded by First Lieutenant John Cudahy advanced through the dense forest in knee deep snow toward the Bolsheviks in Upper Toulgas. The doughboys attacked with surprise and audacity, forcing the Reds to retreat.     

Although not to the extent of the fighting on the Western Front, the battle for Toulgas was no less deadly. The Allies suffered approximately thirty killed and 100 wounded, including seven Americans killed and twenty-three wounded. The Bolsheviks lost an estimated 500 killed, an unknown number of wounded, and thirty captured. The battle was an eye opener and on a scale the Allies had not expected. American troop morale hit a low point upon hearing of the Armistice with Germany on 11 November ending the fighting on the Western Front, yet they remained in Russia battling Bolsheviks.

The Allies adopted a defensive strategy, while the Bolsheviks were becoming more aggressive. Both sides consolidated their forces and strengthened their positions. The 310th Engineers continued to construct fortified blockhouses throughout the area as doughboys resumed patrolling the region. The Bolsheviks renewed their attacks in late November and fighting was widespread along all fronts.

On 29 November, a platoon from Company C, 339th Infantry, commanded by Second Lieutenant Francis Cuff, was ambushed while on patrol outside the village of Ust Padenga by a large force of Bolsheviks. Lieutenant Cuff and five soldiers were killed in the desperate rearguard fight with several more wounded and four captured. Lieutenant Cuff and the other five’s remains would not be recovered and returned to the United States until 1929. 

French soldiers and men from Company I, 339th Infantry, gather around a campfire within range of Bolshevik forces, 29 September 1918. (National Archives)

The Bolsheviks continued to exert pressure against the overextended Allied forces along the Vaga River, around Shenkursk with a major winter campaign. The battle for Shenkursk was fought between 19 and 27 January 1919 around five surrounding villages. Located on the Vaga River, 300 miles southeast of Archangel, Shenkursk was the Allied headquarters of Force C under command of British Colonel C. I. Graham and included 600 White Russians, with two 3-inch field guns; about 250 Americans from Companies A and C, 339th Infantry; two British rifle companies; and a section of Canadian artillery, totaling 1,100 men.

The main Allied defensive line was the village of Vysokaya Gora on the bluffs above the Ust Padenga River, eighteen miles south of Shenkursk. Captain Otto Odjard commanded Company A, 339th Infantry, in Vysokaya Gora, while Captain James Fitzsimons and Company C were in Shenkursk proper. The Company A command post, aid station, and two platoons, along with a section of White Russian artillery with two 75mm field guns, were posted in the village. A platoon from Company A, commanded by First Lieutenant Harry Meade, occupied a forward position in the village of Nijni Gora one-quarter-mile to the south. The remainder of Colonel Graham’s Force C was in Shenkursk.    

Red Army strength in the area was estimated at several thousand men with artillery. At dawn on 19 January, the Bolsheviks attacked with a massive, hour-long artillery bombardment against Nijni Gora. When the shelling lifted, 1,000 Bolshevik infantrymen supported by heavy machine guns advanced on Nijni Gora with fixed bayonets. American troops poured devastating machine-gun and rifle fire on the attacking Bolos. Lieutenant Mead soon realized his platoon was out-manned, out-gunned, and in danger of encirclement. Captain Odjard ordered Mead to fall back to Vysokaya Gora. Conducting a fighting withdrawal, only Meade and six men of the original forty-seven-man platoon reached the safety of Vysokaya Gora having run a gauntlet of Bolshevik rifle and machine-gun fire.         

Over the next several days the outnumbered Allies held Vysokaya Gora against repeated infantry attacks and artillery fire from the Bolsheviks which now numbered 3,000 men. Red artillery fire and snipers were inflicting many Allied casualties. The Bolsheviks continued to attack, suffering heavy casualties from American machine guns and Canadian artillery fire, but the Allied position was becoming untenable. On the evening of 22 January, Captain Odjard received orders to evacuate the village. During one of the last Bolshevik artillery bombardments, First Lieutenant Ralph Powers, 337th Ambulance Company, serving as Company A’s medical officer, was mortally wounded and several soldiers killed when an artillery salvo struck the aid station. Disregarding his own wounds, Powers ordered the remaining wounded loaded onto horse drawn sleds and evacuated. Powers received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. 

Odjard’s troops evacuated Vysokaya Gora in the bitterly cold darkness, reaching Spasskoe  four miles south of Shenkursk early on 23 January. The Bolsheviks renewed their attack, firing artillery at Spasskoe on the morning of the 24th, badly wounding Captain Odjard. Realizing he could not hold the village without reinforcements, Odjard withdrew to Shenkursk. 

The exhausted Allied soldiers reached Shenkursk by late afternoon on 24 January, with the Bolsheviks not far behind; they quickly surrounded the town and prepared to attack. Colonel Graham ordered a withdrawal, and using the cover of darkness, the Allied garrison evacuated Shenkursk at midnight. The retreat took place in freezing temperatures with the wounded still crowded onto horse drawn sleds under the care of a detachment of medics from the 337th Ambulance Company. The treacherous retreat was made even more difficult because of the impractical Shackleton boots worn by the soldiers. Lacking traction, many soldiers chose to discard their Shackletons in favor of regulation leather boots or stocking feet. The line of marching troops, civilian refugees, and sleds full of wounded stretched for miles and was in constant danger of discovery and possible annihilation. 

Bolshevik artillery began shelling Shenkursk early the next morning. The Allied column, evading enemy patrols, successfully reached Vystavka twenty-five miles away on 27 January. The retreat from Vsyokaya Gora through Shenkursk to Vystavka covered over forty miles, mostly at night and in freezing temperatures. The American casualties resulting from the numerous engagements around Shenkursk were realtively light: twenty-seven killed, about 100 wounded, and approximately thirty missing. The Bolsheviks lost an estimated 200 killed and 500 wounded. The loss of Shenkursk was a major blow to the Allies in North Russia.

Back in the United States, public opinion favoring the return of American troops following the Armistice was growing. Mounting casualties only added to this sentiment. On 22 February, the American wireless station in Archangel picked up the news that President Wilson had authorized the withdrawal of American troops from North Russia at the earliest possible time. The White Sea at Archangel remained frozen, so no movement could be made until late spring or early summer.  Until then, the doughboys continued to fight and die in North Russia. 

The last major action in North Russia was the Battle of Bolshie Ozerki fought on 23 March, with subsequent fighting from 31 March to 2 April 1919. Bolshie Ozerki is located 150-miles south of Archangel on the road linking the White Sea port of Onega to the Archangel-Vologda Railway town of Obozerskaya, a vital Allied garrison. Bolsheviks forces captured Bolshie Ozerki on 17 March, splitting Force A and cutting off the Onega and Railway Fronts from each other. The Allies needed to regain control of the village.  

The preliminary engagement began on 23 March when the Allies attacked to recapture Bolshie Ozerki. The Allied forces comprised of two companies of the British 6th Yorkshire Regiment; Companies E and H , 339th Infantry, commanded by Captains Richard Ballensinger and Bernard Heil, respectively, and two companies White Russians. Halted by superior enemy numbers and effective fire, the Allied attack failed. 

Below-zero temperatures and deep snow hampered Allied progress in bringing up artillery and concentrating troops they could spare from Archangel and other fronts. These reinforcements included 500 doughboys from Companies I and M, 339th Infantry, and Company B, 310th Engineers commanded by Captains Horatio Winslow, Joel Moore, and Wayne Axtell, respectively, and four companies of White Russians. The Allies now had almost 2,000 soldiers in the area. There was estimated 7,000 Red Army troops in Bolshie Ozerki supported by a battery of 4.2-inch field guns.

The main battle began at 0830 on 31 March when the Bolsheviks launched a surprise frontal attack against the Allies near Obozerskaya to cut off the main Allied forces from the railway. The attack hit the rear of a White Russian artillery battery at the Allied blockhouse line eight miles west of Obozerskaya. The White Russians were able to turn their 75mm field guns around and fired shrapnel rounds into the attacking Bolsheviks at point-blank range. This combined, with the effective machine-gun fire from Company M troops covering the artillery, successfully broke up the Bolshevik attack. Allied artillery and machine-gun fire was extremely effective throughout the day, and well into the night when fighting finally died down.   

Soldiers from Company B, 339th Infantry, conduct a patrol while wearing snowshoes along the Dvina River at Chamova, 31 December 1918. (National Archives)

The Bolsheviks renewed their attack at 0330 on 1 April, with another frontal bayonet assaults against the American blockhouses. As with all previous attacks, this too was stopped by determined and effective fire from Company E and M troops and White Russian artillery. Red Army deserters disclosed the demoralized condition among many of their soldiers, reporting that entire companies refused to advance or engage in the fighting against the Americans. 

The Allies planned another attack against Bolshie Ozerki from the west to take pressure off the Allied blockhouse line that had been heavily engaged for two days. The attack began at 0300 on 2 April and was led by recently arrived Companies A and C, 6th Yorkshire, supported by an American trench mortar detachment and machine-gun teams from Company H, 339th Infantry. By 0500, Company C remained far from its objective, and Company A was partially surrounded and withdrew when its commander was mortally wounded. First Lieutenant Clifford Phillips and his platoon from Company H, quickly moved forward to cover the British withdrawal. 

Lieutenant Phillips and a squad from his platoon armed with two Lewis machine guns slowed the Bolshevik counterattack until reinforcements arrived. During this action, Phillips was severely wounded, but remained in action directing his platoon. After the battle, Captain Ballensinger stated that when wounded, Phillips said, “My God, I got it. Captain, don’t bother with me, I’m done for, just look after the boys.” Phillips was eventually evacuated to the Allied hospital in Onega, where he died on 10 May 1919. Lieutenant Phillips was posthumously awarded the DSC. 

Despite the freezing conditions, soldiers of the 339th’s Infantry’s Company B play baseball outside of their quarters in Kitsa, 10 January 1919. (National Archives)

The fighting for the remainder of the day was limited to mostly artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire, inflicting casualties on both sides. Later on 1 April, the Bolsheviks attempted to regain the initiative by launching additional attacks, which collapsed by mid-day. At 1730, American troops from Companies I and M, 339th Infantry, counterattacked, pushing the Bolsheviks back. By 1900, the Reds had broken contact withdrawing to Bolshie Ozerki. 

The Bolsheviks did not renew their attacks and over the next several days continued to fire artillery. The Allies had successfully held their defensive lines at Obozerskaya, while Bolsheviks held Bolshie Ozerki. Warm temperatures affected the roads and trails causing them to become muddy, making it difficult for the Bolsheviks to move up additional artillery and supplies. The Reds withdrew from the area on 5 April. Allied casualties resulting from the four-day battle were light with seventy-five killed, including ten Americans. Bolsheviks losses were estimated at 2,000 killed, wounded, and captured.

On 16 March 1919, Brigadier General Wilds P. Richardson was ordered by General Pershing to proceed to North Russia and assume command of the American forces. Arriving at Archangel on 17 April, Richardson replaced Colonel Stewart and immediately began touring the battle fronts to ascertain the disposition and condition of American troops. From April through May, American soldiers continued to stand guard and patrol the region, gradually transferring control of their positions to the anti-Bolshevik North Russian Army. 

The Dvina River estuary at Archangel and the White Sea were now becoming ice free. By 30 May, AEF-North Russia units had rendezvoused in Archangel in preparation for departure.They participated in a Memorial Day parade, listened to speeches from Brigadier General Richardson, Brigadier General Edmund Ironside, and Lieutenant General Yevgeny Miller, and received well-earned military decorations. From 2 to 28 June, the soldiers of AEF-North Russia, wearing new light blue and white polar bear shoulder patches on their left sleeves, turned in their Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles, boarded transport ships in Archangel, and departed for the United States. The transport ships from North Russia briefly stopped in Brest, France, where these veteran doughboys received baths, new uniforms, and pay at Camp Pontanezen. Returning too, were the remains of 119 American soldiers that died in North Russia and were reburied in American military cemeteries in France. 

A soldier from Company I, 339th Infantry, stands guard outside of a blockhouse at Verst 455 along the Voldoga Railroad, 17 February 1919. At the time this photograph was taken, the temperature measured fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. (National Archives)

The first contingent of “Polar Bears,” as they now called themselves, arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 30 June. After a brief stop at nearby Camp Merritt, Companies A, E, G, I, L, M and Machine Gun Company of the 339th Infantry boarded troop trains for the final leg of their journey home, arriving at the Michigan Central Station in Detroit on 3 July.

On 4 July, seven companies of the 339th Infantry, “Detroit’s Own” were hosted to a festive welcome home parade on Belle Island in Detroit as the heroes they were. It must be noted that at this parade, the soldiers of the 339th Infantry, wearing special commemorative white Polar Bear arm bands, now carried American M1917 rifles. 

A second contingent of AEF-North Russia, Headquarters and Companies, B, C, D, F, H, K, and Supply Company of the 339th Infantry, 337th Field Hospital, 337th Ambulance Company, and the 310th Engineer Battalion, arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on 12 July. After a brief stop at nearby Camp Devens these Polar Bears boarded troop trains for their final leg of the journey home to Detroit on 15 July. The 339th Infantry and all the other North Russia support units were finally demobilized at Camp Custer between 18 and 22 July. The men were discharged and sent home. The 339th Infantry’s regimental motto identified on the unit’s crest along with a white polar bear reads in Russian: “Штыкъ рѣшаетъ” translated, “The bayonet decides.” 

While 339th Infantry troops were battling the Bolsheviks, soldiers of the U.S. Army’s North Russia Transportation Corps (NRTC), a provisional rail transportation battalion containing the 167th and 168th Transportation Companies, were enroute to North Russia from France. Arriving at Murmansk on 25 March 1919, the NRTC was an independent U.S. Army unit that operated the Murmansk to Petersburg Railway. Although not in direct combat, the service of the NRTC was no less dangerous and they faced antagonistic Bolsheviks, losing personnel to hostile fire. The last American soldiers killed in action in North Russia were First Lieutenant Frank Garrett and Sergeant Frederick Patterson of the 168th Transportation Company on 2 May 1919. The mission and service of NRTC ended on 28 July 1919, when they departed Murmansk for France and ultimately the United States. 

Brigadier General Richardson and a staff detachment remained behind to close out the AEF-North Russia headquarters. All Americans departed Archangel on 23 August, and the mission of the AEF-North Russia was over.

When the AEF-North Russia units departed Archangel for the United States in June 1919, they left behind the remains of American soldiers killed in action or died from wounds or disease, buried in dozens of places in northern Russia. A U.S. Army Graves Registration Services detachment had remained behind searching the battlegrounds around Archangel for the remains of American soldiers until they too departed in August. With them were caskets containing 105 remains. Not all the remains were recovered, so unfortunately not all of the dead returned home. 

After returning home in 1919, these Polar Bear veterans lobbied state and federal governments to obtain approval and funding to return to Russia and retrieve the bodies of their comrades left behind. Hindered by the lack of diplomatic recognition between the United States and Soviet Russia, it took ten years before the Polar Bear veterans finally received approval. In August 1929, five members of the Polar Bear Association, including former First Lieutenant Ray Derham, Company D, 339th Infantry, and three members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars went to Russia to look for and retrieve these remains. Captain Stuart D. Campbell and three U.S. Army Graves Registration Service personnel accompanied this expedition.

This twelve-man group was divided into two teams and, equipped with old campaign maps, journeyed along the major rivers and railways, through dense forests and knee-deep swamps, to deserted cemeteries and old battle sites and positions searching for remains. Poor burial conditions resulting from ten years of neglect disclosed little remained, but bones, buttons, and pieces of decayed uniforms. Many of the identification tags had corroded and were unreadable, but some personal items found helped in the identification. The bones were washed in Lysol, wrapped in linen, and placed in small zinc coffins for the journey home.

During two months in Russia, these teams successfully located, identified, and recovered the remains of eighty-six U.S. soldiers before winter set in forcing them to return to the United States. Of the remains recovered, eleven were reburied in an American military cemetery in France. Another nineteen were sent to families in the United States, three went to Arlington National Cemetery, and fifty-six to Detroit.

On 28 November 1929, the SS President Roosevelt docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, carrying the remains of American soldiers from North Russia. They were met by dignitaries and an honor guard from the 16th Infantry from Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York Harbor. The flag covered caskets were placed in trucks and escorted through the city to the train station to be transported to Detroit. The remains of these fifty-six AEF-North Russia soldiers arrived in Detroit on 1 December, and were kept under guard by soldiers from Fort Wayne. On Memorial Day, 30 May 1930, they were ceremoniously reburied surrounding the Polar Bear Monument at the White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Troy, Michigan. 

A group of American officers assemble for a photograph in AEF-North Russia headquarters in North Russia, 2 April 1919. Colonel George E. Stewart, commander of AEF North Russia, is shown in the front row, third from the left. (National Archives)

Included among these remains were those of First Lieutenant Ralph Powers, the medical officer killed at Vysokaya Gora on 22 January 1919, and First Lieutenant Francis Cuff, killed at Ust Padenga on 29 November 1918. In 1934, an additional fourteen sets of remains of American soldiers were recovered and shipped to the United Sates by Russia, reducing the number of missing U.S. soldiers still buried in North Russia to about thirty. First Lieutenant Charles Chappel, the first officer killed in Russia on 21 September 1918, was later reburied at the Polar Bear Monument, as was former Lieutenant Harry Meade, remembered for leading the defense of Nijni Gora on 19 January 1919, in 1969.

AEF-North Russia serving from 4 September 1918 to 23 August 1919, contained fewer troops, served a shorter period in country, yet were more heavily engaged in prolonged combat and sustained greater casualties than American forces in Siberia. The October 1919 War Department report for AEF-North Russia identified casualties as: 109 killed, 305 wounded; thirty-five died of wounds; eighty-one death from disease (ninety percent of which were caused by influenza); thirty missing in action; nineteen dead from accidents/other causes; and four were prisoners of war, with total casualties numbering 583. 

The efforts of the doughboys of the 339th and the other Allied contingents could not have been accomplished without the support rendered by the 310th Engineer Battalion, 337th Field Hospital, and the 337th Ambulance Company. The 310th Engineers were the only Allied engineer unit in North Russia, constructing 483 blockhouses and dugouts, 151 barracks, thirty warehouses, and 273 machine gun emplacements. (The 310th’s unit insignia also contains a white polar bear.) Throughout the campaign, the 337th Ambulance Company evacuated all battle and nonbattle casualties from all areas, in all types of adverse weather conditions, resulting in a high casualty survival rate. The evacuation of Allied wounded by horse drawn sleds during the freezing night retreat from Vsyokaya Gora through Shenkursk to Vystavka, 24-27 January 1919 over forty miles of dark, snow-covered trails is a testament to the heroic efforts of the 337th Ambulance Company. The 337th Field Hospital set up operations in Archangel providing the highest quality of care to American and Allied soldiers there and at isolated villages resulting in a high casualty survival. If combat casualties were not enough, the 337th Field Hospital had to contend with an epidemic of Spanish flu and other diseases. 

The enemy the doughboys faced was a deadly foe showing no mercy. Although not on the scale of the fighting on the Western Front, the deadly combat experience in Russia during countless battles, skirmishes, and firefights reflected the heroism and valor of American soldiers. During their service in North Russia, American soldiers were awarded twenty-three Distinguished Service Crosses, six posthumously, and numerous foreign awards.

America’s participation in the Allied interventions of North Russia formally ended with the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops on 23 August 1919 (and 1 April 1920 in Siberia). The political situation in Russia resulting from the intervention remained unchanged, with the Bolsheviks eventually gaining total power after a long and bloody civil war. The American soldiers of the 339th Infantry, and supporting units in North Russia, performed their duties most admirably under a confused and chaotic military political situation, harshest climatic conditions, and deadly combat. When all was said and done, the combat leadership and fighting qualities of American troops were unsurpassed and upheld the fine traditions of the U.S. Army. 

About the author:

Lieutenant Colonel Roderick A. Hosler, USA-Ret., is a 1972 graduate of the University of Montana, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and the Canadian Command and Staff College. He served in Korea and had assignments with the 82d Airborne Division, 6th Infantry Division, and Headquarters, First U.S. Army. Retiring in 1997, he served as the Assistant Professor of Military Science at Kent State University and Youngstown State University in Ohio. A military historian, he has written and spoken on the War of 1812, the American Intervention in Russia, and early World War II in the Philippines. 

make an impact!

Every purchase at our store helps support AHF and the National Museum of the United States Army.