Excerpted from: The Polar Bear Expedition: "The U.S. Intervention in Northern Russia, 1918–1919," Army Sustainment, Mar-Apr, 2012
by Alexander F. Barnes and Cassandra J. Rhodes
|The 339th Infantry on Their Way to Russia|
Overview of the Mission
The U.S. Army was present in Russia at the end of World War I for several reasons. One was that the massive amounts of military supplies and equipment stockpiled at the Siberian port of Vladivostok and the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel had to be recovered for retrograde to their countries of origin or distribution to the anti-Bolshevik "White Russian" forces fighting the Bolshevik "Red" army in the Russian Civil War.
These supplies, including 110,000 rifles in the northern Russian warehouses alone, had been provided to the tsar's forces by France, Great Britain, and the United States in a vain attempt to keep them fighting against the Germans. But that had not worked. The Russian leaders had been incapable of distributing the war materiél to their forces, and most of what they received still sat in the warehouses where it had been initially offloaded from Allied ships. Some wishful politicians subsequently hoped that a small Allied military force could stabilize the area long enough for the Russians to create a democratic government and field a viable army. [This original mission failed, and the 5,000 Doughboys deployed to Northern Russian, along with other Allied contingents, ended up confronting Bolshevik forces.] The soldiers sent to northern Russia in August 1918 were mainly draftees from the Midwest. The force consisted of the 339th Infantry Regiment (also known as "Detroit's Own"), a battalion of the 310th Engineer Regiment, the 337th Ambulance Company, and the 337th Field Hospital.
The mission to protect and redistribute the stockpiles of military equipment in Archangel was nearly a failure before the 339th Infantry Regiment even set foot in Russia. Pro-Bolshevik forces had seized the port and were loading supplies onto rail cars when a small force of British and French soldiers, accompanied by 50 American sailors from the USS Olympia, managed to retake the town. This mixed force was able to stop the passage of some of the trains and recover some supplies; however, a large amount had already been "liberated" by the Bolsheviks.
With more enthusiasm than common sense, the Allied force then set out after the fleeing Reds and soon became trapped, requiring rescue from the just-landed, and flu-ridden, 339th Infantry Regiment. The newly arrived Americans, under British command, hurriedly scrambled a battalion of soldiers onto a Russian train and sent them south to rescue their Allied comrades. Although successful in their rescue mission, the Americans were now spread across the countryside in small detached units. Just like their fellow soldiers in Siberia, the Doughboys soon found themselves fighting from blockhouses and guarding isolated rail heads and small villages. By the time the real winter weather arrived, the Americans and their allies were stranded at remote sites that could not easily support each other. The Red forces that had given ground rather than contest each Allied advance now returned with a vengeance and began a series of hit-and-run raids. Countering these raids was complicated by temperatures that at night dropped to 50 degrees below zero, freezing the oil in machine guns. Wounded soldiers who were not retrieved and brought under cover quickly froze to death. Click HERE to read the story of the 339th biggest operation, the Battle of Toulgas.
By April 1919, when a new U.S. commander arrived in Archangel with orders to evacuate the American force as soon as practicable, the Allies had been forced to evacuate many of their distant outposts. By this time, however, it was obvious to the U.S. government and to the American public that it was time to bring the 339th Infantry Regiment home. While preparing for their withdrawal from Russia, the Americans awarded themselves the nickname of the "Polar Bears" as a testament to surviving the arctic winter.
|The Polar Bears Earning Their Nickname|
Trust your people on the scene. When the British requested U.S. support for the Northern Russia expedition, they stated, "The dispatch of additional French or British reinforcements is impossible and it is therefore essential that America should help by sending a brigade . . ." Then they added, "It is not necessary that the troops sent should be completely trained, as we anticipate that military operations in this region will only be of irregular character."
The U.S. consul in Archangel at the time, Felix Cole, strongly opposed American participation. Cole replied in June 1918, with some foresight, "Intervention will begin on a small scale but . . . will grow in scope and in its demands for ships, men, money and materiels. . . . It means establishing and maintaining telegraph, telephone, wireless, railroad, river, White Sea water, sledge, automobile and horse communication with repair shops, hospitals, food warehouses, munitions trains, etc." He also predicted that the Russians would not prove to be effective allies against the Reds: "They work for themselves neither willingly nor effectively. Still less so will they work for others."
The U.S. government ignored Cole's warnings and deployed the 339th Infantry Regiment to Russia anyway. As a result, out of a force of 5,500 soldiers, the Polar Bears suffered 244 deaths from action or accidents, 305 wounded, over 100 dead from influenza, and one suicide.
Rank is important. When operating in a coalition, the leaders of an expeditionary force must have rank commensurate with their responsibility. If this is not possible, ensure that they understand that they maintain the ultimate authority in how U.S. forces are employed. In far too many cases in northern Russia, the senior American officer on the scene was only a captain or a lieutenant and therefore was outranked by an attached British or French officer. Though they commanded fighting forces, the American junior officers were obliged to take orders from senior foreign officers who were completely unfamiliar with U.S. goals, tactics, and capabilities.
Because of some of the complications arising from this problem, General John J. Pershing, the overall U.S. commander in Europe, would later insist on keeping a major general, Henry T. Allen, as the commander of the U.S. forces during the occupation of Germany. Though the size of that command was more suited for a lower-ranking officer, Pershing insisted that the commander be of the higher rank so he could deal on an equal footing with the other Allied occupation commanders from Great Britain, France, and Belgium.
Understand the weather, terrain, and distances, and send a large-enough force for those conditions. This is pretty much the same lesson learned by the U.S. forces in Siberia. Even today, with advanced communications and transportation technology, no commander would attempt to defend and police an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma with 5,500 soldiers. By comparison, in November 1918, to occupy the American zone in Germany, which was a much smaller area than northern Russia, the U.S. Army deployed 250,000 Soldiers and maintained another 50,000 in nearby Luxembourg.
Adding to the problem was the fact that much of the area was impassable swamp or nearly impenetrable forest, which increased reliance on rail and riverine transportation.
The U.S. soldiers sent into this region soon found their cold-weather gear, suitable for the trenches in France, to be inadequate for what was waiting for them in the Russian winter. They also had little knowledge of the type of issues this weather would bring them during the defense of their bases and supplies.
Coalition operations are hard, and coalition logistics are even harder. Many of the same problems that confronted coalition operations in Siberia were also present in northern Russia, but they were magnified by the isolation and weather constraints. As difficult as it was for U.S. forces to receive their supplies in Siberia, it was even harder in northern Russia. Making matters worse, most of the supplies they did receive came from British sources and, particularly in the case of rations and clothing, were not well received by the American soldiers. Other than lumber for building facilities and fortifications, very few resources were available in the Archangel area.
|USS Des Moines Cutting Through Ice|
When the White Sea froze around Archangel, the only way to get supplies to the Allied forces there and to the remote outposts in the surrounding region was by the rail line from the port of Murmansk. Attempts to build up the White Russian forces also proved frustrating to the Americans when they recognized several of the Bolsheviks they had captured only weeks before when they appeared, apparently rehabilitated, as part of the British-trained White forces.
What can be concluded about the American efforts to protect and recover the mountains of military supplies in Russia during 1918 to 1920? It was a tough mission. That can be said about many military operations, but certainly the two American expeditions into Russia after World War I were unique in their concept, execution, and difficulty. While the rest of the world celebrated the end of the bloodiest war in history up to that time, two relatively small groups of American soldiers were fighting for their lives at opposite ends of a country that was undergoing a violent revolution.
For their part, the soldiers were only partially successful in their Siberian and northern Russian missions. Most of the supplies they were sent to preserve and protect were lost to the Reds or were misused by the Whites. However, the Czech Legion was aided in its successful withdrawal from Siberia and transported to its new homeland. Obviously, such small forces as the Americans provided could not stabilize revolutionary Russia in time to prevent the ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks, especially when it became apparent that the White forces were ineffective and suffering from poor leadership.
On the other hand, the U.S. soldiers did prove themselves capable of operating and sustaining combat forces in an extremely austere and harsh environment. In that environment, where the greatest measure of success often was survival, the American soldiers served bravely and remained loyal to their country and to their Allies. That they did so in spite of overwhelming odds and an ever-increasing sense of isolation is evidence of their courage and perseverance.
When the infantrymen and logisticians of the two expeditions to Russia finally returned to the United States, they found that few people knew or cared about their sacrifices. Ninety years later, fewer people are aware that U.S. forces had even been there. Nonetheless, in the vast wilderness of Siberia and hidden in the deep forests near Archangel, the remains of some of their comrades are still buried. As one U.S. Army veteran of northern Russia wrote in 1920, "Why if the job had been worth doing at all had it not been worth while for our country to do it wholeheartedly with adequate force and with determination to see it through to the desired end . . . Why had we come at all?" It would not be the last time American service members would ask that question in the 20th century.