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AMEDD Distinguished Service Cross North Russian Campaign Recipients
NORTH RUSSIAN EXPEDITION (POLAR BEAR EXPEDITION)
Everyone remembers the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918 as the day that hostilities ceased in Europe and America’s involvement in World War I came to an end. With the end of the war American Soldiers returned home ending this chapter in history. In actuality, that is not entirely correct. Many are unaware that in 1918, America sent two fighting forces into Russia that would not return with the rest of the doughboys after the armistice was signed in Compiegne France. To understand the reasons for these expeditions into Russia, it is necessary to delve into a bit of Russian history, albeit superficially.
Russia, in 1914, had been torn with political and economic strife for many years before their entrance into WW I. Ironically, the country initially rallied around their government and supported the war against the Central Powers. The early Russian offensives were successful and caused Germany enough concern that they shifted considerable strength from the western front to concentrate their efforts in the east. By mid 1915 though, those efforts had pushed the Russians back to a point where they were no longer a threat to directly invade the Central Powers. Tsar Nicholas II took control of the Army in September of 1915, but the area controlled by the Russians remained largely the same until the Russian collapse in 1917.
That collapse in 1917 was centered on two events labeled the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The February Revolution is generally believed to have evolved from the largely failed 1905 Revolution. The causes of the 1905 revolution were mainly discontent with the Tsar’s rule, the Russo-Japanese War failures, working conditions and wages. In that revolution, the Tsar maintained rule largely because the military remained loyal as evident during Bloody Sunday. During that massacre, a large group of unarmed demonstrators were fired upon by the Tsar’s soldiers and, depending on the source of information, between 100 and 1000 demonstrators were killed. The Tsar promised reforms that never really satisfied the masses and the opposition gained followers as an end result.
By 1917 most of those same concerns sparked new unrest, protests and demonstrations. With the Tsar away leading the Army, the Empress Alexandra ran the government in his absence and her rule proved to be widely unpopular. Coupled with war weariness, hunger, inflation, overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, 10 to 12 hour workdays and inadequate wages, the country was ripe for overthrow. When troops were ordered to suppress the demonstrations many soldiers balked and mutinied putting the Tsar’s rule on very unstable ground. As a result, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was put in place. The socialists also put a government together to share power with the provisional government. This was called the Petrograd Soviet, of which the largest faction was the Bolsheviks composed mainly of workers and soldiers.
This dual power proved to be ineffective and the average Russian saw little change from the dilemmas they faced prior to the February Revolution. Demonstrations, unrest and strikes dominated the country. Soldiers deserted on the front at an alarming rate and joined the Red Guard of the Bolsheviks. The Red Guard would eventually become the Red Army. In spite of this, and under pressure from the Allies to continue the war against the Central Powers on the eastern front, the provisional government launched the Kerensky Offensive which would prove to be Russia’s last offensive operation in WW I. It ended with complete collapse and the Russian Army that hadn’t deserted, retreated inward over 150 miles. This calamity greatly diminished the effectiveness of the Provisional Government and led to the October Revolution.
The October Revolution was centered mainly in Petrograd. Vladimir Lenin, who had returned from exile, led the mainly bloodless takeover of the Provisional Government and the Soviets took full control. The loyalists in the remainder of Russia, however, did not embrace the Bolshevik rule and formed the White Army and went to war with the Red Army. This period of Civil War would last until 1922 when the Soviet Union would be formed. In the meantime, the German Army continued to occupy more Russian territory and so in March of 1918 the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, officially ending Russian involvement in WW I.
The Allies, since 1914, had been sending supplies to Russia to help support their efforts in fighting the war against the Central Powers and to keep open the Eastern Front. When the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, they too began sending supplies to the Russians through the ports of Arkhangelsk (Archangel), Murmansk, and Vladivostok. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the British and French became increasingly concerned that the Germans would occupy more Russian territory and possibly the ports, which harbored large quantities of these supplies.
The British and French backed the loyalist Russian White Army in the hopes they would put an end to the Bolshevik revolution and resurrect the Eastern Front. They were equally concerned that the supplies at the ports would fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks. One additional factor was the rescue of the Czechoslovak Legion. For brevity sake, the Czechoslovak Legion was fighting in hopes of creating an independent homeland. However, many thousands were trapped in Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, most in Siberia along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Czech Legion numbered, again depending on the source, between 40,000 to 70,000 troops. (1) For these reasons the Allies decided to intervene on behalf of the anti-Bolshevik forces. However, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk allowed the Germans to shift some of their forces back to the western front keeping the British and French from freeing up personnel needed for them to execute this plan since the Americans had yet to bolster Allied strength in France. The Allies pressed President Wilson to send forces to Russia and take up their cause.
In June of 1918 President Woodrow Wilson, despite objections from the War Department, decided to send a limited contingent of American troops to Archangel and Vladivostok to increase the Allied presence in Russia during this period of extreme turbulence. Although the two expeditionary forces were deployed under the same auspices, they were thousands of miles apart, did not interact during their time in Russia, and their experiences were markedly different. In addition, their missions were poorly defined and poorly understood.
Units comprising the American Expeditionary Force Siberia were the first to deploy and arrived at the port of Vladivostok in mid August 1918 from the Philippines. Their ranks included the 27th Infantry Regiment and the 31st Infantry Regiment as well as various units from the 8th Division. The force would eventually grow to around 8,000 troops. The medical pieces that deployed included Evacuation Hospital number 17 from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Field Hospital number 4 and Ambulance Company number 4 from Camp Lewis, Washington.
Shortly after their arrival, the American 27th Infantry Regiment found themselves supporting the Japanese in offensive operations against the Bolsheviks along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was here that the Regiment would earn its now famous Wolfhound nom de guerre. (2) When the expedition commander, MG William S. Graves, arrived at the beginning of September, he halted American involvement in offensive operations, to the chagrin of the other allies. His understanding of the mission was to rescue the Czech Legion and safeguard Allied supplies and interests in Vladivostok. The Czech Legion was actually controlling Vladivostok at the time of the American arrival and so the mission evolved into safeguarding allied interests. From a medical standpoint, the Americans from that point forward predominantly treated for illness and cold injuries. Influenza was a big factor in the fall of 1918 as it was worldwide. In addition, one of the main obstacles they faced in providing health care was sanitation. Virtually no latrines existed and human waste accumulated in large quantities. Water supplies were also contaminated which contributed to a large variety of illnesses.
The American Expeditionary Force North Russia was made up of elements of the 85th Division which was comprised of men mainly from Wisconsin and Michigan. The 85th was preparing to depart England for France when General John J. Pershing diverted a portion of the division to Archangel aboard British ships. This expeditionary force was made up of the 339th Infantry Regiment and the 310th Engineer Regiment. The medical components were the 310th Sanitary Train, the 337th Field Hospital, the 337th Ambulance Company, and the Medical Detachments of the 339th Infantry Regiment, and the 310th Engineer Regiment. In all, 5,000 troops were sent to North Russia. All units were placed under British control which created unique problems better suited for another discussion.
When they arrived in Archangel at the beginning of September 1918, the force was experiencing an outbreak of influenza. This worldwide outbreak was severe among the troops and many were stricken seriously. Reports put deaths near 70. Sanitary conditions matched those encountered by American forces in Siberia and this complicated the care of those afflicted. Soldiers that were not ill were put into action immediately to attempt the rescue of the Czech Legion which in turn entailed fighting the Bolsheviks in order to reach them. After about a month, and with winter setting in, their posture became defensive in nature as it became apparent they would not reach the legion. In contrast, the Bolsheviks, seemingly unaffected by the severe winter weather, stepped up their offensive efforts inflicting numerous casualties.
In mid winter when word reached the Soldiers in both theaters of the end of hostilities in Europe, they assumed they would soon head home. When they didn’t depart and their mission remained the same, morale in North Russia plummeted and to a lesser extent, in Siberia as well. While the reports of discontent in North Russia are well documented, the force could not leave by this point even if given the order because the port at Archangel had now frozen over.
At home, public sentiment wanted the soldiers returned home. Newspapers and congressmen were notified and took up the cause. President Wilson decided to bring the North Russian Expedition home and directed the War Department to plan for their departure. In late May of 1919, the force started departing Russia. The men of the force (339th Infantry Regiment) decided to call themselves the Polar Bears. The Polar Bear Expedition is now synonymous with the North Russian Expedition. By the end of July 1919, all of the force had been extracted.
Not so in Siberia, where their presence would continue for another year after the departure of the Polar Bear Expedition. The Russian civil war wreaked havoc on their mission of protecting the railroad and their directions to support all Russians equally. The railway was mainly used by the anti-Bolshevik White Army while the local populace supported the Bolsheviks. The conflicting mission would only become worse as time progressed. By the winter of 1919-1920, the White Army was virtually defeated and the American troops were now in danger of direct assault from the Bolsheviks. President Wilson realized the cause was lost and directed that the American forces leave Siberia. The last of the force left Siberia at the beginning of April 1920. Interestingly, the 31st Infantry Regiment also adopted the name Polar Bears.
Thus ended one of America’s least known operations in WW I. The expeditions were not without their valorous achievements. Six AMEDD Soldiers would earn the newly created Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in North Russia and one in Siberia.
(1) The Legion would eventually achieve their goal of an independent country with the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918.
(2) It was the Japanese that would give the soldiers of the 27th Infantry Regiment their now famous nickname “Wolfhounds”. After one 25 mile march to Bureya, the 27th arrived an hour ahead of the Japanese. The Japanese General complimented the Company and commented that they march like Russian Wolfhounds. From the Wolfhounds Vietnam Alumni website http://www.vn.alumni.wolfhoundsonline.org/images/siberia.htm).
EVERHART, CHESTER H.
KILROY, LAWRENCE B.
PAUL, HUBERT C.
*POWERS, RALPH E.
TULEY, HOMER A.
ZECH, CLARENCE H.
FRUNDT, OSCAR C.