Polar Bear Expedition: First U.S. War With Russia
Voice of Russia
February 1, 2013
The US was killing Russians defending their homeland – Rozoff
The story of the Polar Bear Expedition or what was also called the American North Russia Expeditionary Force is told by Voice of Russia regular contributor Rick Rozoff. The operation took place between 1918 and 1919 and saw at least 5,000 US troops sent into Russian territory to kill Bolsheviks in the north of Russia. The goals were to secure weapons cached in the north, assist Czech forces who were fighting the Bolsheviks and overthrow the Communist government.
Robles: Soon we are coming upon the 95th anniversary of an event that very few people know about. Would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about what that event is?
Rozoff: Sure I would. And that’s something that first came to my attention through a…in a very personal way which I’ll describe in a moment. But the event, or the operation we are talking about, is something that is proverbially known as the Polar Bear Expedition. The formal designation for it was the Northern Russia Expedition or the American North Russia Expeditionary Force. And what that was the deployment of somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 US troops starting in September of 1918 and continuing into at least July of 1919 in northern Russia, fighting armed forces of the Russian government of that time, which was after the October Revolution in Russia, so it was the government of Lenin.
But that American troops were sent, in some instances, after the armistice was signed, from the trenches in France and in some cases directly from the state of Michigan, to fight near the Arctic Circle in Russia.
In 1972 the last time I saw my maternal grandfather, my mother’s father, shortly before he died, I knew that he had been in Pershing’s Allied [American] Expeditionary Force, that he had been with the US forces in France in World War I. And I happened to ask him, I was a very young man at the time, and I happened to ask him what happened after the armistice was signed and the troops were demobilized in France. And his colorful characterization of it was, and I quote him, he said: “They sent us to fight the Bolsheviks”. That’s a quote I can recall, you know, 41 years ago almost.
And in fact I knew that his unit had received basic training at what was called at that time Camp Custer, after George Custer, General Custer, later became Fort Custer and it is outside the Battle Creek, Michigan.
My grandfather was born in Michigan, though spent most of his life in the Canadian province of Ontario. But when the US entered World War I in 1917, he enlisted in the US Army and was trained in Camp Custer. And it is from there, from the 85th division trained at Camp Custer, that regiments were selected to fight in Russia in 1918-1919: that’s the Polar Bear Expedition or operation.
Over a hundred US troops were killed in fighting, scores of others died because of disease and other ailments, probably hundreds wounded. There is no telling how many Russian citizens were killed by the American troops during that period.
And what happened, almost four years ago now, a documentary film was made and shown in the state of Michigan where Camp Custer is. And amongst other people attending the show and praising the so-called Polar Bear Expedition was the senior senator from the state of Michigan, Carl Levin, who at the occasion of the unveiling of the film, stated, and I’m quoting from a Michigan newspaper at the time in 2009: “It is a perfect time for us to meet, a perfect place. There are lessons to be learned in history, there are lessons here.”
I’m not sure which lessons Senator Levin was referring to but the fact that for the last four years the United States has renewed its claim to the Arctic Ocean, at the expense of other nations, Canada in the first instance, but Russia most directly, one would guess. The fact that the US is celebrating its first effort in the Arctic region, the first combat operation against Russia in 1918 and 1919, I think is something worth noting.
Robles: So, this was on Russian territory, it was on Russian soil and this involved…
Rozoff: Yes, I remember my grandfather telling me, again I have to go back a number of years, I tend to recall him saying he was deployed in Murmansk. But what I’ve read on the subject subsequently suggests that it’s not terribly far from there, Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and that the US troops were sent there, the traditional understanding of it evidently is that the British war minister at the time, who was Winston Churchill, prevailed upon the American president, Woodrow Wilson, to deploy the troops, supposedly for a number of objectives, one of which was to secure armaments that had been stored there during the war before the Russian Revolution and the withdrawal of Russia from the war.
The second of all was really to fight the newly founded government in Russia, the Bolshevik government. And thirdly to support Czech Legion, which were Czechoslovak, for the most part Czech, soldiers, who had served in the Russian Army during World War I and then became anti-government fighters against the government after the Revolution of November 1917.
So, I think the third factor, that is supporting the Czech Legion, is a more plausible explanation for the involvement of the US troops and suggests that nothing less than countering the Russian government at that time and ultimately overthrowing it was the intent of the deployment of the American soldiers.
Robles: I see. Can you tell us any details about the operation that people might not have ever heard about?
Rozoff: With what reading I’ve done on the subject, it wasn’t of course the entire division that was sent. It was, I believe, two or perhaps three, regiments from the 85th Division that were deployed.
They arrived in Archangel at the very beginning of September of 1918 and at least according to one account I’ve read they were placed under British command, There were evidently British armed forces in the area as well.
The British supposedly had arrived in Archangel a month earlier, early August of 1918, and apparently the Russian forces had already moved the armaments or the materiel that the British intended to seize or secure, and that led to an expedition up river evidently, the Dvina River, with active fighting between indigenous Russian forces and American troops.
And by most accounts, early on, this was wintertime of course, it was maybe in October or so, the American campaign clearly had come to a dead end; it wasn’t successful. Their attempts to link up with the Czech troops fighting the government of Moscow were unsuccessful. And it was prolonged into the summer of 1919, but ultimately abandoned.
The casualties again that I…actually I’ve seen by one account an estimated 110 American soldiers were killed in fighting with Russian forces.
Robles: And this was actually US troops on Russian territory killing Russians.
Rozoff: People defending their soil, their territory.
Robles: Why were they placed under UK Command?
Rozoff: I suspect because the fact that British soldiers have been sent to the same area, the Archangel-Murmansk region, a month earlier to prepare, it was easier for them to get there I guess. But we know that Britain had played a role in the interim period between the February Revolution in 1917 in Russia and the October one, that is during the Provisional Government of the Kerensky period, in trying to secure the continued involvement of the Russian Government, whatever it was, whatever it turned out to be, in the war.
And the Kerensky government indeed, I’m sure under the pressure and perhaps no little bribery from Britain, France and the United States, did continue Russian involvement in the war, one which cost several million Russian lives.
Mr. Rick Rozoff is the manager and the owner of the stop NATO website and mailing list, and a regular contributor to the Voice of Russia.