The Michigan Polar Bear Unit
UP Soldiers were part of Forgotten Troops during World War I
Wilson directed the then, War Department, to send 5,500 troops from Battle Creek’s Fort Custer. They were comprised of 339th infantry, 310th engineering, 85th field hospital, and ambulance companies. With over 95 percent from all over Michigan, the majority of these military members had slightly over a month’s formal training.
Many of these soldiers were from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the northern portion of the lower peninsula.
In July 1918 the troops travelled overseas with their ship arriving in Liverpool, England.
Upon arrival, orders changed and varied country military leaders entered disagreements. It was no longer just the French borders to defend, they were now bound for Russia. The main concern was the German forces would shift from Eastern Europe to the Russian border in the West.
Issued harsh, cold weather gear and provisions, they left and arrived in Archangel, Russia late summer 1918. They were referred to as the American North Russia Expeditionary force (ANREF).
The troops later referred to themselves as the Michigan Polar Bears.
Archangel is located on the White Sea off Finland’s upper portion. It is on the 64th geographic parallel, the same as Fairbanks, Alaska.
Simultaneously, well trained, and more experienced military troops were sent by the War Department to Vladivostok, Russia. This Siberian city is located on the Pacific Ocean. They were referred to as American Expeditionary Force Siberia (AEFS).
When the ANREF force arrived in Archangel they were put under British command of Major General Frederick Poole. From an American perspective, not a well-received order. The main military concern was that the German forces would shift from Europa’s eastern front to the western border tangent to Russia.
Poole directed the American forces to protect Archangel and the region. In particular the Russian military structures and British ships housing weapons, ammunition, food, limited medical supplies, and related provisions. In addition, assist in combat, the Czech Legion troops.
A short period of time, after arrival in Russia, a formal armistice was signed ending World War I. The ANREF military leaders and troops soon found themselves fighting with the Russians against Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks (later known as Communists).
This was the Russian Revolution and Americans were stuck in an environment of poor communications, winter setting in, and a very unclear mission. Coupled to this was a typical winter day offered less than six hours of day light,
Literally, as American troops were returning to the United States from Europe, the 5,500 ANREF troops were left behind and forgotten.
Accounts were documented of fighting in the forest, open fields, or on strategic railroads in -60 Fahrenheit temperatures and waist deep snow. Michigan Polar Bear troops were issued unfamiliar Russian rifles and side arms.
It was revealed that if you were shot in some body areas during the frigid cold weather, you may not be aware, wounds just froze over.
As winter 1919 wore on Michigan Polar Bear family members became vocal on why loved ones have not returned.
Massive family rallies occurred in Detroit and Grand Rapids. In addition, the U.S, Congress was petitioned to bring the troops home. On the Russian front, troops questioned what their mission is.
In May 1919, the ice in Archangel harbor, 130 miles below the Arctic Circle, begin to melt and recede. The Americans began their long sea and land journey back home.
Their departure was nearly eight months after World War I ended. Upon their arrival a massive welcome home was conducted at Detroit’s railroad station and on Belle Isle Park.
Out of the Michigan Polar Bear regiment, 245 men were killed, 305 wounded, 80 perished of Spanish Influenza (flu), and over 30 were missing in action.
Two of the solders who perished were from the Keweenaw Peninsula region:
• Private Frank Clish of Baraga, Michigan
• Private John P. Angrove of Painesdale, Michigan
Two other Upper Peninsula solders perished. They were from Stephenson and Menominee.
Twenty-three of the Polar Bear members received the Distinguished Service Cross.
The first Michigan Polar Bear survivor’s convention was held in Detroit in 1922.
In 1929 an American team returned to the Archangel region and recovered the remains of Michigan Polar Bear team members. These remains were interned at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Mich. with other remains. In 1930, the Polar Bear memorial was dedicated at White Chapel Cemetery.
It is reported the last Polar Bear member passed away in 2001.
An ironic factor is in public statements or speeches both Presidents Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan stated Americans and Russians have never fought each other.
Jeffery Brasie is a retired health care CEO. He frequently writes historic feature stories and op-eds for various Michigan newspapers. He is a U.S. Navy and U.S. Naval Reserve veteran and served on the public affairs staff of the secretary of the Navy. He grew up in northern Michigan and resides in suburban Detroit.