The other forgotten war

Madison, WI

The Korean War has often been called the “Forgotten War.” This centennial year of

our participation in WWI recalls another forgotten but nevertheless signature event that

took place at the same time: our invasion of the USSR. It is significant not only because

of our incursion onto Russian soil but also because most of the action took place after the

Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice ended the war with Germany. This is the account of what

has been called the Polar Bear Expedition or, more broadly, the American Expeditionary

Force North Russia. This intervention began in August 1918 and ended in April 1920.

It involved sending American troops to both the western and eastern sides of Russia.

In this decision lay a number of conflicting issues that made the presence in Russia

questionable, and to this day resurrects passions felt in Russia.

After the Bolsheviks took over power from Czarist Russia in 1917 they made a

separate peace agreement with Germany. This effectively took out an attempt by the

Allies to conduct a combat front in the East, thereby weakening the German efforts on the

Western Front. Great Britain and France put pressure on President Wilson to assist in

reinforcing the North Russia campaign. A key objective was to prevent huge stockpiles

of Allied war materials, stored in Archangel on the west and Vladivostok on the eastern

sides of Russia, from falling into the hands of either the Germans or the Bolsheviks.

Under pressure from Great Britain and Russia, President Wilson reluctantly agreed to a

limited participation by American doughboys with an understanding that these troops

would only be used for safeguarding stockpiled war materials. But, as we shall see, that

level of participation never became a reality.

In July 1918 the Army’s 85th Division, comprised mostly of recruits from Michigan

and Wisconsin, having completed training at Camp Custer in Michigan, left for duty on

the Western Front. President Wilson sent a directive to General Pershing to send some

troops to assist the British and French in reinforcing the Eastern Front in Russia.

Pershing prepared new orders for several regiments of the 85th Division to join the

British and French troops in Russia. The American troops would be under direct

control of the British Command.

President Wilson, realizing there were huge supplies of war materials in and near

Vladivostok on the eastern side of Russia, ordered the War Department to arrange for

a deployment of troops to protect the supplies and rail stock in that part of Russia. By

sending troops to the far eastern edge of Russia it was hoped they could prevent a

Czech Legion, that helped the Allied cause, from being destroyed by the increasingly

strong Communist Red Army. Additionally, Japan was building a large presence in

Siberia, and that was of concern for political and business reasons. The US did not

want to get involved with the civic and military infighting that was going on with

various Russian combatants. These included the Bolsheviks, Cossack guerrilla bands

and White Russians. This made the military mission for the American Expeditionary

Force and its commander, General William Graves, in the East an extremely vague

one. To quote the memo General Graves received from Secretary of War Newton

Baker, …”the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow is watch

your step, you will be walking on eggs with dynamite.”

What followed at both the western and eastern sides of Russia was, for the US,

anything but a guarding of supplies or safeguarding the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the

west the Bolsheviks were confronted by the Allies who were trying to assist the Czech

Legion that had been fighting the Germans but were facing annihilation by the Red

Army. Under British leadership about 5,000 US men, mostly members of the 339th

Infantry Regiment from Michigan and Wisconsin, found themselves in battle along a

haphazard disjointed front of several hundred miles. The US was embroiled in a civic

struggle among the Bolsheviks, various Cossack groups and the White Russian forces,

the latter trying to defeat the Bolsheviks. It was an impossible situation, a military

quagmire. Coupled with the severe cold, at times reaching -60F, the results were

casualties due to military action, frostbite, accidents and illness including cases of

the Spanish flu.

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of Russia, in the vicinity of Vladivostok, about 8,000

American soldiers, mostly recruits from Camp Fremont, California, and a couple of

regiments from the Philippines, took up duty by mid-August 1918 under the command of

General Graves. As in the western part of Russia, their mission was to guard the

immense amount of supplies, including hundreds of American train engines and cars.

Germany by now was near collapse. The mission of guarding supplies was to

maintain a neutral position and keep the Trans-Siberian Railway open. The infighting

that was occurring among the Cossacks, the White Russians and the Bolsheviks made it

impossible for the American troops to stay neutral. In trying to guard and maintain

certain sectors of the rail lines, they were under attack from one faction or another. Also,

there was concern that the Japanese were gaining influence over that part of the East,

something America did not want.

With an ill-defined mission and the harsh conditions in Russia, troop morale was low;

instances of small mutinies occurred within the ranks. Members of Congress called for

an immediate recall of the troops. American families also petitioned Congress to put an

end to the no-win position of the US. By April, 1919 General Pershing ordered complete

withdrawal. This was accomplished immediately in the western part of Russia, but it

would not be completed in the eastern section until April 20, 1920.

When the withdrawal was completed, over 400 Americans had lost their lives during this

occupation, This included approximately 127 killed in combat and from battle-related

injuries, illness, accidents and disease. Those who lived through that post-Armistice

never forgot that little-known piece of American military history. To this day, Russia has

reminded us of the incursion of America onto Russian soil. On the centennial of this

action, may we pay tribute to those Americans who served and sacrificed during this other

“Forgotten War” when the rest of the world was celebrating the end of WWI

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