When President Woodrow Wilson agreed to send American troops to northern Russia in 1918, it was only to guard stores in Archangel. But it didn’t take long for the Americans to find themselves in combat with Bolshevik soldiers. Author James Carl Nelson tells the story in his book The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919. Note: This interview was originally broadcast in February
Most of the men were from Michigan and Wisconsin and trained at what was then called Camp Custer near Battle Creek. Nelson says commanders wanted men who were used to cold weather because of the harsh winter conditions in Russia. Nelson says they endured brutal conditions and fought heroically. But he says it was for a mission that the soldiers never really understood.
What became known as the Polar Bear Expedition started because Russia had made a separate peace to leave World War I after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Nelson says that allowed German troops, who had been fighting on two fronts, to move closer to Paris. He says commanders hoped to draw German troops back to the east.
Even after the Armistice brought World War I to an end on November 11th, 1918, the Polar Bear Expedition continued. Nelson says soldiers questioned why they were still in Russia. He says the expedition is a “bizarre footnote to World War I.” Nelson says no direct line can be drawn from the Polar Bear Expedition to relations between the U.S. and Russia today. But he says the book shows a glimmer of the start of mistrust between two nations.