The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America's Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919

The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America's Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919

by James Carl Nelson


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In the brutally cold winter of 1919, 5,000 Americans battled the Red Army 600 miles north of Moscow. We have forgotten. Russia has not.

"AN EXCELLENT BOOK." —Wall Street Journal • "INCREDIBLE." — John U. Bacon • "EXCEPTIONAL.”  — Patrick K. O’Donnell • "A MASTER OF NARRATIVE HISTORY."  — Mitchell Yockelson • "GRIPPING." — Matthew J. Davenport • "FASCINATING, VIVID." — Minneapolis Star Tribune 

An unforgettable human drama deep with contemporary resonance, award-winning historian James Carl Nelson's The Polar Bear Expedition draws on an untapped trove of firsthand accounts to deliver a vivid, soldier's-eye view of an extraordinary lost chapter of American history—the Invasion of Russia one hundred years ago during the last days of the Great War.

In the winter of 1919, 5,000 U.S. soldiers, nicknamed "The Polar Bears," found themselves hundreds of miles north of Moscow in desperate, bloody combat against the newly formed Soviet Union's Red Army. Temperatures plummeted to sixty below zero. Their guns and their flesh froze. The Bolsheviks, camouflaged in white, advanced in waves across the snow like ghosts.

The Polar Bears, hailing largely from Michigan, heroically waged a courageous campaign in the brutal, frigid subarctic of northern Russia for almost a year. And yet they are all but unknown today. Indeed, during the Cold War, two U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, would assert that the American and the Russian people had never directly fought each other. They were spectacularly wrong, and so too is the nation's collective memory.

It began in August 1918, during the last months of the First World War: the U.S. Army's 339th Infantry Regiment crossed the Arctic Circle; instead of the Western Front, these troops were sailing en route to Archangel, Russia, on the White Sea, to intervene in the Russian Civil War. The American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, had been sent to fight the Soviet Red Army and aid anti-Bolshevik forces in hopes of reopening the Eastern Front against Germany. And yet even after the Great War officially ended in November 1918, American troops continued to battle the Red Army and another, equally formiddable enemy, "General Winter," which had destroyed Napoleon's Grand Armee a century earlier and would do the same to Hitler's once invincible Wehrmacht.

More than two hundred Polar Bears perished before their withdrawal in July 1919. But their story does not end there. Ten years after they left, a contingent of veterans returned to Russia to recover the remains of more than a hundred of their fallen brothers and lay them to rest in Michigan, where a monument honoring their service still stands.

In the century since, America has forgotten the Polar Bears' harrowing campaign. Russia, notably, has not, and as Nelson reveals, the episode continues to color Russian attitudes toward the United States. At once epic and intimate, The Polar Bear Expedition masterfully recovers this remarkable tale at a time of new relevance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062852779
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 255,569
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

James Carl Nelson received the 2017 Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Colonel Joseph Alexander Award for Biography. He is the author of three acclaimed histories of the American experience in World War I: I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War; Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War I; and The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War. A former staff writer for the Miami Herald, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Table of Contents

Author's Note: The Polar Bears ix

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 The March To Intervention 3

Chapter 2 Over Where 17

Chapter 3 To Russia. With Angst 27

Chapter 4 We're Here Because We're Here 39

Chapter 5 Archangel 47

Chapter 6 Upriver 53

Chapter 7 The Romance Of Company A 63

Chapter 8 The Strangest Fighting Mission Ever Undertaken 71

Chapter 9 The Bridge 77

Chapter 10 Onega 83

Chapter 11 Storm Clouds 89

Chapter 12 Friends And Comrades 95

Chapter 13 Verst 445 103

Chapter 14 Armistice Day, Part 1 109

Chapter 15 Armistice Day, Part 2 117

Chapter 16 The Pinega 127

Chapter 17 The Lonely Death Of Francis Cuff 133

Chapter 18 Medicine Men 139

Chapter 19 A Thanksgiving Of Sorts 145

Chapter 20 Better Than No War At All 153

Chapter 21 K Means Kodish 163

Chapter 22 The Sad Case Of Sergeant Young 171

Chapter 23 The Devil Comes To Nijni Gora 181

Chapter 24 Flight 193

Chapter 25 Vistafka 201

Chapter 26 To What End 215

Chapter 27 Why Did We Go To Russia 223

Chapter 28 The Ballad Of Bolshie Ozerhi 235

Chapter 29 Getting Out 247

Chapter 30 The Gulag Amerikanski 259

Chapter 31 A Return To Russia 269

Epilogue 283

Acknowledgments 285

Notes 287

Bibliography 295

Index 299

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