Troy, Mich. — At sunrise, following a sleepless night of trudging through the cold swamps of northern Russia, a couple of men from Detroit made breakfast. Corporal Morris Foley and Private Bill Henkelman brewed tea and opened a can of corned beef. As Foley prepared to finish the last of the beef, Henkelman spoke up: “Let’s save enough for after while.” Foley refused. “There might not be no after while.”
It turned out there wasn’t, at least not for Foley. Later that morning — on September 20, 1918, by the village of Seltso on the Dvina River — his company formed a skirmish line and charged a nest of Russian machine gunners. Bullets ripped through Foley’s face and neck. “Foley had his jaw shot off,” reported a sergeant. Somehow, the young man survived his brutal injury long enough to join a retreat. He died near his original position and was buried close to where he had scarfed down his beef.
Today, Foley’s recovered remains rest in Troy, Mich., in the 200-acre White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery, alongside the graves of 55 other American soldiers who died fighting Communists in the frozen wilds of northern Russia in 1918 and 1919. They’re marked by one of the most striking sculptures to be seen anywhere, let alone at a cemetery: a snarling polar bear, carved in white marble by the artist Leon Hermant. It’s a tribute to what some U.S. soldiers took to calling themselves a century ago: the “Polar Bears.” They were the first and only Americans to fight a shooting war against Russian Communists.
Few of their countrymen know anything about the Polar Bears. Ronald Reagan didn’t. “Tonight, I want to speak to the people of the Soviet Union,” he said in his State of the Union address in 1984. “It’s true our governments have had serious differences. But our sons and daughters have never fought each other in war.” Richard Nixon made the same mistake in 1972, in a televised speech from the Kremlin: “Our two countries have much in common. Most important of all, we have never fought each other in war.” Yet more than 5,000 Americans did fight the Russians, in what was at once an odd coda to World War I, a minor episode in the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, and a prelude to the main geopolitical event of the second half of the 20th century: the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“They felt forgotten by their government,” says Mike Grobbel, a retired GM executive whose grandfather served in Russia. “Our job is to make sure they’re not forgotten.” Grobbel runs the Polar Bear Memorial Association, which manages an extensive website and commemorates the Polar Bears every Memorial Day with a ceremony at White Chapel. It takes an effort such as his in part because the Polar Bears are all gone: The last veteran died years ago.
If World War I for most Americans was “over there” — a term drawn from a popular song — then the fighting just below the Arctic Circle in Russia was “way over there.” A popular account of the conflict, The Ignorant Armies, by E. M. Halliday, took its title from the final line of “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s mid-19th-century poem: “And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” As Halliday explained, “few campaigns have ever been fought by American soldiers in greater ignorance of what they were about.”
The man who ordered the mission didn’t seem to have a strong sense of purpose. Woodrow Wilson offered “a classic example of presidential vacuity and short-sightedness,” writes James Carl Nelson in his just-released book The Polar Bear Expedition. Wilson’s decision to dispatch the troops came in the wake of Russia’s peace treaty with Germany, which shut down the eastern front and allowed the kaiser to turn the focus of his warmaking westward. The basic idea was to support an Allied effort to maintain a front in the east, to connect with a Czech force that found itself stranded in Russia, and to recruit and train Russian locals to fight against the new Communist government led by Lenin in Moscow. Yet Wilson’s own statements about U.S. goals were rambling and contradictory. George F. Kennan, the legendary diplomat, savaged them in his 1958 book The Decision to Intervene.
The grand strategy didn’t much matter to the ordinary soldiers of the Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment. Comprising mostly men from Michigan — and sometimes called “Detroit’s Own” — it gathered initially near Battle Creek, at Camp Custer. This may have seemed a bad omen, with the memory of General George Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn about as fresh in their minds as the fall of Saigon is in ours. Whatever the case, as they shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1918, most of them assumed that they were bound for the trenches of France.
General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, had a different idea. He figured that the Michiganders, accustomed to cold forests, were fit for the duty the president had ordered. Once in England, in perhaps another ominous sign, the men received a briefing from Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer best known for his amazing survival story after ice crushed his ship, the Endurance, in 1915.
Finally they headed around the North Cape of Scandinavia and into the Russian port of Archangel, where the first of them disembarked on September 5. Before long, they were in a strange land fighting “Bolos,” their nickname for the Bolsheviks. They kept on fighting right through Armistice Day on November 11. As soldiers on the western front set down their weapons and celebrated peace, the men of Company B found themselves locked in combat against the Bolos near the village of Toulgas, with no end in sight. And things were about to get worse: Winter was coming.
A little more than a century earlier, Napoleon had learned the hard way about the dangers of the Russian winter. Adolf Hitler would discover them anew in the 1940s. The American effort of 1918–19 lacked the ambition of those invasions, but it encountered the same hazards in an environment of permanent polar vortex. Temperatures dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and continued to plunge. Americans could perform outdoor guard duty for only a few minutes at a time. They took care not to touch their bare skin to metal weapons for fear of freezing it and tearing it off. Supplies were limited as well. In a memoir, A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks, Private Godfrey Anderson describes wrapping the corpses of soldiers in blankets, laying them in coffins, and closing the lids. Later, a sergeant berates him: “Dead men don’t need no blankets.” Daylight was in short supply, too. In December at these high latitudes, the darkness lasted 20 hours.
It was enough to sap the morale even of patriotic troops. On November 14, Colonel George E. Stewart, commander of the forces, requested an immediate withdrawal. “We have performed most excellent service under the most trying conditions of cold and snow and wet and miry marshes,” he cabled. “Original object of expedition no longer exists.” His pleas changed nothing and the Polar Bears became confused about why they were still fighting and dying when the war supposedly had ended. As the weeks wore on, reports of mutinies made their way into the press. Historians have differed on the seriousness of the insubordination — some claim that reporters sensationalized ordinary disgruntlement — but there can be no doubt that the men badly wanted to return home.
Amid the frustration, many Polar Bears performed acts of heroism. Twenty-three received the Distinguished Service Cross. One of them was Corporal Clement Grobbel, the grandfather of the man who runs today’s memorial association. Another was Sergeant Aulbert Cox, who rose from his hospital bed, grabbed a Lewis gun, and fought off enemy troops who had launched a surprise attack from the rear. Corporal Robert Green earned recognition for dashing across 200 yards of open space and charging alone into a building, where he captured 14 Bolo snipers. In all, some 235 Polar Bears lost their lives on the soon-to-be-forgotten expedition.
On February 16, 1919, Wilson ordered the Americans out of Russia. Nothing could happen immediately because of frozen waterways, and so the extraction took until summer. When a few of the homeward-bound Polar Bears reached the wharves in the French port of Brest, someone recognized them: “That must be the outfit that went to Archangel. Wonder what ever happened to them.” S. L. A. Marshall, then a young man but later a brigadier general, remarked: “They had to return to remind us that they had ever gone.”
This article appears as “Remember the Polar Bears” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.