The Washtenaw Polar Bears
Local soldiers in Russia's civil war
by Josh Warn
If you live through a winter, is it hyperbole to call it brutal? Probably not for Ethol Fred Nordman, LaVerne Drake, Robert Granville, and other young Washtenaw County men who welcomed January 1919 fighting for their lives near the Arctic Circle. Certainly not hyperbole for Milan's Joseph Cwenk, their comrade, who lost his life that month in a battle with the Bolsheviks at Ust-Padenga, Russia, a casualty of the undeclared, almost unintentional, war called the Polar Bear Expedition.
The men had not signed up to fight Russians. The U.S. Army had assigned them to the 339th Infantry, the 310th Engineers, or the 337th Field Hospital company. Training in June 1918 at Camp Custer near Battle Creek, they thought they were headed for duty in World War I on the battlefields of France. A clue came that plans were changing when, during later training in England, the army issued long underwear--in August. "It is terrible to wear in this kind of weather," one Michigan corporal wrote in his diary. Then they traded in their standard Enfield rifles for older Russian-made ones, boarded troop ships at Bristol, and sailed north for more than a week.
The "Spanish influenza" struck all three of their vessels, which, somehow, carried no medical supplies. Thirty soldiers died before landfall. Many sick men were carried down the gangplanks when the transports docked on a blustery September 4, 1918, in Archangel (now known in English by its Russian name, "Archangelsk.")
British and French troops were already fighting in northern Russia against the Bolsheviks, who had overthrown the government the previous fall. Pressed to join them, president Woodrow Wilson agreed to a limited mission to protect war materiel cached by the Allies in Archangel. But by the time the Americans got there, the "Reds" already had the weapons. The new arrivals, known as the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF), were placed under British command and sent to the front lines to support the anti-communist "White" Russian forces.
days, they were in "terrible" country, with "nothing but swamps and marshes and tall snake grass, and the Bolsheviki hide in the snake grass," Arthur Marsh wrote to his parents back home in Ann Arbor. Yet all that the public knew, even a month later, was summed up in a headline in the Daily Times News: "Ann Arbor Soldiers in North Russia." The three-sentence article concluded: "Apparently the 85th Division, after landing in England, was split up."
Battles and skirmishes continued through the fall and winter. Yet the official news from Archangel was upbeat. The DTN carried wire service stories of "Game is Plenty for our Men In Russia" and news that some "soldiers are even billeted in a building built as a hunting lodge for Tsar Nicholas but never used."
Most of the letters home sounded cheerful. Corporal Frank Brewster wrote that he was "quite a bit heavier and hard as nails ... this outdoors is great stuff ... so if I sidestep the whizbangs until the last inning here, I will have done what 'bit' I can and gained several things besides."
Robert Granville's letters reflect the gaiety enjoyed by the few soldiers who stayed in Archangel, a town flooded with wealthy tsarist refugees and internationals fleeing the chaos of civil war in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Granville, a teacher in Ann Arbor, wrote to his niece, Nora Frisbie, announcing his evening plans to "step off a few dances. We are teaching the girls the American style of dancing and they are getting quite proficient." (These letters are available, along with an array of other materials, in the Polar Bear Digital Collection at the U-M's Bentley Historical Library.)
Even one of the civilians in the theater wrote positively about it. Frank Olmstead of Ann Arbor was local secretary for the Young Men's Christian Association. In a letter published by the DTN in February he writes that the audience for his talks and prayer meetings included British, French, and White Russian troops--and maybe even the Reds: "Now I've got a small phonograph and will give concerts in all the dugouts, the Bolsheviks can also enjoy the music ... provided they're not shelling."
In their lighthearted letters, the soldiers were obeying official policy--one lieutenant had been court-martialed after the Detroit papers printed complaints from his private correspondence. The expedition commander, Colonel George E. Stewart, grumbled that soldiers' letters should have been better censored: "Pessimism has no place in the mind of a soldier."
Stewart's own private view, though, was far from optimistic. His November 14, 1918, cable to the War Department is often quoted: "We have performed ... under the most trying conditions of cold and snow and wet and miry marshes ... insanitary, primitive conditions ... mistrust permeates the Russian mind. Original object of expedition no longer exists. Allies have not been received with the hospitality ... My inference is plain. Immediate consideration requested."
A young Ann Arbor lawyer's letter home, reprinted in the Daily Times News on February 10 under the headline "All is Well in Russia Cables Lt. C.E. Lewis," conformed to the military's upbeat requirements. Evidently aware of the reports of dire conditions faced by the Polar Bear soldiers, Charles Lewis's message to his parents read, "Don't credit exaggerated reports about conditions here." But Lewis himself criticized the expedition in a postwar letter to a military scholar. He complained about the soldiers' poor "Shackleton boots," and the "unquestionably inferior" Russian rifles. He went on to call the allies' multinational intelligence units a "grave error" and the command structure, under British officers, "an abuse of American troops."
Enough bad news eventually filtered through that on December 30, 1918, the Ann Arbor paper reported plans for a mass meeting in Detroit under the headline, "339th Rescue is Demanded by Michigan People." Another article reported that Senator Townsend of Michigan and Senator Johnson of California "want a response from the government about what plans are for the troops in Russia." Townsend said family members had told him they'd heard that the American regiment in Archangel was outnumbered fifteen-to-one by the Bolsheviks.
Sympathy for the Bolshevik cause could be found easily in 1918 Detroit, home of a burgeoning industrial union movement and periodicals such as The Proletarian and First of May Magazine. Even Senator Johnson sounded radical as he expressed his frustration. "We are living today under an autocracy just as sure as if we had a king or a Kaiser," he thundered. While taking pains to distance himself from the revolutionaries, he told the Detroit News, "I would like to know what we are doing in Russia, now that the war is over." Townsend's concern was linked to the "stack of letters several inches thick," from families of soldiers who had trouble communicating with their men in Russia, and who, like the senator, were troubled by unresponsive federal bureaucracies.
A few days later, according to the Detroit Free Press, Senator Townsend heard from the Army chief of staff "that the matter was entirely out of the control of the War Department." The senator complained: "We are absolutely at the mercy of the president and Great Britain and they do not even tell us anything." Detroit mayor Oscar Marx decided to cancel the mass meeting, avoiding the chance of demonstrations by Detroit's thriving socialist and anarchist organizations.
The protests had set in motion the slow wheels of government, but the grip of winter would hold the ANREF in place until shipping could resume. The original mission of protecting war materiel had turned into a battle for survival. Arthur Marsh wrote of poor conditions, sugar costing $4.50 per pound, and feeling that "the world has forgotten that we are 'Somewhere in Russia.'"
As winter deepened, Ann Arborites finally read unvarnished reports of the war. On January 6, the local paper carried an AP story reporting that "Am. troops composed largely of Michigan men from the 339th infantry, fighting desperately near Kadish, have driven back Bolshevist troops which made an advance thrust.
"Shells falling on the frozen ground spread their zones of destruction twice as far as they would under normal conditions," the story continued. The wounded were evacuated in sleighs, "placed in deep skin bags [with] hot water bottles placed around them."
"We had an awful time, have had about 35 wounded and many killed," a Michigan lieutenant wrote in his diary. "Held here all night in the snow no overcoat no eats, and away below zero relieved at 5 AM." It was in such circumstances that Joseph Cwenk fell in battle later in the month.
President Wilson's desire to accommodate the British and French governments had turned out to have dreadful consequences for the soldiers and their families. Under the terms Wilson had laid out the doughboys might have been immediately withdrawn, but no such order came down. George F. Kennan, the diplomat and historian, laid the blame on Wilson: "He seems to have had no idea of the continuing process of persuasion, vigilance, and follow up necessary at this stage of the war to press decisions through ... Allied machinery."
The men's goal was just to get through it. When asked by soldiers on the edge of mutiny what they were fighting for, Colonel Steward answered, "For your lives."
Those Ann Arbor men assigned to the 337th Field Hospital Company faced different challenges. In a letter published by the DTN, Captain Kinyon of Ann Arbor describes "operating every minute of daylight"--which lasted only a few hours--"on soldiers and civilians of many kinds." Robert Granville, who later headed the Ann Arbor High English department, entertained Nora, his fifteen-year-old niece, with descriptions of the reindeer teams pulling sleighs across the river. Russian ladies, he says, laundered his clothes in the Dvina River through holes in the ice using fish oil soap: "I went around smelling like a Bolshevik until I could get some clean underwear."
While Granville may have managed to stay in Archangel all through the war, Nordman and other members of the hospital company took barges up the Dvina River, following the fighting. Nordman appears as "Pork Nardman [sic], one of our 'undertakers'" in soldier Godfrey Anderson's memoir, which is included in a collection called Quartered in Hell: the Story of the American North Russia Expeditionary Force, 1918-1919.
Anderson recalled how Nordman, working in the mortuary in the town of Shenkurst, displayed a determination to not let gruesome tasks wreck his evenings: "when a Russian was expected to momentarily give up the ghost, [Nordman] would pace impatiently in the hallway outside the door with a plugging stick, profanely importuning the patient to 'hurry it up and quit stalling.'" The "undertaker" crew rarely escaped the scenes of death and dying. Once the flu arrived, Anderson wrote, "Russians seemed to have no resistance whatsoever." The two military hospitals were filled, as was the Russian civilian hospital. The hut behind their barracks was "full of corpses awaiting coffins, of which there was a shortage."
Some relief came when the flu epidemic had run its course, but by then winter and the Bolsheviks interfered with relaxation. The Polar Bear soldiers were dispersed on two narrow fronts in the British generals' idea of strategic positions. Allied strategists had vague intentions of using the North Russian forces to link up with the Czech Legion and other anti-Bolshevik contingents fighting in Siberia, but, for reasons historians toil to analyze, instead chose to withdraw, beginning the process in the spring as the rivers thawed. By late June the Americans had docked in New York. Out of 4,925 members of the force, 225 men lost their lives. Of that number, sixty-four died of disease, and about thirty were missing in action.
Back in Washtenaw County the Polar Bears' lives resumed. City directories from the 1920s and onward show that Ethol Fred Nordman drove trucks, got married, and later managed delivery routes for a dairy. LaVerne Drake returned to Ypsilanti, married, and worked as a "stock keeper." But the bonds formed in the frozen war zone endured in some veterans' lives. The Polar Bear Association was formed, and Manchester's Charles Lewis served as treasurer of the Detroit branch from 1926 to 1930. If there was a Washtenaw County branch, its records are hidden, but there were informal contacts. Adolph Schneeberger, about whom Robert Granville joked, "sneeze when you say that," followed his family into the grocery business and later owned the Old West Side market that is now Jefferson Market & Cakery. His daughter-in-law, Jeanette Schneeberger, reminisced in a recent phone interview that people would speak of "Mutt and Jeff" when they saw the diminutive teacher alongside the six-foot-three grocer.
The Polar Bear Association held reunions, but it owed its existence to more than camaraderie. The members built one monument in Sparta and another in Troy. One of the group's stated aims was to bring home the bodies of comrades buried in Russia. Perhaps their largest accomplishment was a trip to Russia in 1929. Through feats of political and diplomatic negotiation the members, with funding from the federal government and the state, sent a delegation to the area of the 1918-19 battles. After tense confrontations with Soviet officials, they returned with the remains of eighty-four of their comrades. Many of them, including Joseph Cwenk, rest near the statue of a huge polar bear at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy.
Thanks to the Bentley Historical Library and its Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collection, the Ann Arbor District Library, Mary Lirones, and Jeanette Schneeberger for their assistance in researching this article.
[Originally published in January, 2013.]