From 1918 through the beginning of 1920, the U.S. sent two separate and distinct forces on missions to Russia. The first of these, the American Expeditionary Force-Siberia, composed of 7,950 troops of the 12th, 13th and 62nd Infantry Regiments of the 8th Division, and the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, arrived on Russian soil on 15AUG1918 with the express purpose of assisting White Russian forces by guarding and operating the Trans-Siberian railway. Their mission was clear and well-defined and they suffered a total of 189 deaths before leaving Russia on 01APR1920. A full accounting exists for their troops during their time in theater with none missing in action and no bodies of those who died in theater unrecovered.
That was not so for the second force sent to Russia though. On 04SEPT1918, the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (now most commonly known as the ‘Polar Bears’), composed of some 500 troops from the 339th Infantry Regiment, the 310th Engineers, and other ancillary units – all of the 85th Division – landed at Archangel and began operations under a similar mission. Ostensibly they were a security force designed to assist the British and Czech forces there in the policing of the Soviet Red Army operating against White Russian supply lines. And while the mission of neither American unit in Russia was supposed to have been one of offensive combat, the ANREF nevertheless found themselves operating in such a role, and as such suffered battle losses. Following on their withdrawal from Archangel in early June, 1919, the official report of all casualties taken (as of that October) was 553, with 109 of those KIA, some 30 MIA and at least 4 POW’s.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the casualties suffered by the Polar Bears – and one indicative of things to come – was the disappearance of some of these listed as MIA who it was thought may have been taken prisoner by Red forces and never reported as such. Today, when one thinks of U.S. POW/MIA issues, one immediately thinks of the war in Vietnam. That conflict well illustrated the willingness of a Communist enemy to hang on to POW’s and MIA’s which they either held or had knowledge of to be used as bargaining chips to their advantage. However, our issues with returning POW’s and accounting for MIA’s in theaters associated with Communist regimes didn’t have their beginnings in Southeast Asia. Instead they have their antecedents in the very beginning of the Communist presence in Russian governance in 1918 and U.S. relations with them. It can be asserted that of the Polar Bears, more than the 4 men released by the Soviets had been taken prisoner, for as late as 1929 escapees to the west from the Soviet state were reporting having seen American army officers and men in Soviet prisons and concentration camps that had been there since the war. Most of the men who were suggested as having been in Soviet hands during that time (in very few cases were names ever known or remembered by those reporting these sightings) had long since been declared as Killed in Action-Body Not Recovered by the American government and thus were considered legally dead. Though overtures were made through the years by the U.S. government to gain an accounting for these men, the Soviets refused to cooperate until the United States recognized the Soviet government as the official governing body of Russia – which the U.S. was unprepared to do. The implication then was clear: only recognizance of the Soviets would lead to any accounting of U.S. service personnel that may, or may not, have been, or once been, in their hands. The Soviet modus operando for the next six decades had thus been set...
The disposition of the Missing in Action was still another matter, many of whom could have been located, though with effort. In the confused and often guerilla-style fighting effected there, burials of soldier dead were often hurried and makeshift, with both grave markers and location maps often improvised under something less than perfect circumstances. Adding to this, local citizens sympathetic to Red forces, as well as Red soldiers in the area, were known to have disinterred and moved individual bodies of U.S. soldier dead to mass graves. Deaths from wounds or disease swelled the numbers of missing even well behind the front lines when the harsh weather conditions of the region (heavy snow and high winds) would occasionally destroy visual evidence of a grave, sometimes even just overnight. Spring thaws produced large swells of rivers and streams as well, turning huge tracts of land to bogs into which graves would wash yards away from where they had originated in frozen ground. In the end, there were 4 POW’s released and 112 bodies of the dead and MIA brought home in June, 1919 following the return of the troops. After that, the Soviets refused to attempt any recovery of U.S. MIA or allow anyone else to do so.
Then in the fall of 1929, in a rare show of good faith, the Soviets permitted a mission composed of former Polar Bear personnel, working under the aegis of the American Legion, onto the former battlefields to search for their missing comrades. The expedition spent two months in the area and returned home in September of that year with 86 sets of remains, all identified to the best ability of those working under the primitive forensics of the times. The majority of these men were laid to rest in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, surrounding the impressive ‘Polar Bear Memorial’ built there and dedicated to them, while some went to France and were laid to rest in the Aisne-Marne American cemetery there. The 1929 expedition was followed, in 1934, by another expedition, which returned with a further 14 sets of remains; this following upon President Roosevelt’s official recognition of the Soviet government the year before, despite already rising tensions over which government would foot the bill for the ill-fated 1918-1920 American portion of the Allied intervention. Since that time there has been no further accounting for remaining U.S. North Russia MIA’s.
Listed here is a general accounting of the men returned in 1929, as well as a listing of those still known to be MIA in Northern Russia. (Those still MIA are also contained on the full list elsewhere on this site.) However, no full, official list of those men reported as returned in 1934 has turned up as yet and the manifest of those returned in 1919 was lost shortly after the return. There was also, at the time, some controversy concerning the actual identities of those returned in 1919. In fact, all of the ‘official’ listings for the North Russia Expeditionary Force casualties – those returned and those MIA – are, at best, inconsistent, and extended research into the issue is a project unto itself and will proceed alongside the continuing work on the full Doughboy MIA list.
Read more: Sideshow in Russia