The "Polar Bears" - Detroit's 339th Infantry Invades Russia

Coat of Arms of the 339th Infantry

Most people are unaware that in the waning days of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sent American troops to invade the Russian port of Archangel. There are two different explanations, not necessarily incompatible:

  • The Allies wanted to secure resources provided by Russia for the war before the Russian Revolution in 1917 overthrew the czar and withdrew from the war; and
  • The Allies wanted to aid "White" Russian forces in their attempts to overthrow the year-old Bolshevik government.

Into this messy situation was sent the 339th Infantry, known as "Detroit's Own" because it was filled largely with recruits from Detroit. Sent first to England for training, the men were unaware of their assignment until their weapons were taken during drills and replaced with Russian rifles. They finally arrived in Russia in September of 1918, working under British control, and were split up and sent all over northern Russia to guard railroads and other important resources; they saw a large amount of combat, and suffered hundreds of casualties. They adopted their nickname of the "Polar Bears" during their time there.

While the situation obviously wore on the 339th, they managed some spectacular victories, and at one battle convinced the Bolshevik forces that Allied reinforcements had arrived by blowing up a captured cache of ammunition. That battle saw nearly 20 Soviet casualties for every American, and led Soviet enlisted men to threaten to shoot their superiors if another seige was ordered. The 339th remained in Russia for months after the Armistice ended the war in Europe, which damaged morale enough that there was an alleged mutiny by the troops in March of 1919.

After nearly a year in the Russian wilderness, the survivors of the 339th finally returned to Detroit. When they arrived, they were greeted by Mayor Couzens and over a thousand well-wishers, and were given a party on Belle Isle. The final casualties of the 339th didn't return to Detroit until 1929, when an expedition of five members returned to Russia to recover the bodies of 86 men killed in action. To this day, the work of the "Polar Bears" is memorialized by the 85th Division (of which the 339th Infantry was a part) through a rainbow colored battle streamer on the Division's flag.

Stories and Speculation

For those inclined towards war-time settings, one could always fictionalize the 339th itself, and play through the battles against Bolshevik forces, or perhaps more sinister opponents (Allies against Baba Yaga, anyone?). Moving away from the war itself, the operations at Archangel would be a perfect background for the archetypal shadowy figure with a sketchy past in the military. Finally, historian Ilya Somin argues in his book Stillborn Crusade that the Allies had many opportunities to overthrow the Bolshevik revolution, which provides a whole host of opportunities for alternate histories, running from World War II (how about a fascist Russia fully on the side of the Nazis?) through the modern day (no War on Terror without the Cold War conflict in Afghanistan).


The Detroit News has an article about the 339th and their place in Detroit history. Finally, the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan has an extensive collection of personal papers of members of the 339th.