ESCANABA, Mich. (WJMN) – During World War I, in September of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sent 5,500 soldiers to Archangel, Russia to fight in the Russian civil war. These soldiers became known as the Polar Bears, named because of the area where they served.
The Polar Bears were sent out to Russia to guard civilians and equipment. However, upon arrival, the soldiers were put on the front lines without the appropriate weapons, equipment, or even warm enough clothes.
Most of these men were from the Midwest, and 100 of them were from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Polar Bears were picked based on the theory that soldiers from this region may be better prepared for the snowy and bitter cold temperatures of Russia.
As the war came to an end on November 11th, 1918, the Polar Bears were still fighting.
“So, by Christmas of that same year, the war has been done since November 11 and their families are screaming ‘Bring them home. Why? Bring them home!’ And they couldn’t,” said Ann Jousma Miller, the Curator of the Upper Peninsula Military Museum. “Because at that cold time of the year, the only mode of transportation were the rivers and they were all frozen in. So, with the outcry from their families to bring them home, our boys from the Upper Peninsula, all 100 of them, never got home until July of 1919.”
After the war and after the Polar Bears returned home, a few of them returned to Russia to retrieve the remains of their fellow soldiers.
“Now, once they were home, about five young men who had served as Polar Bears, went back to Archangel, Russia,” explained Jousma Miller. “Now, Russia was not our friend at that time, I can tell you, and so they really wanted to bring some of the remains home. They had to go in and disguise as peasants and work with the locals who are supportive to bring back 86 remains, and they’re buried in Troy, Michigan near Detroit. And there is a polar bear monument dedicated to them at that location.
Some of the stories of the U.P. Polar Bears can show how much these men went through during their time in Russia all for a war that was already over.
“There are several personal stories about individuals and one I will point out to you is Peter Keshick from the Hannahville tribe and he was a polar bear,” said Jousma Miller. “He was wounded three times and still managed to make it home. There was a young man from Brimley, who was shot in the field and his foot was shattered, and there were no medics, and so another gentleman from Crystal Falls had to end up cutting his foot off with the jackknife. So yes, they went through a great deal in their line of service. And yet, you know, it’s one of those questions of war as to why? It was a civil war in Russia, and yet we got called into it”
If you are interested in learning more about the Polar Bears, or if you’re interested in visiting their exhibit in the U.P. Military Museum, you can find their webpage here.