Myron Asire and the World War I Polar Bear Expedition

Pictured is the Polar Bear Monument in White Chapel Cemetery in downstate Troy. It was sculpted by Leon Hermant. (Courtesy photo)

Many of us have heard World War I stories about the trench warfare on the Western Front. But did you know that Michigan soldiers also served on the Eastern Front?

The American North Russia Expedition Force or “Polar Bear Expedition” was a contingent of approximately 5,000 American troops, from the 85th Division, mostly from Michigan and Wisconsin, who were part of an Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War between the ruling Bolshevik government and several anti-Communist “White” Russian armies.

Following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks had withdrawn from the Allies and made a separate peace with Germany. In September 1918 several units from the 85th Division were sent to Archangel (or Arkhangelsk), Russia, located 600 miles north of Moscow on the White Sea.

The original goal was to guard an Allied supply stockpile originally intended for the recently collapsed Eastern Front and keep the weapons out of both German and Bolshevik hands.

Unfortunately, by the time the Allied troops arrived, the supplies had already been captured and moved inland by the retreating Bolshevik forces. Led by British commanders who had additional anti-Bolshevik objectives beyond what had been approved by President Wilson, the American troops were soon engaged in pushing back the Bolshevik forces. The fronts became hundreds of miles long and were difficult to supply, maintain and protect.

One of the soldiers sent to Archangel was Myron Asire, a Marquette native who had worked as a mechanic for his father, Merwin Asire, at the Asire and Palmer garage in Marquette and had later moved to Detroit to work at the Cadillac Motor Co.

He was drafted in early 1918 as a private in Company A, 310th Engineers and received training at Camp Custer in Lower Michigan and in England. He arrived in Russia in early September.

When news of the armistice reached Marquette on Nov. 11, 1918, Myron’s parents assumed that he would return home safely. This was reinforced a few days later when they received a letter from him, dated Sept. 23, informing his parents that he was in excellent health.

But on Nov. 20, the Asires’ hopes were dashed when they received a telegram informing them that Myron had been killed in action on Oct. 14. It wasn’t until Christmas that they finally received a letter dated Oct. 30 informing them of the circumstances.

Myron had gone to the front with his company in early September, where they were under severe bombardment for 11 days. As the letter explained, “During this time one of the sergeants of the company was wounded while repairing some barbed wire. Private Asire went out under heavy shell fire to bring him in, and a shell struck him during his brave attempt.”

Myron died in Seltso, Russia. There are conflicting dates for his death (Oct. 12, Oct. 14 and Oct. 30, 1918) from various sources but the initial telegram listed Oct. 14. His body does not appear to have been recovered and he is listed on a memorial for the missing at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France.

The remaining men of the polar bear expedition spent the winter in Russia. After the armistice with Germany was signed, the official purpose of protecting Allied supplies was rendered invalid and the unstated purpose as an anti-Bolshevik force came to the fore.

This confusion about their real purpose along with the hardships of a Russian winter, poor food and Bolshevik propaganda led to poor morale among the remaining American troops.

By spring 1919 there were reports of mutiny among the troops, some real and some rumored, which were further sensationalized by the press. Finally the American troops were withdrawn in June 1919.

An October 1919 report in the Ludington Daily News listed 553 casualties : 109 killed in battle, 35 died of wounds, 81 from disease, 19 from accidents/other causes, 305 wounded and four POWs who had been released.