Editor's note: This is the third of a six-part series honoring local veterans, leading up to the city of Paducah's inaugural American Hero Day celebration on Nov. 11.
By DAVID B. SNOW
When Americans battled the Russian Army on Russian soil, Kentuckians from across the state -- including Paducah and western Kentucky -- were there, but relatively few people know about the time.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the return of American soldiers, who called themselves "Polar Bears," from fighting in far northern Russia against the Red Army that had overthrown the tsarist government two years before. The story unfolds in 1918 as World War I was ending and the Russian civil war was just getting started.
James Columbia of Maysville is writing a book about the conflict. Of the 200 Kentuckians from among their ranks that he has been able to identify thus far, he has found the following soldiers from this area:
• McCracken County: Robert M. Adams, Perry C. Scott, Herman John Yopp.
• Fulton County: Preston McKee Johnson, Hubert Manalchos Nix.
• Graves County: Boyd Bottoms, Orbert Elmore Foy, Clay Jefferson West.
• Hickman County: Thomas E. Fergerson.
• Marshall County: Henry Clinton Miller.
What led the Americans to join British forces in northern Russia was the overthrow of the tsarist government in 1917. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, a revolutionary party that had formed in 1898, split at its congress in 1903, forming the Bolshevik (meaning "majority") and Menshevik ("minority") parties. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, formed their own party in 1912 and overthrew Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917.
The tsarist government was replaced by the Russian Provisional Government, which intended to provide soldiers to support the Allies in World War I. A civil war began between the Bolsheviks' Red Army and the White Army, which was formed by monarchists, capitalists and supporters of democratic socialism. This is where the Americans and British came in.
"It was the Russian Revolution; they just accidentally got in the middle of it," Columbia said of the Americans. "My understanding is the basic reason that we were there was that the old Russian government was in the war as an ally to England and France, and they were keeping Germany busy (on the eastern battle fronts while the other Allies fought on the western fronts).
"All of a sudden, the Russians made a pact with Germany to stop fighting, and all the other powers worried that if they didn't keep the Germans busy on that side, they could bring all those troops into France."
The British army put a huge stockpile of weapons and supplies at points in northern Russia like Archangel and Shenkursk, but they worried about German or Russian soldiers taking those weapons. Britain, France and the United States, favoring the Russian Provisional Government over the Communists, decided to launch an intervention into the Russian civil war.
"England was begging (President) Woodrow Wilson to send in some troops with the concept that they were just going to be there to protect those supplies," Columbia said. "Of course, what they didn't realize is that the (Russian) civil war was going on right then, and the Bolsheviks had taken over and they had already taken all those supplies.
"By the time the Americans showed up, there wasn't really anything there to guard."
American forces were sent to northern Russia from July to September 1918 and stayed until June 1919 under the command of the British army. They were shipped first to the United Kingdom -- some actually routed to France -- before being sent to northern Russia.
"These guys (the Americans) had no clue," Columbia said. "They were drafted with the idea that they were going to France, and then, all of a sudden, they wind up in Russia. In their mind, Russia is our ally, but they're caught right in the middle of the civil war."
There were 5,000 total American troops in northern Russia, many coming from the Detroit area, with others coming from across Kentucky, including Pfc. Herman Yopp of Paducah.
"He shows up in France," Columbia said, "and then, all of a sudden, gets transferred back to England and then, on troop ships, to Archangel."
Columbia said that Yopp's sons, Jesse and John, visited Russia last year with Mike Groebbel of the Polar Bear Memorial Association. He said that Jesse lived in Paducah before moving recently to South Carolina and that John was a retired professor from the University of Kentucky.
While soldiers arrived in Archangel and got used to their arctic surroundings, the Allies won the Great War, with the armistice being signed on Nov. 11, 1918. However, the Russian civil war continued.
"It's really one of the most weird situations in American military history," Columbia said. "I've been interested in history my whole life -- I minored in history at (the University of Kentucky) -- but I never heard of any of this.
"... In the beginning, (the Allies) did very well, but of course, they were fighting just local militia Bolshevik troops. It wasn't until those veterans - especially the officers - came back from fighting the Germans that it really got bad. They felt like the superior force in 1918, but it wasn't until 1919 that it really fell apart."
The fighting was kept to numerous small engagements, Columbia said.
"One (battle) in particular -- probably the worst one -- really puts it up there on a level of Valley Forge or Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War, battles that were in the intense cold," he said. "That was in the Battle of Shenkursk; that was a major battle. That battle really tore up the Kentuckians."
A group of 46 Americans under the leadership of Lt. Harry Mead were stationed about 18 miles south of Shenkursk at the village of Nizhnyaya Gora. At dawn on Jan. 19, 1919, the Bolsheviks started to attack the small town. An hour later, about 1,000 Russian troops attacked the village with fixed bayonets. The Americans were forced to retreat, but the streets were covered by enemy machine gun fire. The soldiers were forced to march down a hill and across an open valley for a half-mile waist-deep in the snow with no cover from Russian fire.
"One by one, man after man fell wounded or dead in the snow, either to die from grievous wounds or terrible exposure," wrote the American commander, Lt. Harry Mead.
Seven of the 46 survived the onslaught, reaching the village of Vysokaya Gora only to be attacked again by the Red Army. For five days, the few Americans fended off the Russian Army, now numbering 3,000 men, using fortifications they built along the way. They retreated to Shenkursk to join the British with the Red Army on their heels. The Russians surrounded the town, preparing to attack the next morning.
The Americans and British were ordered to retreat that night, using an old logging trail to reach the village of Vystavka, where they withstood several skirmishes and attacks over the next several weeks.
"When you read the history of this, you kind of get the impression that maybe the Bolsheviks knew what was going on, that the Americans didn't know why they were there, really didn't want to fight and planned on leaving," Columbia said. "So, sometimes when they really had the Americans on the ropes, they could have annihilated them. I mean, there were some bad situations, but when you read it, it looks like they chose not to make that final kill. It's almost as if, 'Why should we battle these Americans when they're going to leave anyway?'
"So, it was kind of a waiting game. 'Let's see if the Americans get out of here when they can get out of here,' and they did."
The troops had to wait until the White Sea waters thawed enough for them to leave Archangel, which took until late spring.
"All the groups left in June of 1919," Columbia said. "All they were waiting for was for the ice to break so they could get out of that port. The Americans left; the British stayed for quite a while, but they ended up losing all the ground that they had covered, and basically just left it to the White Russians, and they just gave it up as soon as the British left."