A Special Contribution From
Jim Neely's Traveling Museum of Living History
POLAR BEAR MEMORIES
AEF Northern Russia
edited and with commentary by
Pvt. Paul Totten, Company F, 339th Infantry
As I recall my many fond memories of Paul Totten, it is hard to know where to start and what to include. I don't remember a time that I didn't know him. With the exception of a few years, he lived his entire life in the Brooklyn, Michigan community. As a child growing up, I saw him often and when I started interviewing World War I veterans, Paul was the first one I approached.
Home, the Day After his Army Discharge
Paul H. Totten of Brooklyn was twenty-five years old when he was drafted into the service in 1918. He would train at Camp Custer and eventually be assigned to Company F, 339th Infantry. His unit would serve in North Russia as a part of the famous "Polar Bears".
Citizens Arriving at Camp to Become Soldiers
Paul entered the service in May of 1918. From the first day he reported at Camp Custer until the day he was discharged, he kept a diary of his everyday activities. The first diary was kept in the back of the Bible he was given when he entered the service, probably a gift from the Y.M.C.A. This was carefully written in ink. His second diary was kept in a small booklet diary which he probably purchased from the U.S. Commissary in Archangel. It is written in pencil and is almost illegible. He faithfully wrote home to his father, Charles, and his sister, Ruth. Paul's mother, Alma, had passed away in 1917. Charles in turn, wrote faithfully to his son, attempting to keep his morale up and keep him abreast of what was happening at home.
Paul showed his diaries to me on several different occasions when I visited him. He was very proud of his service in Russia. I talked with him several times and tried to persuade him that he should do something with his diaries so that the information about his experiences would not be lost. He once told me that he planned to leave them and his souvenirs to a museum which contained other items from his former comrades. Paul attended a last reunion of Polar Bears in the late sixties (if my memory serves me right). When he came back, he never mentioned leaving his things to a museum again. Evidently something happened at the reunion that changed his mind.
In 1975, Paul reviewed his diaries and hand copied them down on writing paper. To refresh his memory, he borrowed a diary from a former comrade who lived in Detroit. His mind was still sharp as a tack however, and I doubt very much if he needed any "refreshers" from his friend's diary. Several years later, I had a cup of coffee with Paul at a local restaurant and he told me that he had transcribed his diaries and hoped someday that he could get them printed. He changed the subject and after we talked for a few minutes, he asked, "If I don't get something done with my diaries, would you see that it gets taken care of?" I promised him that I would, but I always figured that when something happened to Paul, they would probably disappear or be tossed as being unimportant.
Several months after Paul's death in 1986, I received a call from the Administrator of his estate. He asked me to stop at his house as he had some boxes of things that he thought I should have, knowing my interest in the local veterans and having been a friend of Paul. I stopped by for the boxes and when I got them home, discovered that they contained all of Paul's things from his Russian service as well as many photographs from our area and other items that Paul and Esther had treasured. In going through the items, I found not only his diaries, but most of the letters he had written while in the service as well as those that his father and other local people had written to him. I was thrilled to know that these things were not "lost" and that they would be preserved.
On July 22, 1918, Paul and his comrades left New York Harbor aboard the S.S. Orca for someplace "overthere". As all young soldiers in all wars, they were anxious to get into the "fray". But when the time actually came to leave the United States, all thoughts were of the homes they were leaving. In his diary for July 22, Paul records:
Monday. We sailed for the old country this morning. Left N. Y Harbor 8.45 am. Mother died just a year ago today. Poor Mother! I feel as tho 'she's with me thru all of this and I'm going to do as she would want me to.
On August 3, 1918, Paul and his comrades would arrive at Great Britain. On August 10, they would leave for France, arriving there and disembarking on the 11th.
During the time that Paul had been in training, the British Government requested that President Wilson send troops to the North Russian Front where British troops were helping to defend the city of Archangel and the surrounding area against the Bolsheviks who were attempting to overthrow the Czar and establish a Communist state. It is said that this was to show our support for our allies. Why the decision was made to comply with this request has never been made clear. In September of 1918, the 339th Infantry, a Battalion of Engineers consisting of Companies A, B and C of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital and the 3 37th Ambulance Companies arrived at Archangel. From the very beginning it would be a defensive action.
As part of this agreement with the Allies, the American troops were to fall under British command. Before leaving England for Russia, the Americans were forced to turn in their American issue equipment and were reissued British equipment and Russian rifles which had been manufactured for the Czar under contract by the American companies of Remington and Westinghouse. This act alone, caused dissension among the Americans. From this point, things only worsened. From a number of "Polar Bears" that I have talked with, they all claim that the British took their equipment and supplies for themselves and in turn, issued them poorer quality equipment and rations. All of them complained of the "M and V", which was slang for "Meat and Vegetables", the standard issue ration in the British Army at that time.
Blockhouses Used by the 339th Infantry
The Americans were told that they were to act as "guards" along the railroads and rivers. In reality, the companies of the 339th Infantry found themselves stretched thinly along a line of defense, fighting in the open or from "blockhouses". Oftentimes, they faced superior numbers of Bolsheviks, or "Bolos" as they were often called, as well as superior artillery. Many a "Yank" said a blessing for the Canadian Artillery when they returned fire against the Bolos and got them out of a tight spot.
September of 1918 found Paul in France. On the 4th, Companies A, C and D and 18 men from Company B of the 338th Infantry were selected as replacements for the 339th Infantry. Paul was among the 18 men of Company B. Among the men chosen for this replacement detail were Paul's cousins, Ted and Dwight Smith. They would be assigned to a machine gun detail when they arrived in North Russia and their presence there would help ease the loneliness for Paul.
This replacement detachment was returned to England for some quick training and re-equipping. At 10:30 a.m. on the morning of October 1, the replacement detachment disembarked from the S.S. Porgo and set foot on North Russian soil. Their time in "Hell" was about to begin.
In October of 1975, Paul sat down and wrote a short summary of his time in Russia. This experience is best described in his own words.
The Wharf at Archangel, Russia
Upon landing at Archangel on October 1, 1918, we were shooed into a camp called Smolney Barracks about three miles south of Archangel where we made our home until the latter part of January. Here we did guard duty, rehabilitation and convoy duty.
On January 30, we left by horse and sled convoy, 30 strong, for the various combat fronts. One of the places we landed at was a dirty little village called Emetskoe. Got there, thank the good Lord, just after the battle. But will never forget the trip - about 30 degrees below zero and miles and miles thru woods and up frozen rivers - night and day with what rests the brass deemed sufficient. There was plenty of grumbling along the way, but somehow we made it. Here we had, among other duties too numerous to mention, the delightful job of burying 76 dead Bolsheviks that had gone "west" during the earlier encounter. After this foray, we were constantly active but also fortunate to be returning to convoy duty.
On March 9, 1919, we were again called to arms. This one developed into real action, to relieve Company A on the Volga River Front. This was the first time I was really under fire at a place called Vistavka. We were in this vicinity for 20 days. Then we were relieved and transferred to the Dvina River Front where we stayed until relieved by the British who then took over in early June. After we left it was but a short time until they (the British) were pushed out into the White Sea and North Russia came under the hammer and sickle.
This is kind of a shallow outline of what we really did. It 's impossible to be accurate or anywhere near complete in detail but it reports a short segment of our expedition.
One of the worst enemies we had, if not the worst, was the weather. 20 degrees below zero was very ordinary but at times it would range from beautiful winter weather to 50 and 60 degrees below. We could do nothing outside at those temperatures, but, neither could the Bolsheviki so then we marked time. I saw ice five feet thick on the flowing Dvina River and watched it pile up, stop and shift and then go tumbling on again for another sequence. Two days and the river was free.
Another little job we had to do several times was to prepare some villages we were to retreat from for destruction. We would place flammable stuff at vantage points so the buildings would be in shape to quickly burn. We had to physically wreck everything also. This vandalism was breath taking, seemingly out of order, but necessary. That's what the Lieutenant said anyway, so we went at this mischief with vigor.
Archangel was a city, as I remember, of about seventy thousand and quite modern in some ways and the largest northern one. During winter the harbor was completely frozen over and the only entrance was by ice breakers from Murmansk where there was a Gulf Stream of some sort. We were utterly dependent on this system for mail, supplies, etc.
Archangel had Street cars, theaters, restaurants, immense bath houses and churches. These dwellings were provincial to a point, not like ours, so many constructed of logs. There were no front doors.
The religion there was the Greek Orthodox and the Subornia Cathedral was a masterpiece replete with the characteristic onion topped turrets embellished with gold overlay. They were ornate inside and bearded priests attired with gorgeous robes did their services to standing congregations. The church was always dominant and prevalent over all else, even in every small village and shrines dotted every available space. The priests were always the first to scamper when the Bolos threatened and it was a wise move on their part, as religion wasn't one of the first requirements of the hoard - as is even today. We used to roam thru these deserted structures with thoughts far away from war.
The peasantry in the rural areas was apparently very backward - almost pitiful. Their clothing was evidently warm enough but non-descript to say the least. The houses were comfortable but lacked order. Barns were continuous with the living quarters and sanitary conditions in the summer developed almost to the terrible stage. Cholera was plentiful so we had to undergo the shots which "backfired" to the "Nth degree ". They had a bad habit of actually keeping some of their livestock in their living quarters. I was billeted for a period in one where there was a small pig and several chickens all on the loose. Couple that up with a snoring grandfather and a squalling baby suspended from a small bending sapling which substituted for a rocker and you get a picture of "Nocturnal Russian Suburbia". I'll have to admit that this ado wasn't exactly conducive to pleasant dreams, but, was very compatible to free wheeling insomnia. Then there was the huge masonry stove in the corner. It was wood burning and served both for heat and for baking. They were really quite a combination. The ovens were wood burning also. The coals were raked out at the appropriate time, then the women folk would do their baking. Huge long black loaves of bread and other morsels known only to them. But, they tasted good, husks, dirt, etc. This heat would be retained for hours. They were the most ingenious contraptions we saw there. Incidentally, the best bed in the house was on top of one of these.
This location was in the area of the Midnight Sun. During profound winter, the sun came limping up at about 10 a. m. and it was night again at 3p.m. The skies were usually clear and the starlight on the snow gave a soft, frigid light that was pleasing to the senses. On mornings when in the 40 to 60 degree range, the mist would be suspended and would shimmer with a pinkish cast. The Aurora Borealis was also bright, beautiful and noisy. This show of splendor and the striking sunsets during the Midnight Sun period were beautiful beyond description. Then as summer approached, the sun would rise early and set late, varying each day until we had twenty-four hours of sunshine. Enough to cast a good shadow at midnight.
Getting on to my departure, we boarded a huge raft at Seltso, the village we wound up in and floated down the Dvina River back to Archangel. After numerous inspections and Blah, Blah, we packed our gear and boarded another British ship, the "Menominee ". A dirty old creaking one stacker accompanied by a cargo of mules aboard. We stopped at Murmansk and dumped the fortunate jackasses. Our quarters aboard this floating barn were so poor that we actually took over the mules previous quarters and squared our shoulder for the cruise. We put out into the Arctic Ocean again on June 18, 1919. The sea was full of huge chunks of ice thru which the boat would shudder and crawl and the weather was abominable. Muscular waves rocked the old tub like the proverbial "cork on a rough sea ". So many of the boys were sick but that experience was about the only thing I missed and could offer thanks for. Poor food, cold and stormy seas were the order of the day. But, the weather let up gradually and 8 days later on, June 26. 1919, we disembarked at Brest, France and again came under the wing of Uncle Sam for the first time since we departed for Russia on September 20, 1918 - 8 months, 17 days in Russia under British rule and dominance - "nuff said!" (uttered disgustingly). On June 30th we boarded the U.S.S. President Grant and set sail, Boston bound. Arrived in Boston July 12, 1919 and was discharged at Camp Custer on July 19. Then back in the fold - a healthier, wiser and happier youngster - at 26.
No one knows exactly just why we were sent to Russia. It was some commitment made to merry old England. We 're sure now that we could have easily been annihilated at almost anytime, being so far in the interior, all of two hundred miles. All that saved us was the fact that the newly formed Bolsheviki Government had enough troubles without taking on the United States. They would let us advance just about so far and then kick us back. We didn't mind the retreat at all, but, we didn't particularly like their method of procedure. A little too much lead.
As a final note, I would like to quote the ending words of the book, "History Of The American Expedition Fighting The Bolsheviki ", written by Captain Joel R. Moore, Company A, 339th Infantry and one of us.
"That night scene with the lowering sun near midnight gleaming gold upon the forest shaded stretches of the Dvina River and casting it's mellow melancholy light upon the wrecked churches of a village, is an ineffaceable picture of North Russia. For this is our Russia - a church, a little cluster of log houses, encompassed by unending forests of moaning spruce and pine; low, brooding, sorrowful skies; and over all oppressive stillness, sad, profound, mysterious, yet strangely lovable to our memory.
The Polar Bears in Winter Kit
Near the shell gashed and mutilated church are two rows of unadorned wooden crosses - simple memorials of a soldier's burying ground Come vividly back into the scene the winter funerals in that yard of our buddies, brave men who, loving life, had been laid away there, having died soldier-like for a cause they had only dimly understood. And the crosses now rise up, mute, eloquent testimony to the cost of this strange, inexplicable war of North Russia.
We cast off from the dirty quay and steamed out to sea. On the deck was many a reminiscent one who looked back bare headed on the paling shores, in his heart a tribute to those who, in the battlefield's burial spot or in the little Russian churchyards stayed behind while we departed homeward bound"
It's been a long time (56 years - only just yesterday), but there is something about these last lines that always puts me in a different dimension. So many thoughts, enough to bring a tear.
So.. . . Attention! Right Hand Salute! One! Two! Dismissed! Yes SIR!
Paul H. Totten - October. 1975
On July 19, 1919, Paul was discharged from the service at Camp Custer in Battle Creek. He returned home to Brooklyn where he began his adjustment back into civilian life. He would return to his barbering for a short time and then attended The Worsham Training School for Mortuary Science in Chicago, Illinois. On July 1, 1923, he was married. He and his wife Esther settled down in Brooklyn where Paul practiced his various skills as a barber and undertaker. On March 4, 1939, he was named Acting Postmaster at Brooklyn and on January 20 of 1940 he was appointed Postmaster. He held this position until retiring on December 15, 1949. He then continued working as a postal carrier, a posit-ion he later retired from. In his later years, Paul devoted much time to the preservation of Brooklyn's history in the form of identifying and framing photographs from earlier years. His collection was utilized in several books on our area's history. Many of the pictures he had taken himself as a young man. Paul always remained very active in his church, the Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star, the American Legion and our local historical society.
Paul was what I refer to as a "clipper". He was always clipping articles out of the newspapers and magazines that interested him or were related to his experiences and memories. Among his papers was the following prayer that caught his eye and he clipped it out to save. To me, it sums up the way he lived his life.
A Man 's Prayer
Teach me that 60 minutes make an hour, 16 ounces a pound, and 100 cents a dollar. Help me to live so that I can lie down at night with a clear conscience and unhaunted by the faces of those to whom I may have brought pain. Grant that I may earn my meal ticket on the square, and in earning it I may do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Deafen me to the tingle of tainted money. Blind me to the faults of other fellows and reveal to me my own. Guide me so that each night when I look across the table at my wife, who has been a blessing to me, I will have nothing to conceal. Keep me young enough to laugh with little children and sympathetic so as to be considerate of old age. And comes the day of darkening shades make the ceremony short and the epitaph simple: "Here lies a man."
About our Contributor
A former teacher turned professional storyteller and writer, Jim Neely of
Brooklyn, Michigan is dedicated to preserving the stories of our past for
future generations. In his youth, Jim developed many friendships with
former "Doughboys" whom he interviewed in order to collect their "personal"
stories. As a tribute and memorial to these "old soldiers", he is currently
writing a book, based on these interviews, letters and diaries about the
life of the common American soldier in World War I.
Jim Neely can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, through his website at: http://www.jimneely.com/storytelling/
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