By Judy Reed
According to George R. Stevenson, of Howard City, his father didn’t talk much about his stint as one of the “Polar Bears” in Russia at the end of World War I.
“He would just kind of shrug it off,” recalled Stevenson, who is also a veteran. “But what I do remember that he said was how cold it was—60 to 80 below zero. They slept on the ground, in a foxhole. They couldn’t have a fire because it would give their position away.”
Stevenson, 78, and his wife Doris visited the Post after seeing our original article on Memorial Day, and give us some info on his father.
His father, George H. Stevenson, was born in 1888, and raised in Howard City. He was part of an Engineering Company and 5,000 troops sent from Fort Custer, in Battle Creek, Michigan to Archangel, Russia, in the summer of 1918, during World War I. The men, a majority of them from Michigan, dubbed themselves the “Polar Bears.”
Although the armistice was signed in November 1918, the Polar Bears continued to fight Bolshevik revolutionaries, and wondered if they’d been forgotten. They were never called home until June 1919.
Stevenson recalled a Bolshevik knife that his father brought home. “It’s about a foot long, and sharp on both sides,” he said. He explained that his father had prisoners of war working under him. The prisoners wore these long coats, and one morning, at reveille, a prisoner’s coat blew open, and his dad saw the knife. “He told him to unbuckle the belt and the knife fell out,” said Stevenson. “Dad said if he hadn’t seen it, he might have been wearing it.”
Although his father didn’t talk much about his time in Russia, he does have a letter that his dad sent to a friend, Ralph Jennings, who had a Chevrolet dealership in Howard City. It’s dated February 20, 1919, sent from Selestkoe, Russia.
Will now try to write you a few lines tonight in answer to your kind and welcome letter which I received Nov. 15.
I have intended to answer it ever since but have had a good deal to do and have not found time to do it. I was very glad to hear from you. And if I don’t write tonight will not get another chance as they are rather strict with us do (sic) to what we write. But as I am sensoring (sic) the mail today will slip this one in.
Well, Ralph I have been to the front a long time but receiving word today that I would get releaf (sic) in a few days and could go back to Archangel with the rest of the company as I have only been with the company two days since we first landed in Russia.
I have been here most of the time looking after some special engineer work such as bridge work barb wire intanglement (sic) and log huts for machine gun placements and have to work under fire most of the time. Every time old John Bolshevik starts anything he finds after a few hours of fighting that he has started something that he can’t finish, although he outnumbers us about 10 to 1.
It is hard work now as we have lots of snow and it is very cold. For the past three weeks the tempeture (sic) has been bobbing up and down between 35 and 40 below but it has been a dry still cold and one does not notice it so much after all.
I suppose you get the news from here in the papers as well as from France but even at that you don’t know what is going on nor what we are fighting for.
Well Ralph I wish to say that if you had your store and what stock you have in it over here you could go back to America a rich man because hardware is a thing of the past. And there isn’t such a thing as a range or a heating stove in northern Russia except that of brick and clay. And I haven’t saw such a thing as a pump since I have been here so I say a few things like that would knock the Russians cold. Russia is a very rich country as far as money is concerned but aside from that everything is finished.
A man can get five roubels (sic) for ten cigarettes just as fast as he can hand them out, which amounts to fifty cents in American money.
Well Ralph I guess will close hoping this finds you all well as it leaves me with best wishes. I remain as ever George H. Stevenson…Archangel, Russia.
The letter shows that Stevenson was at one of the six fronts—Seletskoe, in the Archangel province. The Emtsa River area, with Seletskoe at its center, was 100 miles south of the city Archangel, and provided a route between the area’s two main lines of communication, the lower Dvina River and the railroad.
Troops were finally told in April they would be going home, but couldn’t leave until June. “He said that when they were going to be shipped home and the harbor was full of ice and they needed to bring a ship in to break it up,” recalled Stevenson.
Stevenson’s father was later commander of the former American Legion Post 263 in Howard City. He died in 1974 at age 86.
Stevenson is proud of his father’s accomplishments, and also served his country on the Army rifle team during 1953-1955.