Allied Expeditionary Force POWs, Siberia - 1919

Courtesy of Glenn Hyatt, WWI-L: Testimony before the 102nd US Congress, November 1991, concerning the AEF experience in Russia at the end of the Great War and the possible abandonment of American POWs.

From: Hearings before the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Second Congress.

First Session on the United States Government' efforts to learn the fate of America's Missing Servicemen November 5,6,7, and 15, 1991

SUDOC No.: Y.P32/2:S.Hrg.102-35/pt.2 An Examination of U.S. Policy Toward POW/MIAs By the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Republican Staff. Thursday, May 23, 1991

Part I, Section 2-1 THE AEF AND WORLD WAR I

U.S. Problems in accounting for POW/MIAs did not suddenly emerge in the Second Indochina War; in fact, the basic Communist tactics were already evident at the birth of the Soviet Union in the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, most Americans have forgotten that there were two main fronts during World War I -- the Western Front, which was the center of Allied attention, and which today still receives the most focus; and the Eastern Front, which occurred when the Bolshevik Regime signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and withdrew Russian forces from participating with the Allies.

Thereupon, the Allies grew apprehensive about the German threat to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel, and sent the Allied Expeditionary Force to Siberia to protect the rear. As a result of the fighting against Soviet Bolshevik forces around Archangel in 1918-1919, there were many causalities, and eyewitness accounts of hundreds of U.S.and British and French personnel who disappeared.

Nevertheless, official cables from the U.S. military attaché at Archangel cited much lower numbers than the eyewitness reports of missing personnel. The U.S. government policy concerning these and others in the two categories of missing in action (MIA) and killed in action, body not recovered (KIA-BNR) from the American Expeditionary Force in Russia, as detailed in a November, 1930 memorandum from the U.S.

Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, stated the following:

An administrative determination has been placed on each of their records that they were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing. [1] In other words, all of the men who were MIA were determined to be KIA- BNR on the date they were reported as missing.

Public outcry over this practice resulted in the formation of the 1929 VFW/U.S. Graves Registration Expedition, which was able to identify or account for 86 sets of remains. Many others were never identified. However, given the technical and scientific limitations of forensics in 1929, the amount of time elapsed and the number of nationalities involved, some of the remains may have been mis-identified.

In 1921, the New York Times reported that the American prisoners held by the Soviet Government of Russia have been told by the Bolsheviks that they are held because the United States government has not made vigorous demands for their release....[2]

It was widely known that the Bolsheviks held many American POWs and other U.S. citizens against their will. In fact, the new Soviet Government attempted to barter U.S. POWs held in their prisons for U.S. diplomatic recognition and trade relations with their regime. The United States refused, even though the Soviets had at one time threatened "...that Americans held by the Soviet government would be put to death..."[3]

President Harding's Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, in response to the Soviets demand for recognition and trade relations in return for U.S. prisoners, said that the United States will not consider any suggestions of any character from that government until the Americans now held as prisoners are permitted to leave the country.[4]

But several months later the United States concluded the Riga Agreement with the Soviet government to provide humanitarian aid to starving Russian children. The Riga Agreement had specific requirements that the Soviet authorities must release all Americans detained in Russia, and to facilitate their departure. The U.S. Government was expecting 20 prisoners to be released; but U.S. authorities were surprised when 100 Americans were released.[5]

In fact, not all American prisoners held by the Soviets were released. The Soviets held some back, presumably for leverage in any future negotiations with the United States. However, in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the Soviet government, these prisoners were not released, and other than the apparent recovery of 19 sets of remains, no satisfactory accounting of the MIA/POWs that were held by the Soviets was made by the United States. Since an administration determination had been placed on each of their records that they were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing, as far as the United States government and laws of the United States were concerned, these men were legally dead.

Other than a small number of U.S. government officials with access to the intelligence about these men in Soviet concentration camps and prisons, these men were legally, and otherwise generally considered, to be no longer alive.

One such intelligence document dated November 20, 1930 cites an affidavit taken by the U.S. Justice Department of Alexander Grube, a Latvian-American, who was identified as a "Russian seaman." He had been imprisoned in the Soviet gulag, including in the infamous Lubianka Prison, where he states he saw four American Army officers and 15 American soldiers, and was then transferred to Solovetz Island Prison where he met "many" American soldiers and civilians. Grube further warned the U.S. government that any inquiry made to Soviet officials of specific individuals will result in their immediate execution.

This episode in the history of World War I illustrates succinctly the major problems which still affect attempts to account for and ensure the repatriation of U.S. military personnel captured by Communist regimes in the aftermath of World War II, the Korean War, and the Second Indo-China War 1) The bureaucratic and legal assertion by the U.S. Government that the men who were MIA were killed in action on the date they were reported as missing or sometime thereafter; 2) the attempts by the Communist regime to use prisoners as barter for economic and diplomatic benefits; 3) the dissimulation and lies of the Communist regime about the existence and location of prisoners; 4) the on-again, off-again return of remains; and 5) where there is no clear military victory over the Communist enemy, the vulnerability of U.S. POW/MIAs who are at the mercy of the reluctance of the enemy and U.S. government to pursue a clear, open policy for their repatriation.


During World War I (1914-1918), military personnel captured by Germany and the Central Powers on the Western Front were returned home when the U.S., British, or Western European allies liberated the POW camps, or after the capitulation of Germany and its allies in November, 1918.

An accurate, detailed accounting of these POWs in Europe was possible because the United States, as a member of the Allied Force, was the victor. Victory afforded American officials complete access to the German records of American POWs and the territory in which they were imprisoned. However, Russian prisoners who were still held in Central Powers prison camps presented a problem for the Allies after their victory.

At the beginning of the war, Russian forces fought with the Allies. But after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks withdrew Russian troops from the fighting after signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March, 1918. Some of the Russians held in German camps had Bolshevik sympathies, while others did too. The Allies hoped to sort out the Bolshevik soldiers, and recruit the anti-Bolsheviks to fight against the new regime in Russia.

According to a War Department cable:

It is believed that a period of one or two months would suffice to discover which of the soldiers could be used for the work in question and which ones would be too thoroughly imbued with bosehvist[sic] ideas to be trusted. The former could then be sent to the Ukraine and the latter left in the concentration camps.[6]

However, once defeated, the Germans could no longer manage the camps, and attempted to turn the Russian POWs loose, letting them head east for the Russian border. But the Allied Commissioners were still afraid of turning them loose for fear that the Russians would join the Red Army, and in February, 1919 the Allies took control of these German camps.[7] France, in particular, did not want any liberated Russian POWs from Germany "to go into the interior of France, possibly on account of the Bolshevist[sic] danger."[8] In fact, when the Germans released the Russian prisoners of war, 50,000 of them found their way to France. They expected a warm welcome from their former allies; they were interned without delay.[9]

The Allies also were apparently concerned about American, British, and French POW/MIAs who might still be held prisoner as a result of combat with the Bolshevik Red Army in northern Russia, and may have wanted the Russian prisoners for bargaining leverage.

After Brest-Litovsk took the Bolshevik forces out of the war, German and Austro-Hungarian forces were free to move into the Ukraine and Baltic states. The German action was perceived by Allied forces as a threat to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, where tons of Allied war material were still stored. Further, the U.S. government wanted to provide for the safe evacuation of Czechoslovak forces who had been fighting with Russia against the Central Powers.

The group of soldiers numbered over 5,000 volunteers and draftees, mostly from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The troops were placed under British command, and, in violation of their stated mission, were used in combat operations in support of the British and French plans to secure that part of Russia from the Germans and the Red Army.

A report from Colonel J.A. Ruggles, the U.S. military attaché in Archangel, dated November 25, 1918, lists casualties divided into categories such as Killed In Action (KIA), Missing In Action (MIA), etc.[10]

These were causalities from the 339th U.S. Infantry Regiment which had been sent to Archangel in the late summer and early fall of 1918 to serve under British command. During the winter of 1918, after a series of poorly planned and executed Allied military operations, the Red Army finally prevailed on the field over the heavily outnumbered Allied forces. There were a few spring and early summer victories for the Allies, but in the summer of 1919 Allied forces began to withdraw from Archangel. The 339th Regiment returned to the United States via Europe in the summer of 1919.

By the spring of 1920, all U.S. and allied troops were out of Soviet territory. During their withdrawal, British forces seized a number of Russian Bolsheviks as hostages to trade for British POWs and MIAs who were still held by the Bolsheviks, and made room for about 5,000 White Russian emigrants who wanted to leave their homeland before the Red Army overran the territory.

When Archangel was finally taken by the Bolshevik forces, 30,000 citizens [11] were executed by the Cheka [12] forces.


It is difficult to accept the official U.S. accounting of U.S. casualties of the 1918-1919 Northern Russian Expedition, particularly because all men who were MIA were officially determined to be KIA-BNR on the date they were reported as missing. According to several accounts, several hundred U.S., French, and British soldiers were left unaccounted for during the fighting in Northern Russia. Indeed, the official history of the Expedition states that there were "hundreds missing from our ranks." However, official cables from the U.S. military attaché at Archangel cited approximately 70 MIAs, excluding French and British missing personnel.

Negotiations with the Bolsheviks for the repatriation of the missing failed. Col. Ruggles stated:

Negotiations for the exchange of prisoners have been terminated by orders from General Pershing, after having been delayed, although under discussion from both sides, through failure of the Bolshevik commander to obtain authority from Moscow.[14]

In fact, the Bolsheviks wanted diplomatic recognition in return for the release of Allied POWs; at the suggestion of the U.S. Secretary of State, the U.S. Secretary of War reminded the U.S. Attaché at Archangel of this fact in a May 12,1919 letter: "the United States has not recognized the Bolshevik regime as a government either de facto or de jure."[15] The negotiations never resumed. Throughout the summer and fall of 1919, 3,315 replacements were sent to Siberia to rotate out many of the original U.S. troops.[16]

The 1919 and 1921 reports of the Secretary of War records the causalities for the Archangel fighting and the Siberian expedition as follows:

Killed in Action........................................137 (including 28 presumed killed)
Died of wounds....................................... 43
Died of disease........................................122
Died of accidental causes.......................... 46

Total deaths.............................................353

The totals listed above from the combined 1919 and 1921 official annual reports of the Secretary of War conceal the fact that out of the 144 combat deaths of American soldiers officially reported in 1919 in Northern Russia, 127 of those deaths, or 88% of those official combat death figures were made up of some 70 MIAs declared dead, and another 57 soldiers who were declared KIA-BNR.[17]

This fact was left out of the official Secretary of War report on U.S. casualty figures from combat in Northern Russia. The vast majority of these missing men never received a proper accounting. Further, the practice of the Secretary of War of lumping the MIA and the KIA-BNR figures together as those killed in action necessarily calls into question the general credibility of these official figures. One historian makes note that ten U.S. POWs from the Archangel Expedition were repatriated through Finland and Sweden.[18]


In fact, there is evidence that some of these men were actually held in prisons and concentration camps in Russia by the Communists. A November 12, 1930 memorandum which detailed an affidavit taken by the U.S. Justice Department from a "Russian seaman" stated:

"He arrived March 1, 1927 in Lubianka Prison at Moscow where he saw four (4) American Army Officers and fifteen (15) American soldiers who had been there since 1919...that he subsequently was transferred to Solovetz island Prison where he met many American soldiers and civilians, and names of two of them as Mr. Martin or Marten and Mr. G. Heinainkruk, both of whom he thinks are American Army Officers sent to the Island from Vladivostok. He also mentions one Roy Molner whom he states had been a sergeant in the U.S. Army at Archangel from which place he had been sent as a prisoner." [19]

An internal U.S. government letter which evaluates the information provided by the Russian seaman states:

"I have looked into this question and find that at least one case that has an important bearing on it, namely the case of William J. Martin, Company A, 339th Infantry, which regiment served in Archangel or North Russian Expedition. Under date of Feb. 3, 1919 a report from Archangel showed Martin missing in action. Under date of March 14, 1921 we made a determination showing: 'Was killed in action January 19, 1919. This determination was no doubt predicated on the unexplained absence of the soldier for about two year [until the KIA-BNR determination was made].'

I also found another case which may possibly be involved, it is of Lindsay Retherford, up in my mind because of the mention by the Russian sailor of Alfred Lindsay. Lindsay Retherford was reported missing and a similar determination [KIA-NBR] was made in his case." [20]


Three years later, in 1933, the United States recognized the Bolshevik government. In 1934, 19 sets of remains were reported as "identified" by the U.S. Graves Registration. In the separate 1929 VFW/Graves Expedition 86 remains of the 127 missing or KIA-BNR from battles fought by the American Expeditionary Force of Archangel were claimed to have been identified. This left 41 unaccounted for from the Archangel post. Further, that of the 86 remains "identified," it is likely that a number of these "identifications" stretched the capacity of forensic science at that time.

Refugees from Russia fleeing into Europe during the late 1920s continued to report that a number of Americans were still being held by the Soviet government in forced labor camps. It is noteworthy that some of the U.S. troops sent to Archangel were themselves U.S. immigrants from Eastern Europe, or the sons of U.S. immigrants from Eastern Europe who had been drafted into the American Army. It has been speculated that the Soviet kept them because of their national origins, or the national origins of their families.[21]

The U.S. Government did not publicly admit that U.S. military personnel remained in the custody of the Red Army in Russia upon the return of the American Expeditionary Force in Russia. However, on April 18, 1921, the New York Times reported:

It has been demonstrated that the Soviet government is holding Americans in the hope that the United States will agree to recognize the Soviet [government] or enter into trade relations with it or release communist from prison in this country...[22]

Three months later, President Harding responded to an appeal from Moscow for "bread and medicine" for the "children and the sick." He instructed a member of his staff, Herbert Hoover, to cable a reply to Moscow that the American Relief Administration would undertake relief for one million Russian children and provide some medical supplies for their hospitals - but subject to certain conditions.[23]

August 20, 1921, a formal agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, the "Riga Agreement," was concluded. Among the conditions for U.S. aid to the Soviets was the following:

The Soviet Authorities having previously agreed at the absolute sine qua non of any assistance on the part of the American people to release all Americans detained in Russia and to facilitate the departure from Russia of all Americans so desiring, the A.R.A. [American Relief Administration] reserves the right to suspend temporarily or terminate all of its relief work in Russia in case of failure on the part of the Soviet Authorities to fully comply with this primary condition...[24]

The United States government expected the repatriation of approximately 20 U.S. citizens, but, in fact, more than 100 Americans were repatriated as a result of this agreement. As Herbert wrote in his autobiography:

The provisions for release of American prisoners was suggested by Secretary Hughes, who informed me the Department knew that there were about twenty of them. More than a hundred American prisoners in Russia dungeons were released on September 1, [1921]. [25]

Even so, reports continued to be received by the Department of State that more Americans were still held, and the actual number of more than one hundred released - gave the U.S. Government its first taste of negotiating for Americans held against their will by Communists.


[1] Memorandum "To Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, Subject: Alleged confinement of American Officers and Soldiers in Russian prisons," November 12, 1930.

[2] "Captives' Release Repeatedly Sought," The New York Times, April 18, 1921.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Herbert Hoover, Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, Volume III, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1961), pp. 427-433.

[6] War Department cable No. 1272, Military Intelligence, Subject: RUSSIAN PRISONERS ARRIVING IN FRANCE FROM GERMANY, December 17, 1918.

[7] See report of the YMCA, Service with Fighting Men, William Howard Taft, et al, eds. Associated Press, N.Y. 1922, pp.320- 322. "It was exceedingly difficult for these Allied authorities to decide just what should be done with these men. There were a menace to Germany as they were; if they were returned to Russia, they might join the Red forces."

[8] War Department cable No. 1272, December 17, 1918.

[9] Service With Fighting Men, pp. 320-322.

[10] See telegram to the War Department, Military Intelligence Branch, No. 2045-221, November 26, 1919.

[11] Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, George Kennan, (Boston: Little and Brown and Company, 1960).

[12] The Cheka was the all-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage, the Bolshevik's secret police; it was the forerunner of the GPU, the State Political Directorate, which in turn preceded the NKVD, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which became the KGB, the Committee for State Security.

[13] Two Company I officers, 1st Lieutenants Dwight Fistler and Albert May, met with Bolshevik officers in an attempt to secure the release of captured Allied servicemen. They recorded the meeting: "We had 500 Russian prisoners. They had seven of ours. We were worried about hundreds of missing from our ranks and arranged a truce to effect an exchange.... Negotiation was difficult. Interpreters were not very efficient. But the Reds learned what we were up for, and haggled. The end was, they traded us two of the seven Americans for the 500 Russian soldiers, and we had to toss in a round of cigarettes to seal the bargain. We never did learn what had become of the missing."

[14] Telegram No. 221, "To Military Intelligence, From: Archangel, U.S. War Department," April 14, 1919.

[15] See a May 12, 1919 letter to the Acting Secretary of State, Frank L. Polk, from the U.S. Secretary of War: "I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your letter ("NE-M"), dated April 28, 1919, regarding the negotiations with the Bolshevik government in Russia for the exchange of Allied prisoners, referring to in cablegram No. 230 from the Military Attaché, Archangel, Russia. In accordance with your suggestion, a cablegram was sent to the Military Attaché on May 1, reminding him that the United States has not recognized the Bolshevik regime as a government either de facto or de jure."

[16] Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1919, Office of the Chief Military History, Washington. p. 25.

[17] Telegram No. 2045-297 "To : Military Intelligence, From: Archangel," February 4, 1919.

[18] Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1919, p.74.

[19] War Department Memorandum, "To: Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, Subject Alleged confinement of American Officers and Soldiers in Russian prisons," November 12, 1930.

[20] See U.S. government letter, "To: Mr. Huckleberry evaluating the affidavit taken by the U.S. Justice Department," November 8, 1930.

[21] See Benjamin D. Rhodes, The Anglo-American Winter War with Russia, 1918-1919.

[22] "Captive Release Repeatedly Sought," The New York Times, April 18, 1921.

[23] Herbert Hoover, p. 428.

[24] ibid. p.433.

[25] ibid. p.433.

Created: Saturday, December 28, 1996, 02:57 Last Updated: Saturday, December 28, 1996, 02:57