A story of fierce fighting, deadly disease, material deprivation, morale-sapping indecision, and confusion on behalf of American leadership and the Bolsheviks’ guerrilla fighters (or Bolos, as Americans called them) during a frigid Russian winter with temperatures regularly reaching 50 degrees below zero. Nelson makes a vague case for this expedition being then and now a source of friction between the U.S. and Russia, but this is mainly a work of narrative history with particular focus on the soldiers’ long-neglected first-hand accounts. This is a wild ride through an American military campaign few know much about and a good addition to the history of Russian-American relations, a complex, often urgent subject.
Nelson does not shield readers from disturbing details. The specifics of who was shot where — limbs, head, heart — and the immediate physical consequences of it are abundant and difficult to forget. Although this means that The Polar Bear Expedition is not for the faint of heart, it serves as a stark reminder of the routine horror of war ... careful to give full lives to its American subjects, referencing by name the family members and opportunities they left behind. The book’s largest flaw is its failure to do this for the Russian counterparts, referred to throughout as 'Bolos' or 'the enemy.' One does not have to be sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause to recognize that the men who made up the Red Army were fighting back against an invasion of their own country, and may have been as ambivalent as some in the 339th Regiment were ... a fascinating, vivid exploration of an erased moment of U.S. military history. Nelson tackles the material with expertise and clarity.
Nelson’s account is consumed with a sense of bitter melancholy and morbid humor ... Nelson tells this story and so much more with great pathos. His intimate portraits of some of the 339th’s doomed men are heartbreaking, and The Polar Bear Expedition is more than a great celebration of this little-known conflict.