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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

102-Year-Old Recalls Russia War

EUGENE, Oregon — Like thousands of other young men at the time, Harold Gunnes left high school early in 1917 to join the U.S. Navy and fight in World War I. But instead of sailing to France, Gunnes was sent on an obscure and hazardous mission to northern Russia.

Today, he is even more unusual.

At 102, he is believed to be the last American alive who fought in the North Russian Expeditionary Force — sent by the allies to fight Russian Communists in that country's civil war. It marked the only direct warfare between Russia and the United States.

Most of the other soldiers and sailors on the expedition were older than Gunnes, and all other known survivors have died, according to a Navy historian and others knowledgeable about the military history of the World War I era.

In the 1918-19 conflict, Gunnes marched through swamps and birch forests in the Russian Arctic near the port of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea to storm a village before being forced to retreat to the sea.

"I was way up the line fighting the Red Russians," says Gunnes, whose memories of that oft-overlooked mission are intact even after more than 80 years.

The American expedition was never well known. In his 1984 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan said Russians and Americans — while having their differences — "have never fought each other in war."

Someone should have asked Gunnes.

"It wasn't a big war by any means, but the fighting was just as bad" as the fighting in Europe during World War I, Gunnes said during an interview at his home in Eugene, Oregon, his 94-year-old wife, Evelyn, always near at hand.

Because of the great span of his life, Gunnes has a panoramic view of 20thcentury history.

The warship that took him to Russia had cannonball dents in the bow from action in Manila harbor in the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898. Born in 1899, he has witnessed the birth of the automobile, the vinyl record and the Internet.

Gunnes now moves in slow motion. Even with a powerful hearing aid, he is forced to interrupt the conversation to point one of his long fingers at his ear, telling a reporter to speak louder.

But his speech is perfectly lucid.

"Why am I so important?" he said. "Thousands of others did what I have, only I've lived longer."

He is likely the last of the 5,500 or so Americans who fought in Russia with the Army's 339th Division, known as the "Polar Bears," and about 50 sailors who joined the landing party from the USS Olympia. A related mission of Americans who entered the Pacific port of Vladivostok encountered bandits but did not directly engage Bolshevik troops.

Most of the soldiers and sailors of that mission to northern Russia joined the service in their mid-'20s, according to Stan Bozich, co-founder of the Polar Bear Memorial Association in Frankenmuth, Michigan, a group established to honor veterans of the conflict. The last known "Polar Bear" died nine years ago, according to Bozich.

Dennis Gordon, author of "Quartered in Hell," a book about the expeditionary force, interviewed many of its Navy veterans in the late 1970s.

He said it is unlikely any are still living.

U.S. Navy historian Raymond Mann concurred, but said he could not be certain.

Gunnes left Barnesville, Minnesota, to sail on the Olympia in 1917. Bristling with broadside guns, the ship was used to ferry American troops to Britain past German submarines in World War I. In the mid-Atlantic in 1918, the Olympia was ordered to steam to Russia.

The assignment of the expeditionary force of Americans, British, French and others was to help the "White" Russian forces depose Vladimir Lenin, Russia's new Communist leader of the "Red" Russians.

On Aug. 2, 1918, on the orders of President Woodrow Wilson, the ship steamed into Arkhangelsk, a city then made of log houses and magnificent multiple-storied log churches, many built without nails by skilled Russian woodworkers.

But covered in mud and impoverished by civil war, Gunnes said it "looked like junk" to him.

His group traveled on barges up the Dvina River, a cold stream of muddy water looping through low hills, peat bogs and birch forests east of the White Sea, to a village where one of the first engagements between Russian and American troops took place.

Gunnes recalls trudging through a birch forest toward the town of Seletsko, a fishing and logging village about 350 kilometers from the White Sea.

That's when the Bolsheviks opened fire.

Gunnes dropped onto what he recalled was wet and cold ground on the forest floor and began squeezing off rounds from his Mosin-Nagants rifle toward the Russian lines. The allies forced the Bolsheviks from their trenches in that firefight.

Gunnes recalls that as he walked into the village on Sept. 23, 1918, he noticed a frayed rip in the sleeve of his friend George Perschke's jacket.

"Hey, look at your arm," Gunnes told Perschke.

"We didn't know he was hit until we took his coat off. There was a gash in his arm," and blood dripped out of his sleeve onto the muddy street, Gunnes recalled.

A Navy report on the skirmish describes Perschke's wound as "the first American blood to be shed on Russian soil for the cause of democracy."

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, had flanked the allied force.

"We ran out of ammunition and food. I was young and didn't have the sense to be scared," Gunnes said.

The cold, mosquitoes and lack of sleep were deleterious for the troops, and they were outnumbered. They slipped through the Red lines at night.

In November, the force from the Olympia sailed for Britain.

That was it for Gunnes, but the little war in the north continued.

U.S. Army soldiers fought on until the summer, when they, too, left.

And Gunnes? He returned to Minnesota and opened a hardware store, worked through the Great Depression and World War II and moved to Hillsboro, Oregon, in 1951. He fathered, and outlived, his two sons but still has three stepchildren and 17 grandchildren.

These days, he spends his time walking in the back yard of his home, drinking coffee in the afternoon and driving his Buick Park Avenue.

Perschke, Gunnes' friend and the first American wounded in Russia, visited the Gunneses in Hillsboro about 15 years ago. But Gunnes hasn't heard from him lately.

"All of those that I correspond with, they're all gone," he said.

The United States and Russia fought as allies in World War II. Their armies never engaged directly during the Cold War.