by Eric Kaechelin
Like many other men in the United States in 1918, Glenn Niccum, aged 27, was called to serve his country in the Great War against the Germany and the Central Powers. A native of Indiana, he and his family had relocated to Michigan. At the time he entered service, he was living in Detroit with his wife, and worked as a machinist for the Packard Motor Co.
After being called for service, he went through training at Camp Custer in Kalamazoo, Mich., with the 85th Division. Ultimately, he was assigned to the 339th Infantry Regiment, as were many other men from Detroit. Niccum was placed in a machine gun company within the Regiment. He probably assumed he would be heading to the Western Front, however, Woodrow Wilson had other plans for his regiment.
After completing, per an account from his son, Glenn was transferred to England. It was at this point that their true assignment was probably revealed: Defending North Russia from the Bolsheviks.
Additional training was completed in England, where US troops soldiered alongside the British. Niccum’s son recalls his father saying they trained with British Lee-Enfield rifles.
From England, the regiment transferred to colder weather, in Arkhangelsk, Russia, to serve as part of the American Expeditionary Force North Russia, otherwise known as the “Polar Bear Expedition.” The moniker “Polar Bear” would stick with these men as well as the regiment—it even carried over into WWII.
While in Arkhangelsk, Niccum served alongside troops from the White Army (non-Communist Russians), Great Britain, Canada, and France. An eclectic mix, to say the least.
Details are scarce on Niccum’s experience in Russia. One story Niccum shared with his son, related to injuries he sustained, however Niccum’s son could not recall the exact date. Per the account, there had been an aerial bombing resulting in a building explosion. Niccum was in close proximity to the building, and sustained an injury to his leg. Nothing debilitating, and he continued on with his service.
In all, Niccum served two years in North Russia, protecting the Wester Front. He returned home to Detroit, and never served again. He passed away at the age of 56, however left behind his legacy as a Polar Bear, which clearly had an impact on his son, who went on to serve himself.
The grouping of my “favorite find” consists of Niccum’s M1917 helmet, complete with liner and chinstrap. It has a textured, white paint on the exterior, and “RUSSIA” stenciled across the top. Also included is his named, complete gas mask and bag, with “GL Niccum, MG Co.” written on the inside flap. Lastly, a single dog tag, bearing Niccum’s name and serial number.
Niccum’s son was kind enough to provide me with a studio portrait of his father in uniform, bearing collar discs for the 339th, as well as photos taken by Niccum while in North Russia. One, taken at a distance, shows Niccum standing in front of the collapsed building where he sustained his injuries.
The grouping was turned onto me by a co-worker, who knew of my interest in militaria. The items were set to be auctioned off in an estate sale by his mother in-law, who was Niccum’s granddaughter.
Thankfully, Niccum’s granddaughter gave me the opportunity to be the caretaker of this grouping.