A monument honoring a little-known group of World War I heroes - affectionately known as the Polar Bears - has taken a step closer to national recognition.
During its Spring Meetings in Indianapolis on May 8, The American Legion’s National Executive Committee approved Resolution 20, which supports the Department of Michigan's efforts to have the Polar Bear Monument added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The resolution will help the Polar Bear Memorial Association (PBMA), a group unofficially adopted by American Legion Post 14 in Troy, Mich., to get the Polar Bear Monument recognized and put on the national register in time for the World War I centennial. Many members of PBMA are either members of Post 14, Sons of the American Legion or Auxiliary.
The monument, located in White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Troy, honors mostly Michigan soldiers. It's the only monument dedicated specifically to Americans who fought in Russia during World War I, and it's currently registered as a state historic site. With the Legion’s backing, Post 14 Commander Stephen Stevens said the resolution will show the National Register of Historic Places there’s wide support to have the monument added as a national historic place.
“This is something that should have been done a long time ago in my opinion, being a veteran,” Stevens said. “No veteran — I don’t care from (what era) — should ever be forgotten. What’s our purpose in life for the Legion? It’s to remember our veterans and to keep the public remembering them.”
Stevens said the daunting task of writing and re-writing the resolution has added purpose to his membership. And though a "military buff," Stevens said he had never heard of the Polar Bear veterans until a friend told him.
“When The American Legion was being founded, when they were having their very first meeting, (the Polar Bears) were still fighting for their lives over in north Russia, which not a lot of people know," he said.
The Polar Bears were sent to fight in northern Russia during World War I. According to the University of Michigan Libraries, the Polar Bears were comprised of 5,000 troops of “Detroit’s Own,” the 339th Infantry, plus support units including a battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital and the 337th Ambulance Company.
The men expected to go to France and fight in the trenches, but were separated from the other soldiers in England. There, they were taken to a different training camp and given different uniforms, Russian rifles and British commanders. More than 50 men died of disease before ever reaching Russia.
President Woodrow Wilson had been wary of sending Americans to fight in what was essentially Russia’s civil war.
According to historian and PBMA President Michael Grobbel, the Polar Bears weren’t to fight but to guard war materials in Archangel, Russia. But when the remaining men arrived in Archangel in September 1918, the war materials had all been looted and there was nothing left for them to guard. The British commanders sent them out to chase the Bolsheviks, against Wilson’s orders.
“Nobody could explain why we were fighting the Bolsheviks ... but they had no choice,” Grobbel said.
As a brutal winter approached, the conditions for American soldiers worsened. "The Americans were dependent on the British for all food and medicine, but the British were used to supplying troops in the tropics," Grobbel said. “Up in the arctic, you need double the calories." Plus, those farther from Archangel were less likely to receive even those portions. By the time supplies got to men more than 100 miles away, more than a third had likely been sold on the black market.
“The vermin, the lice, the men quickly got infected with that, no place to take baths so they spent the whole winter scratching and underfed with minimal daylight,” Grobbel said. “Then they had to be ready in a moment’s notice to withstand a Bolshevik attack or go out on patrols. It was pretty miserable.”
When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, word spread fast. In Russia, the soldiers were still fighting. Officers couldn’t answer questions about when the soldiers would be able to return home, or why they were fighting. There were even alleged mutinies.
“They really chafed at not getting a straight answer as to why they were fighting,” Grobbel said. "At best, they were told to fight to survive and outlast the winter."
Meanwhile, families and friends were left in the lurch. Where had their boys gone?
The letters from the soldiers, if they arrived, were heavily censored and provided little detail, Grobbel said. No one seemed to know what had happened to the Michiganders sent to Russia.
When political representatives didn’t give families adequate answers, the simple queries snowballed into bombarding members of Congress with letters and rallies demanding answers from Wilson. Much grandstanding was done on the Senate floor.
“They raised enough stink that they pulled them out,” Grobbel said. “But they had to wait until the rivers unfroze, which is the third week of May up there.”
When the men returned home in the late spring of 1919, when the Legion was forming, they wanted their own association to carry on the stories of their unique experience. They also wanted a group working toward the repatriation of their fallen.
Due to a large percentage of them being from Michigan, it was fairly easy to stay in touch, and so the Polar Bear Association was born. They labored for a decade to see their mission through, and in 1929 were able to recover and return their comrades’ bodies.
As the last of the Polar Bears passed away, PBMA was formed to continue the Memorial Day ceremony in their honor and to keep their history alive — a history that could have been forgotten or left to yellow in University of Michigan archives, unnoticed. Since May 30, 1930, a Memorial Day ceremony at the marble monument has commemorated the Polar Bears’ service.
Grobbel’s grandfather, Clement, was a Polar Bear, but Grobbel said there was “a lot of hardship, and they didn’t talk about it” except for at association meetings.
After the passing of the last Polar Bear, the PBMA vies to make the country aware of the Polar Bears’ complex history.
“(It’s) not only to remember their fallen dead, but to remember and educate others about this episode in history. We want to make sure that we don’t let them down,” Grobbel said.