WW I "Polar Bears" are Remembered on Memorial Day 2008
A Memorial Day tradition begun in 1930 by the veterans of the American Expeditionary Force North Russia continues into the 21st Century.
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Hundreds attend Memorial Day service for WW I "Polar Bears"
26 May 2008 | Troy, Michigan, U.S.A.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1930, at an impressive ceremony attended by top military personnel and countless city, state and governmental dignitaries, 41 men of the U.S. Army's American Expeditionary Force North Russia (also known as "Polar Bears") were finally laid to rest around a newly completed monument at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan. These men, who had all made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country, were part of the Allied effort fighting the Bolshevik Red Army in the far off frozen tundra of northern Russia during 1918-1919. In subsequent years, the remains of an additional 15 Polar Bear soldiers would be laid to rest around the monument.
The monument that was dedicated on Memorial Day 1930 was a statue of a polar bear that had been carved from a solid block of white Georgia marble by the renowned French sculptor Leon Hermont. It had been commissioned by the Polar Bear veterans to serve as a memorial for their 226 fellow U.S. soldiers who had died in North Russia from battle wounds, accidents and disease. About half of the remains had been returned to the U.S. when the Americans withdrew from North Russia in 1919, but the others had been buried in areas that had fallen into Bolshevik hands and could not be recovered. It wasn't until 1929 that permission was granted for a group of Polar Bear veterans to return to Russia for the sole purpose of recovering the bodies of those left behind. They were successful in finding 75 additional graves during that trip and once the bodies arrived at the port of New York City in late November 1929, they were put on a funeral train which took most of them to Detroit, Michigan. The bodies were then taken to White Chapel Cemetery where they laid in state during the winter, waiting to be reburied on Memorial Day 1930, coincidental with the dedication of the Polar Bear monument.
On Memorial Day 1931, the Polar Bear veterans again held a service at White Chapel for their fallen brothers, establishing a tradition that continued until the mid-1980s when the last of the veterans fell victim to the afflictions of old age. Years earlier, their Polar Bear Association had created a trust fund to guarantee that the annual Memorial Day service would continue after they were gone. However, what was once a ceremony attended by thousands was now only a small group of friends and family members who would gather for a wreath-laying ceremony arranged by the Salvation Army in accordance with the terms of the trust fund. By the late 1980s, the trust fund had been exhausted and only a couple of people would show up at the traditional starting time to remember the Polar Bears.
However, from that nucleus, a new association was formed which took on the annual task of organizing and conducting a fitting ceremony and over the years, attendance has steadily grown. The Polar Bears who had felt abandoned and forgotten by their own government while they spent the winter after the Armistice in bloody combat, wanted to insure that the sacrifices made by their own would be remembered long after they were gone and they have gotten their wish. The Polar Bear Memorial Association conducts an annual Memorial Day service at the Polar Bear Monument in White Chapel Cemetery. It begins at 11:00 AM and the public is invited.