November 3, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Neal Rubin

Polar Bears' chilling story

Documentary traces Michigan men's sacrifice in Russian Revolution

The Polar Bear Memorial stands at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, surrounded by the graves of 56 soldiers. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)

The wind has spread a garland of russet-colored leaves around the marker on Pvt. Edson A. Williams' grave.

It's 38 degrees at the Polar Bear Memorial in Troy, and the American flag above the historical plaque is fluttering in the morning breeze. A backhoe rumbles along a side road at White Chapel Memorial Cemetery.

Otherwise, all is quiet on the northern front.

Fifty-six soldiers lie buried around the monument. For reasons that made little sense even 90 years ago, their government marched them off to die on the frozen frontier of the Murmansk coast of Russia, months after World War I had supposedly come to an end.

The 5,500 men of the North Russian Expeditionary Forces -- the Polar Bears, they eventually called themselves -- are all long gone and mostly forgotten. But as wars drag on in the Middle East and their purposes come more and more into question, it's worth remembering that protests did not begin with Vietnam and that, in 1919, the government listened.

A new documentary about the Polar Bears, "Voices of a Never Ending Dawn," will air from 3-5 p.m. Sunday on WTVS-TV (Channel 56). The producer and director, Detroit native Pamela Peak, had a grandfather who fought. So did Kevin Stark, who let her stage battles on his land near Charlevoix and even dug authentic-looking trenches.

They know why there's a fierce white marble polar bear at White Chapel, guarding a cross and an infantry helmet atop a black granite base. It was placed there in 1930 so the sacrifice of the Polar Bears would always be remembered.

Bears battled in Russia

At least the heirs know the story.

Keith Sadlocha of Macomb Township recalls his grandfather, Andrew, telling about the perpetual sun glaring near the Arctic Circle and the temperatures of 56 below. He'd see the fading uniform in the closet with the Polar Bear insignia on the shoulder and ask, "Was Grandpa a zookeeper in the war?"

No, his dad would say. He was a bold and trusting soldier.

Nearly three-quarters of the Polar Bears were from Michigan, and most of the Michiganians were from Detroit. They arrived at Archangel, Russia, in September 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson didn't want to send them, but he caved to pressure from the British and French, who were hoping to cajole Russia into abandoning its peace agreement with Germany and reopening the eastern front. The 339th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion of 310th Engineers and 337th Ambulance and Hospital companies arrived in Russia expecting to be greeted as allies.

Instead, they found themselves caught in the Russian Revolution, fighting Bolsheviks in a region already stripped of food and friends. The war ended for everyone else Nov. 11, 1918, but the Polar Bears battled on, not even knowing why.

Washington, D.C., listened

Meanwhile, back home, the wives and parents of the Polar Bears were growing angry and loud. Newspapers, particularly this one, joined the chorus.

Finally, Washington, D.C., heard, and in early summer 1919, the troops began their journey home. They had lost 106 men in battle, nine through accidents and 68 from disease, predominantly the Spanish flu. Another 32 were missing.

In 1929, Russia finally allowed a delegation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to retrieve the fallen. The first 41 were interred around the monument in 1930, and 15 more joined them by 1935.

The years have given the markers a greenish patina, but the names show clearly: Corp. William G. Tegges, Pvt. Angus McDonald, PFC Jesse C. Jackson.

The inscription beneath the bear has turned as well, and you have to wonder if we believe it quite the way we did back then. It's a quotation from naval hero Stephen Decatur:

"Our Country, in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our Country, right or wrong."

nrubin@detnews.com (313) 222-1874

Soldiers stood guard in temperatures of 56 below zero in the winter of ... ("Voices of a Never Ending Dawn")
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