'Polar Bear' memorial in Troy marks a largely forgotten GI mission in WWI Russia

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
A monument for the Polar Bears stands at White Chapel cemetery in Troy. The soldiers will be remembered today.

Troy — The first 56 who lie buried near the marble statue of the polar bear died in Russia, where their government sent them to fight ghosts when the rest of the world was celebrating the end of the Great War.

The others, though — the ones who bought their burial plots close by, across a pathway from the Polar Bear Monument — were lucky enough to come home. And years later, when so many others had forgotten the sad and sorry story of the Polar Bear Expedition, they made the choice to lie forever near their brothers in shared misery.

The Polar Bears were some 5,000 soldiers of the American North Russian Expeditionary Forces, most of them from Michigan. They fought the Bolsheviks with guns and cannons in Russia's frozen northern reaches for seven deadly months after the November 1918 armistice that ended World War I.

Their mission was unclear, their president reluctant and their weaponry ill-suited for the conditions. Largely forgotten outside Metro Detroit, they will be remembered at 11 a.m. Monday in the 90th annual WWI Polar Bear Memorial Service in Troy.

A century after the only American soldiers to ever battle Russians left the nightmare behind them, there will be songs at White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery, starting with "God Bless America." There will be a color guard, a bugler, a speaker, the laying of wreaths and a flyover from Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Mike Grobbel of Shelby Township, the grandson of a Polar Bear, is president of the Polar Bear Memorial Association. In the late 1980s and early '90s, he says, the crowd at the memorial service sometimes numbered two — Stan Bozich, the founder of the Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth, and his brother.

Several hundred people are expected on Memorial Day. It's not quite the 10,000 who attended the first burials and the dedication of the monument in 1930, but back then, the wounds were still fresh.

David Krall of Waterford Township grew up with the story of the Polar Bears because he grew up with the cemetery. His father is the president and CEO of White Chapel, and he's the vice president. His son, David II, did a report on the Polar Bears last year in fourth grade.

"It's an amazing story that we need to keep alive," Krall says — even if the men who lived it seemed to have discussed it with few others besides themselves.

Trained at Camp Custer near Battle Creek, they thought they were bound for the western front in France. Instead, they were sent 600 miles north of Moscow for reasons that changed with whoever was issuing the orders: Guard a cache of supplies, foment a revolution in a country already in the midst of one, lure Russia back into the war.

Grobbel, 67, says Clement Grobbel of Center Line used to go to a reunion every other year. Beyond that, the only sign that he had served were the framed citations for the Distinguished Service Cross and French Croix de Guerre that hung behind his battered brown recliner.

Mike Grobbel, the grandson of a Polar Bear, is president of the Polar Bear Memorial Association.

Clement, Center Line's first police chief, died in 1977 without telling the story behind the decorations. Eventually, the family found records at the National Archives that gave the briefest of accounts: he voluntarily left his trench to direct more accurate fire at the enemy.

Tom Garvale of Okemos has his grandfather's helmet and pistol, but only one insight.

Stephen Garvale emigrated from Italy in 1915 when his last name was Garavaglia. Two years later, he registered for the draft. A year after that, he was back in Europe aboard a vermin-riddled troop ship bound for a port on the White Sea called Archangel.

Temperatures there sank as low as minus 56. James Carl Nelson, author of "The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America's Forgotten Invasion of Russia," describes the white-clad Bolsheviks as "ghost warriors traversing the River Styx," advancing in lethal silence on skis or snowshoes.

In that element, Garvale was on nighttime sentry duty when he heard someone trying to break into the warehouse that held munitions and their scant rations of food.

The man did not halt when ordered. Did not identify himself. Did not give Garvale a choice: he shot the man dead, only to discover it was an American soldier gone desperate or mad from hunger.

"It probably weighed heavily on his mind," says Tom Garvale, 69. "It felt good to share the burden."

A returning soldier from the 339th Infantry is reunited with loved ones on July 3, 1919, at Michigan Central Depot in Detroit. Many of the Polar Bears never made it home.

The Polar Bears were composed of the 339th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion of 310th Engineers and 337th Ambulance and Hospital companies. They were chosen to go to Russia on the theory that Michigan troops would be suited to the cold.

President Woodrow Wilson had resisted sending forces there. With the czar overthrown, the country was in disarray.

The British and French initially hoped to cajole the new government into abandoning its peace agreement with Germany and reopening the eastern front, and anti-Bolshevik voices in the U.S. government assured Wilson that an American presence would inspire waves of former Russian soldiers to rise and sweep away the rag-tag communists.

It didn't happen. Nor did the Americans' arrival protect large quantities of military and hospital supplies shipped when Russia was an ally; in fact, Nelson says, it prompted the Bolsheviks to loot the storehouses and flee.

As the months passed, the soldiers questioned their mission and the officers had no answers. In Detroit, the wives and parents of the Polar Bears grew frustrated, then furious — and loud.

Eventually, the government heard them. By July, the Polar Bears were home.

They had lost 106 men in battle, nine through accidents and 68 to the Spanish flu or other diseases. Thirty-two were missing.

Instead of fighting in World War I, the Polar Bears were shipped to Russia, to fight Bolsheviks in temperatures as low as 56 below zero.

A recovery mission in 1929 brought back the remains of 86 soldiers. The next year, 41 of them were laid to rest in the shadow of sculptor Leon Hermant's polar bear, fiercely protecting a cross and helmet on White Chapel's northern front. Another 15 had joined them by 1935.

In Center Line, Clement Grobbel had seven children, was widowed, and married a widow with seven of her own. Five of his sons and stepsons served in World War II.

One of them was Mike Grobbel's father, Vincent, who mustered out of the Coast Guard and became a master plumber.

Mike became an engineer, an amateur historian, and last August, a battlefield tourist: he went to Archangel, where his grandfather had been a hero.

It has been reforested, he says, but you can still see the trenches. His host had a metal detector, and every foot or two it alerted them to shrapnel and rifle cartridges, the debris of war.

Grobbel eased down into a trench. A century after the fact, he walked where his grandfather had.

The temperature was in the mid-70s. He could only imagine the cold.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn