Michigan’s Polar Bears

Back in January, I visited the Detroit Zoo, where I found a small historical marker about the “Michigan Polar Bears,” soldiers from Michigan who fought in Russia at the end of WWI. I had vaguely heard about the Allied mission to Russia after the Russian Civil War, but never realized that most of the American men involved were from Michigan.

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

Photo from my visit to the Zoo last January

I was instantly intrigued, but somehow my plans to do more research on the Polar Bears got put to the side. Then in May, I noticed this book at the library – and of course I picked it up and read it (side note: reading this book on the deck on a cruise ship in the Bahamas will get you some weird looks). It is a fascinating memoir written by Godfrey Anderson, a west Michigan boy who ended up in the 337th Hospital Unit (with no previous medical training), about his experiences in Russia as a part of what was officially known as the American North Russian Expeditionary Force (ANREF), but is colloquially known as the Polar Bear Expedition.

A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks - A memoir by Godfrey Anderson

A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks – A memoir by Godfrey Anderson

Finally, in late July I headed over to the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy to check out the Michigan Polar Bear Memorial. And then I spent about two weeks procrastinating writing this post.

The Polar Bear Memorial

The Polar Bear Memorial

Why did I procrastinate so much? Because I was trying to give a detailed description of the events of the Polar Bear Expedition, yet do it in a short, blog-appropriate manner. However, there’s a big problem with this approach: I’m terrible at explaining military campaigns, and a blog isn’t really the the appropriate format for a detailed explanation. After two weeks of writing down names and dates and trying to make sense of it all, I realized that I was trying to fit far to much in, and that I really needed to just WRITE THE DAMN POST ALREADY. So instead, I’ll try to give a brief summary, and at the end make some recommendations as to where you can find further information.

In late 1918, the U.S. sent around 5000 men to northern Russia to join an international force determined to fight the Red Army of the Bolsheviks, who had previously taken control of Russia and pulled the country out of WWI. The exact goal of their mission isn’t clear now, nor was it then, especially to the men on the ground. American troops landed in Arkhangelsk, and then pushed south along the Dvina River and the Vologda railroad. The further south they went, the more Bolshevik resistance they encountered. When winter set in, the Allied commanders planned to hold their position until spring. Unfortunately for them, the Red Army had no intention of sitting out the winter – they knew this land, and they knew how to fight in winter. Throughout the winter, they pushed the Allied forces back north to Arkhangelsk. Amid growing questions in Russia and at home as to why troops were still overseas (as the war in Europe had ended the previous November), in April the troops received the order to withdraw. As soon as shipping lanes were open, the American troops began to return home. British troops stayed on a little longer and local anti-Bolshevik forces held the city until February 1920, but it eventually fell to the Red Army.

You wouldn’t think an American mission to Russia would be an important part of Michigan history, but the fact is that two thirds of the men who were part of the ANREF were Michiganders. Michigan troops were chosen for a few different reasons: because they were familiar with harsh winters, because their commander, Cl. George Evan Stewart had previously served in Alaska, and because at the time of the decision,  there were a number of Michigan troops at Camp Aldershot, the camp location where they could most easily be transported to Newcastle and from there board ships to Russia. Godfrey Anderson wrote that in his company, the difference between ending up in France and being sent to Russia was one of luck and speed – at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, MI, where he did his basic training, the men were split into different units based on where they were in a line – those in front eventually went to Russia, while the stragglers went to France.

The men of of the ANREF chose the name “Polar Bears” for themselves, and were permitted to wear Polar Bear insignia on their left sleeve after returning home. In 1922, veterans of the campaign held a reunion in Detroit and formed the Polar Bear Association. The association lobbied the U.S. government to allow a few members to travel to Russia and bring back the remains of their fallen comrades, a dream that came true in 1929. They brought back the remains of 86 soldiers, and another dozen were returned by the Soviet Union in 1934. 56 soldiers were buried in Troy at the White Chapel Cemetery, where the Polar Bear Association erected a monument in honor of the mission and in memory of those who died. The solid marble polar bear, standing over a cross and helmet, is surrounded by gravestones for each of the soldiers buried there. A historical marker stands to the side.

The site of the memorial

The site of the memorial

The memorial is magnificent. The polar bear towers above you when standing close, displaying a fierce snarl. His expression seems to be one of anger – whether it is aimed at those who may disturb the honored dead, or anger over the lives lost in a fruitless campaign I’m not sure. Despite its height, the size of the statue is dwarfed by the vast cemetery it is located in. The historical marker helpfully puts the memorial in context for anyone who might wander over, attracted by the unusual statue, but I can’t help but wonder just how rare that is. Honoring the dead with a statue at their final resting place is understandable, but I wish there was a polar bear statue in a more frequented place, to help keep this event in the public memory a little better. The plaque at the Detroit Zoo caught my eye, but that’s because any and all historical plaques catch my eye. I’m sure most people walk on by, paying more attention to the live polar bears nearby. A larger memorial outside the cemetery might help this forgotten piece of history be a little less, well, forgotten. So far as I can tell, there are no other statues or memorials of the Polar Bear Expedition – if anybody knows of any, I’d love to hear about them!

There’s plenty written about the Polar Bears if you would like to learn more. I recommend checking out the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan. The Polar Bear Memorial Association also has a website, and holds annual events at the White Chapel Cemetery on Memorial Day. To get a true sense of what it was like for the young Michigan men who were sent to Russia, read one of the many memoirs and diaries – Anderson’s is available as a book, and but there are also number published online (see these links from the PBMA), or these collections digitized by the Bentley. The PBMA also has a helpful list of books about the conflict if what you really want is just a good old fashioned history book.

And the next time you are near Troy, go visit the White Chapel Cemetery and just spend a few minutes at the memorial to honor the Michigan men who fought in a forgotten war.

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