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“Polar bears” a true test of courage

by Judy Reed

Men and women across the world cheered when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. It meant the end of the Great War—World War I. One group of men soldiered on, however, in the subfreezing temperatures of northern Russia, and wondered when they would be called home; they wondered, as days turned into months, if they had been forgotten.

The men, a majority of them from Michigan, dubbed themselves the “Polar Bears.”

Soldier on watch in deep snow in northern Russia during the winter of 1918-1919.It was the summer of 1918. The U.S. Army’s 85th Division, made up mostly of men from Michigan and Wisconsin, finished their training at Fort Custer, Battle Creek, and sailed to England. While some were sent to France, 5,000 troops of the 339th Infantry and support units (one battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital, and the 337th Ambulance Company) were issued Russian weapons and equipment and sailed for Archangel, a Russian port on the White Sea, 600 miles north of Moscow. They were under British command.

It was never completely understood why the men were sent there, but they were fighting Bolshevik revolutionaries, (precursors to the communists) and were never called home until June 1919. Morale was low, and there was even report of a mutiny, but the rumors were highly exaggerated. Diaries show the men had their doubts about why they were there, but they fought  just the same.

There were at least two Cedar Springs men among those who fought—Pvt. Sidney DeGraw, and Pvt. Edgar G. Hauge, both of Company A. Not much is known about Hauge, except that he joined at Economie Point, in the spring of 1919, according to papers in the “Polar Bear Expedition” digital collection at the University of Michigan.

DeGraw was born October 9, 1866, to Mr. and Ms. Cornelius DeGraw, early pioneers of Spencer Township. At the time of the war, he was living on a farm near Pine Lake. He was wounded in action on March 7, 1919, Vistovka. DeGraw lost a leg from his injuries, and while hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., he wrote home. “Thank you all very much for the birthday cards I received, 76 of them. It is good to get back to a country where there are friends and people civilized instead of being back in the jungles of northern Russia, where we are 350 miles from a railroad and never heard from in months, and snow and ice was plentiful. It was 80 below zero and we were on English rations, which was canned beef, moldy, and for weeks, it was frozen so we had to hold it in our mouths to thaw it out so we could swallow it as we dared not have a fire for it would give our location away,” he wrote.

After the war, DeGraw moved into Cedar Springs. He died in 1938, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Other men from around the area who served there include Harry D. McFall, Rockford; Fred H. Johnson, Sparta, Co. M; C.W.Alverson, Howard City, Co. M; George H. Stevenson, Howard City, 310 Engineer; and four men from Greenville—Floyd J. Farrar, Karl O. Feldt, George Hosford, and Lyle G. Wright.

Of the 5,500 soldiers, 100 died of the flu, 500 were injured severely and 340 died. The last Polar Bear died at age 102 in 2002.

The VFW reportedly played a historic role in the recovery of bodies of fallen Polar Bears. After refusing for 10 years to let the U.S. in to find them, the Soviet Union finally agreed to allow six men in to recover of the remains. In 1929, VFW Captain Edwin and five other VFW members traveled back to Northern Russia. Five of them had been Polar Bears.

According to the VFW, this group traveled 13,000 miles, wading through swamps, scrambling up cliffs, searching through the dense forests of Northern Russia to find and recover the remains of their fallen brothers. Out of 121 bodies sought, they recovered 86, which they turned over to Michigan Governor Fred Green on December 1, 1929.

On May 30, 1929, the bodies of 41 of these brave men were interred at White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery at the foot of the newly erected Polar Bear Monument in Troy, MI. A crowd of over 4,000 people attended the ceremony that day to welcome our boys home at the foot of the newly created Polar Bear Monument.

This Memorial Day, remember those Michigan men who fought bravely. And if you have any information about the men listed in the article, please give us a call at 696-3655.

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