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Polar Bear Brigade fought for freedom

December 27, 2007
Thousands of cars whiz by on I-75 each day just east of the White Chapel Memorial Cemetery south of Long Lake Road in Troy. Contained within that cemetery is a monument to one of the most bizarre chapters in 20th century U.S. military history.

It is a giant bear — a polar bear — and it symbolizes the American role in a futile international effort to confront German forces with an eastern front in World War I.

Each Memorial Day weekend, the descendants of the 5,500 men who served in what came to be known as the Polar Bear Brigade honor the roles their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers played in the geopolitical landscape from 1918 to 1919.

At least three Grosse Pointers — all members of the Senior Men's Club that meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays each month in the Fries Ballroom of the War Memorial for lunch — have ties to the men who fought in the frozen north near Archangel on the White Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean. They are Hudson Mead, George Lilly and Jim Furlong, whose fathers were part of that mission.

Of that force, statistics show 83 were killed in action; 70 died from disease; two from their wounds; and 14 from other causes such as accidental explosions and drowning. Twenty nine were reported missing in action and 12 were taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks (whom we call Communists today).

Preparing to fight in the trenches of France in the summer of 1918, the Army's 85th Division, made up mostly of men from Michigan and the Midwest, left Fort Custer near Battle Creek and sailed to England.

The troops of 339th Infantry and support units of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital and the 337th Ambulance Company were diverted to Archangel 600 miles north of Moscow.

The so-called strategy that September was to fight alongside an international force and join up with Russian anti-Bolshevik armies to attack the Germans from the rear. They never got further than the Archangel area.

Recently, Mead, a local attorney, historian and raconteur, entertained the Grosse Pointe Senior Men's Club with his stories about the Polar Bear Brigade and the role his father — 1st Lt. Harry H. Mead — played in that expedition during which troops continued to battle even after an armistice was reached in Europe between allied and German forces. Mead senior was wounded during the fighting.

Mead (the younger), now in his mid-80s, has served on the Michigan Historical Commission and has access to its extensive collections including maps, photos, videos and diaries of men who served.

If you Google the Polar Bear Expedition you can get various links including one to the Michigan collection that lists the names of each soldier who served in the Arctic.

Mead was accompanied by Stan Bozich, executive director of Michigan's Own Military and Space Museum, 1250 Weiss Street in Frankenmuth, that boasts the largest collection of Polar Bear Brigade uniforms and memorabilia in the world. It also features jets, astronaut memorabilia and a tribute to Michigan governors.

The museum is closed January and February, but open the rest of the year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Bozich is also vice president of Michigan's Own Polar Bear Memorial Association which will next commemorate brigade members at White Chapel cemetery on May 26.

If you are interested in military history or are a descendent of one of those brave men who fought in the Arctic cold, the next time you are heading north on I-75 to that summer vacation spot, consider taking a detour to Frankenmuth to see Bozich's museum.

I hear you can get good chicken dinners in Frankenmuth, too.

Guiding Light

Diane Strickler of the Park, who was the first executive director of the Family Center, is stepping down as of January.

Board President Thomas F. Quinn referred to Strickler as the center's "guiding light" in an announcement that a search committee hopes to find: "a strong leader who will guide The Family Center as we continue to grow and evolve into an even greater force in the community.

"Diane has helped to establish a solid foundation upon which we will build."

The non-profit, joint project of the school system and the community has sponsored numerous talks and lectures during the last seven years to help families deal intelligently with problems children face in today's complex society.

Sonny Sez

Renowned editorial cartoonist Draper Hill of the City and WWJ weather forecaster Sonny Eliot entertained a couple hundred fans at the War Memorial recently.

The pair signed copies of Eliot's book, "Sonny Sez," a collection of strange, weird and true stories featured on radio broadcasts. Hill illustrated the 180-page, soft cover volume published by Wayne State University Press. Hill, who retired as The Detroit News editorial cartoonist some years back, told the tale of how he came to meet and befriend the late, great Saturday Evening Post artist, Norman Rockwell.

Eliot was up to his usual hijinks with witticisms and slightly off base remarks. For example, when asked to explain Hill's sophisticated artistic style, Eliot said, "Explaining some of Draper's cartoons is like turning the porch light on to wait for Jimmy Hoffa."

Pointer Bruce Bockstanz, who was in the same German prisoner of war camp as Eliot during World War II, introduced himself to Detroit's most famous weather forecaster. They had never met in the camp that held more than 7,000 airmen by war's end.

Bockstanz, however, had seen Eliot perform in a show staged in the camp and remembered Eliot told a joke about Woodward Avenue. Bockstanz later recognized Eliot on local television and said, "There's the guy from the POW camp."

Eliot's book, priced at $14.95 and edited by Stanley D. Williams, contains 100, one-minute stories and is distributed by Ninevaeh's Crossing at 1-877-606-1370 or NineehsCrossing.com,

There is also has a CD with the stories and an interview with Hill about Eliot, which only seems fair.

Ben Burns of the City is a professor in the journalism program at Wayne State. He can be reached at burnsben@comcast.net or by phone at (313) 882-2810.
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