The Polar Bears: Forgotten American soldiers who died fighting communism

John J. Miller in National Review:

The Forgotten Americans Who Died Fighting Communism

At sunrise, following a sleepless night of trudging through the cold swamps of northern Russia, a couple of men from Detroit made breakfast. Corporal Morris Foley and Private Bill Henkelman brewed tea and opened a can of corned beef. As Foley prepared to finish the last of the beef, Henkelman spoke up: “Let’s save enough for after while.” Foley refused. “There might not be no after while.”

It turned out there wasn’t, at least not for Foley. Later that morning — on September 20, 1918, by the village of Seltso on the Dvina River — his company formed a skirmish line and charged a nest of Russian machine gunners. Bullets ripped through Foley’s face and neck. “Foley had his jaw shot off,” reported a sergeant. Somehow, the young man survived his brutal injury long enough to join a retreat. He died near his original position and was buried close to where he had scarfed down his beef.

Today, Foley’s recovered remains rest in Troy, Mich., in the 200-acre White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery, alongside the graves of 55 other American soldiers who died fighting Communists in the frozen wilds of northern Russia in 1918 and 1919. They’re marked by one of the most striking sculptures to be seen anywhere, let alone at a cemetery: a snarling polar bear, carved in white marble by the artist Leon Hermant. It’s a tribute to what some U.S. soldiers took to calling themselves a century ago: the “Polar Bears.” They were the first and only Americans to fight a shooting war against Russian Communists.

Few of their countrymen know anything about the Polar Bears. Ronald Reagan didn’t. “Tonight, I want to speak to the people of the Soviet Union,” he said in his State of the Union address in 1984. “It’s true our governments have had serious differences. But our sons and daughters have never fought each other in war.” Richard Nixon made the same mistake in 1972, in a televised speech from the Kremlin: “Our two countries have much in common. Most important of all, we have never fought each other in war.” Yet more than 5,000 Americans did fight the Russians, in what was at once an odd coda to World War I, a minor episode in the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, and a prelude to the main geopolitical event of the second half of the 20th century: the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“They felt forgotten by their government,” says Mike Grobbel, a retired GM executive whose grandfather served in Russia. “Our job is to make sure they’re not forgotten.” Grobbel runs the Polar Bear Memorial Association, which manages an extensive website and commemorates the Polar Bears every Memorial Day with a ceremony at White Chapel. It takes an effort such as his in part because the Polar Bears are all gone: The last veteran died years ago.

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