Girl Scout Troop No. 71293 members Sasha Poradun, 11, left, and Lauren Loper, 10, right, place a memorial wreath during the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27.

Girl Scout Troop No. 71293 members Sasha Poradun, 11, left, and Lauren Loper, 10, right, place a memorial wreath during the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27.

Photo by Sean Work


Memorial Day ceremony remembers the fallen

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 27, 2019

 The Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony takes place at the Circle of Honor at Mack Avenue and Vernier Road May 27.

The Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony takes place at the Circle of Honor at Mack Avenue and Vernier Road May 27.

Photo by Sean Work

 Larry Bennett, of Grosse Pointe Woods, displays the Legion of Honor medal he was awarded by France for his service in World War II. Bennett wore his uniform during the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27.

Larry Bennett, of Grosse Pointe Woods, displays the Legion of Honor medal he was awarded by France for his service in World War II. Bennett wore his uniform during the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27.

Photo by Sean Work

 At the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27, Lauren Loper, 10, of Grosse Pointe Woods, carries a flag along with her Girl Scout troop.

At the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s annual Memorial Day ceremony May 27, Lauren Loper, 10, of Grosse Pointe Woods, carries a flag along with her Girl Scout troop.

Photo by Sean Work

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — The military service members who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s freedoms were honored during the Grosse Pointe Woods Historical Commission’s 37th annual Memorial Day observance.

Held May 27 at the Circle of Honor on Vernier Road at Mack Avenue, this year’s ceremony paid tribute to those killed in the line of duty as well as veterans and those still on active duty. It also told the story of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition, which served at the end of World War I and even after the war ceased.

Grosse Pointe Woods resident George Bailey was master of ceremonies.

Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Robert Novitke was unable to attend this year’s event, so Mayor Pro Tem Arthur Bryant provided the welcome. City Council members also were present, as were Grosse Pointe Woods Municipal Court Judge Theodore Metry, City Administrator Bruce Smith, Department of Public Works Director Frank Schulte, and City Attorneys Donald Berschback and Chip Berschback.

“I want to welcome all of you, especially the veterans present,” Bryant said. “Please enjoy this wonderful day to remember the veterans of all wars.”

Bryant, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1961-67, also shared a personal story.

“I always heard my great uncle was a Polar Bear,” Bryant said. “I found him the other day on the list. I feel especially touched by today’s ceremony.”

Local historian Beverly Bishop provided the keynote address by sharing the history of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition. Her great uncle, Anthony Reichenbach, was a member of the troop. After the war, he died of pneumonia, an illness brought on by his service.

The American North Russia Expeditionary Force, also known as the Michigan Polar Bears, was sent in 1918 by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to Great Britain during WWI. The approximately 5,000 soldiers, however, were unexpectedly relocated to north Russia to fight the Bolshevik Red Army from September 1918 to 1919. Most of the soldiers were from Michigan, including Detroit, the Grosse Pointes, Cheboygan and what became Shelby Township.

“I just ask you to think back 100 years to January of 1919 (in Russia),” said Bishop, who grew up in Roseville and now resides in Mount Clemens. “The snow is piled high. … The wind is blowing rawly. … The temperature was minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

WWI had already ended but Michigan Polar Bears continued fighting. According to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan website at bentley.umich.edu, the precise goal of the Polar Bears’ mission was never made clear.

“The Bolsheviks wanted to annihilate them,” Bishop said of the Polar Bears. “After nine months of fighting the Bolshevik Red Army, the American troops were withdrawn, beginning on June 3, 1919.”

Bishop said 235 of the Polar Bears died while serving, including 152 members killed in action. The remaining soldiers died from pneumonia, accidents, influenza or suicide. Also, more than 300 were wounded.

In time, the Polar Bears veterans lobbied to have the remains of the brothers they lost in battle returned to the U.S. While many bodies have been returned, Bishop said, “Remains of 23 soldiers were never returned to the United States.”  

“I want to thank you for taking the time to honor these heroes and their sacrifices,” she said. “It truly stands up.”

The “Detroit's Own” Polar Bear Memorial Association is dedicated to honoring and maintaining the memory of the 339th Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Ambulance Co. and the 337th Field Hospital of the U.S. Army’s 85th Division. There is a Polar Bear Monument at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, where many of the troop’s members are laid to rest.

During the Grosse Pointe Woods ceremony, the Rev. John Bettin, associate pastor at St. Joan of Arc Church in St. Clair Shores, offered the invocation and benediction.

“God, bless the souls of the servicemen and women who have been called home to you,” Bettin said. “Lord, we ask you to bless those who continue to serve in the military.”

Bettin also asked that the Lord comfort the families of fallen service members.

The Grosse Pointe North High School Pointe Chorale, directed by Ben Henri, provided patriotic songs, and Mel Stander’s Gentlemen of Swing, directed by Ralph Miller, also performed. The swing group played the official song of each military branch as veterans who served in those capacities stood up to be recognized.

A closing cannon salute was provided by Mason Ferry as Harold Ruttan played taps. North junior Clare Loch sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Local Boy and Girl Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance, while local Scouts took care of the wreath presentation. Veterans were encouraged to attend and to wear all or part of their uniforms. Following the ceremony, a group photo of the veterans was taken on the boulevard island.

For more information on “Detroit’s Own” Polar Bear Memorial Association, visit the website, pbma.grobbel.org.