Situated in a quiet cemetery on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan stands a monument to America’s “Polar Bear” soldiers who fought the Bolshevik Red Army in the arctic regions of Russia during World War I. A solemn stone polar bear guards the graves of 56 soldiers from Detroit who died in a little known aspect of the Great War. Two-thirds of the U.S. troops sent to assist the Allied war efforts in Russia were from the State of Michigan and embracing their assignment to Siberia called themselves the Polar Bears. Unfortunately many of the Polar Bears never made it home and joined the tally of more than 116,000 American soldiers who gave their lives in combat during World War I.
The honor guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, which was originally created to honor the unidentifiable casualties of World War I, goes by the mantra “soldiers never die until they are forgotten.” As soldiers returned from the Great War, communities across the country honored their sacrifices by dedicating buildings and monuments to them that still dot our landscape. As time has passed and new military conflicts have followed the “War to End All Wars,” the recollection of that era has begun to fade from the national consciousness of future generations. With 2017 marking the centennial anniversary of the United States entering World War I, this Memorial Day would make an excellent opportunity for a road trip to honor the soldiers who fought in that conflict and learn about their history. Let us not forget!
Thousands of memorials to honor in perpetuity the more than 4 million Americans who served in World War I ranging from architectural tributes, like the Elks National Monument and Fraternal Headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, to monuments, such as the Polar Bear Memorial at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, were constructed throughout the 1920s and ‘30s across the country. One of the most recognizable of these World War I tributes are the statuary reproductions of artist E.M. Viquesney’s THE SPIRIT OF THE AMERICAN DOUGHBOY sculpture which can be found in 38 states. The United States World War One Centennial Commission has created an online database of memorials to encourage people to visit the variety of memorials located throughout the nation this year. Enter the city and state you want to search and it’ll be provided a convenient listing of sites in the vicinity. Using this service allowed me to discover one of Visquesney’s American Doughboy statues is located just a few miles from my house and I had never known about it.
For an immersive educational experience exploring this period of history, take a visit to the National World War I Museum & Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. The facility holds the most diverse collection of World War I artifacts in world housing more than 300,000 historical items. Its Liberty Memorial Tower is one of the largest war memorials in the world rising 268 feet making it taller than the Statue of Liberty. At night, a Flame of Inspiration that is created by steam and special lighting effects is emitted from the top of the tower which is visible from miles away. A northern stone wall along the northern edge of the property has bronze busts embedded within it of the five Allied leaders who were present during the site’s dedication on November 1, 1921: General Baron Jacques (Belgium), General Armando Diaz (Italy), Marshal Ferdinand Foch (France), General John Pershing (United States) and Sir Admiral Earl David Beatty (Great Britain).
While the exterior is a sight to behold, the interior is very impressive as well. Guests move from the main lobby into the museum by walking over the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge which has them pass over a field of 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 combatant fatalities during the war – 9 million in total! In homage to the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, the American Legion in 1921 began distributing remembrance poppy artificial flowers to commemorate military personnel that have died in a war. This thought-provoking, heartfelt, display pays tribute to that tradition.
There is a huge variety of interesting items from World War I on display, but here are a few highlights to keep an eye out for during a visit:
Ford 1918 Model T ambulance that was restored by the son of the man who drove it during the war;
Pantheon de la Guerre which portrays 6,000 prominent figures from World War I was at one time the largest painting in the world at 402 feet by 45 feet;
U.S. Browning M1917 machine gun was one of the most important weapons in the American arsenal during the war;
1917 Harley Davidson Army motorcycle;
French FT 17 was the first tank to have a fully revolving turret.
Also through August 20, 2017 a special photographic exhibit, Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: The Doughboys 1917 – 1918 will be on display in the museum’s outdoor Memorial Courtyard. Featuring pictures from photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil, visitors are shown battlefield locations that American forces fought at during World War 1 as they appear now in the modern world. Amazingly there still is ammunition and weapons from the conflict littering the European countryside one hundred years later. Take a look at how things look today and try to imagine what things were like a hundred years ago when soldiers were huddled in trenches dug behind barbed wire fences and sandbag barriers while artillery shells exploded around them.
The National World War One Museum and Memorial is open daily from 10 am to 5pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day. During the rest of the year, the museum is closed on Mondays. Admission is $16 (adults) $14 (seniors 65+) $14 (college ID) $10 (youth 6 – 17). Children under 5 years old are free. Active-duty military with identification get tickets half-off. Every Wednesday all tickets are just $8. For more information, visit www.theworldwar.org
Museum photos courtesy of National World War I Museum & Memorial.