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Welcom to the perfect place to begin learning about Detroit's Own Polar Bears!

The December 4, 1918 Battle of Karaporgora

"The Battle of Karporgora"
December 4, 1918

This painting depicts Sgt. Mike Burke’s machine gun squad of “G” Co., 339th Infantry Regiment in combat at Karporgora on the Pinega River front in North Russia. Sgt. Burke is shown firing his Lewis machine gun as the soldier to his right prepares to provide re-loads. That soldier is Cpl. John Toornman, who created this painting from memory. Pvt. Louis H. Stark is the soldier with the wounded left forearm. At the bottom center of the painting are the two men who were killed in this battle, Pvt. Jay Pitts and Pvt. Clarence Malm. They both now rest in peace at the foot of the Polar Bear monument at White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.

Cpl. John Toornman made this painting in the early 1920s, around the same time that the Polar Bear Association was organized and began holding reunions. John put his painting in his basement, where it stayed until the early 1980’s when he brought it out to show author Dennis Gordon who was researching his book, “Quartered in Hell”. Gordon received permission to use Toornman's painting as the cover artwork for his book, which has been out of print for decades. Toornman later gifted the painting to his son, Gene, who has owned it now for nearly 30 years. During the filming of “Voices of a Never Ending Dawn” in March 2009, Gene Toornman shared his painting with the film producers and the grandson of Pvt. Louis H. Stark. Now in 2018, the Toornman family has graciously made this painting available to the Polar Bear Memorial Association for use in their centennial commemorations of the service and sacrifice of the Polar Bear soldiers.

A limited number of 12” by 18” color print reproductions of this painting are available by mail order. They are printed on 100 lb paperweight stock and are suitable for framing. Prints are priced at $15.00 each + $10.00 shipping and handling per order. Contact PBMA Vice President Kevin Stark by email at to place your order.

Public Memory of the Polar Bears

Captain Matthew J. DiRisio is a United States Army officer currently in graduate school pursuing an MA in history through George Mason University prior to a new assignment where he will teach history to the cadets at West Point.

Capt. DiRisio recently reached out to the Polar Bear Memorial Association, writing, "I am currently working on a project studying the public memory of the Polar Bear Expedition. I became interested in the Polar Bear Expedition when I was in middle school and my parents bought me the book "When Hell Froze Over" for my birthday. Fast forward more than a decade and I am in grad school and finally able to do some research/writing on the topic. My project concerns how the public memory of the Polar Bear Expedition stayed alive regionally versus nationally. My professor bet me that I would not be able to find enough information on the 339th to write a 3,000-word paper."

Capt. DiRisio won that bet. Here is his finished project: "Frozen in Time: Public Memory, the Polar Bear Expedition, and the Triumph of the Regional Vernacular"

Bentley Historical Library

The Bentley Historical Library's "Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections" web site features digitized content from their "Polar Bear Collections" that are archived at their facility on the University of Michigan's North Campus. Back in the 1960s, the Bentley Historical Library began collecting personal papers of the Polar Bear veterans through a collaboration with the Polar Bear Association. Around 2006 the Library began digitizing this collection and making it available online. Their web site contains

1. 63 collections digitized in 2004 by the University Library.
2. 17 collections digitized by the U of M School of Information and Bentley Historical Library.
3. 19 collections digitized by donors.
4. A roster of soldiers who served with the Polar Bears, containing 6,813 names.
5. Collections of books, newspapers, periodicals, and maps digitized from our collection.
6. Links to Polar Bear-related publications digitized by others.

From the Introduction to his book When Hell Froze Over

"The American Expedition to North Russia in 1918-1919 has been oddly neglected by professional historians, with the result that most US citizens, including even the best educated and well-read, have been unaware of its existence. Partly, this has been because it got underway in the closing weeks of the Great War (now officially called World War I), and like a sideshow at a circus where they are already striking the tent, it drew little attention.

Besides that, there was the confusion and obscurity surrounding it with regard to its purpose, especially in Washington and among the American troops who were involved: they literally had no idea what they were being sent to do. Even President Woodrow Wilson, as will be seen, was in a spin of uncertainty as to whether he should or should not authorize the expedition, and the British leadership (for it was to be an Allied operation, including British and French soldiers, but with the British officers in all the top command positions) offered little clarification.

Without further enlightenment, five thousand American doughboys found themselves, early in September of 1918, after a long, slow trip from England through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, disembarking at the Russian port of Archangel - and more than half of them no sooner ashore than they were, with astonishment, packed off to "the front" to fight "the Bolos" - which was to say units of the Soviet Red Army. The operation thus turned out to be, willy-nilly and right from the start, an invasion of Soviet territory."

- Ernest M. Halliday

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