Friday, September 27, 2013

Wilbur Beeks, member of the Michigan Polar Bears

Wilbur Beeks was born in Lagro Township, Wabash County, Indiana on August 8, 1895. His parents were John and Elizabeth Wise Beeks.  He married Gretta Cleo Aldridge November 29, 1914, in St Joseph, Michigan. (Note: I have not yet found documentation for the marriage.  They would have been young: he was 19 and she was not quite 18.)  They had a large family, 16 children in all, of whom eight lived to adulthood.  So far, the story of Wilbur could be the story of many other young men from the area, who married young and spent the rest of their days supporting their families as best they could.

Wilbur, however, had an experience that only a few thousand other people shared, and only a few of those people were from Indiana.  When he was drafted into the Army in World War I, he was one of a few who were "chosen" to join that unit that became known as the Michigan Polar Bears.  Their official name was the 339th Michigan Infantry, and he was in Company K.  All during his training he and the others assumed they were going to France.  However, after the ship left England, the men learned they were going instead to Russia, near Archangel, where a small second front would be opened to distract the Germans from the trench warfare in France and to secure the port for the Allies.  Compamy K, along with the rest of the 339th Infantry, arrived in England in late July, 1918, where they stayed in "English rest camps" for a short time, and they arrived in Russia September 4, 1918.

Wilbur was wounded in action shortly after he arrived, on September 27, 1918, on the north bank of the Emsta River, 3 versts nort of Kodish, Russia. He spent several weeks in the hospital recuperating from a wound to his throat, and eventually rejoined his unit and continued fighting.  Needless to say, the men were cold, wet, and miserable during much of their time there. 

Due to the long winter, political ineptness, and perhaps even forgetfulness, the men of the "Michigan Polar Bears were no returned home after Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Instead, they fought on, and on, and on, eventually fighting the Bolsheviks while trying to give what little support they could to the White (anti-Communist) Russians.  It took a letter writing campaign from home and a Congressional hearing to put enough pressure on the military to get the troops home.from Russia.  The soldiers were at Camp Ponanezen, near Brent, France by early June, and arrived "home" to a magnificent July 4 welcome in Detroit.  (Most of the men who made up this unit were from Michigan, but there were at least two members of the unit from every state in the union, by design.) Wilbur was "transferred" July 12, 1919, and soon after was back home in Indiana.

The rest of Wilbur's life was more mundane. He and his wife raised their children, and often there were other family members living with them.  They lived outside of Andrews for several years, but moved to Andrews by 1940 so the children could attend the nearby school.  He retired on veteran's disability at about the age of 55, and lived quietly until his sudden death on January 9, 1970.

At the time of his death, he was survived by 7 children, 42 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. Many of his grandchildren are grandparents now, so there are probably even great great great grandchildren of Wilbur and Cleo Beeks now. I hope every one of them gets to know this ancestor story, so they can tell it to their children. It is remarkable.

For those who are interested, there was a PBS documentary about this unit called "Voices of a Never Ending Dawn" which may still be available.  Googling "Michigan Polar Bears" will give you a lot of sites related to this unit, and there are even on line diaries from a few of the men who served with the Michigan 339th.  There is a Memorial Day service every year at the White Chapel Memorial Cemetery, Troy, Michigan.  The public is invited to attend this, and it would be a great way to pay tribute to an ancestor.