The Story of Homer Wing

Last November, the nation observed the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or November 11, 1918 – the date when hostilities ceased on the battlefields of World War I. The armistice was welcome news for American families whose sons, fathers, brothers and husbands in uniform were serving in harm’s way. At railroad stations in towns across the country, people gathered to embrace the returning vets. 

Homer Wing (American Legion Post 172)

Homer Wing (American Legion Post 172)

In Rochester, Michigan, it was a different story, at least for one family. Private First Class Homer Wing of Rochester, who served with the U.S. Army’s 310th Engineers, was not on his way home like most of the soldiers who were being discharged in large numbers. PFC Wing was assigned to a group that was sent instead to Russia as part of a military intervention that would later be nicknamed the “Polar Bear Expedition.” 

Homer Wing was born in Rochester in 1893, into a large family of at least 10 children. When he was 19 years old, he played catcher on the Western Knitting Mills’ baseball team. According to a local newspaper account of a game played in 1912, Homer was behind the plate without a catcher’s mask when a foul ball struck him in the eye. The impact knocked him out, but according to the newspaper, “after a few minutes he came to and caught the remainder of the game.” 

Newly married and working as a laborer on the Marsden Burch (formerly John F. Hamlin) farm in Avon Township, Homer Wing was one of more than 4,000 Michigan men drafted in the spring of 1918 and sent to Fort Custer for basic training. He sailed for Europe with the 310th Engineers on July 21, 1918. 

Homer Wing American Legion Post Sign

Homer Wing American Legion Post

The U.S. Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment, along with several support units including the 310th Engineers, went not to the battlefields of France, but to Archangel, Russia, a port on the White Sea about 600 miles north of Moscow. They were sent to join British forces in aiding the Russians, who were tied down in a civil war with the Bolsheviks. Hoping to encourage the Russians to re-engage against Germany, the British and American expeditionary force sought to disrupt any advances by the Bolsheviks. 

It was in the frozen tundra north of Moscow, in temperatures that were sometimes as much as 60 degrees below zero, that Homer Wing and his fellow “Polar Bear” soldiers from Michigan fought the war. They remained at their posts for months after the armistice had been declared in November 1918, fighting frostbite and disease as much as any human enemy. While their comrades on other fronts were sailing for home, Michigan’s Polar Bears were left behind on foreign soil. 

The Bolsheviks were not at war with the Germans, so the armistice did not end their fight with the expeditionary forces. In addition, American and British forces could not be withdrawn from Archangel until the spring thaw allowed ships into the harbor. That meant that the Polar Bears were marooned in Russia for the winter, ill-equipped for the harsh conditions.  

On the home front, however, families increased pressure on Congress to bring their soldiers out of Russia. Finally, in May 1919, the withdrawal from Archangel began, and Homer Wing was on his way home. 

Official military dispatch about Volodga Railway accident (National Archives and Records Administration)

Official military dispatch about Volodga Railway accident (National Archives and Records Administration)

The 310th Engineers made the first leg of their homeward journey on the Archangel & Vologda Railway. Tragically, on May 25, 1919, an accident on the line cause the collision of two engines, instantly killing Homer Wing and seriously injuring one of his comrades. His remains were returned to U.S. soil in July 1919.

Michigan Historical Marker honoring Polar Bears at White Chapel Cemetery Sign

Michigan Historical Marker honoring Polar Bears at White Chapel Cemetery

The bodies of 70 Polar Bear soldiers made their way back to Michigan on November 16, 1919, where they were received with somber ceremony at the Michigan Central train station in Detroit. Following the military rites, the soldiers’ remains were returned to their families across the state. Homer Wing’s funeral was held in Rochester two days later. Schools and businesses were closed as the American Legion, the Red Cross, and 225 schoolchildren led a solemn funeral procession through town to Mount Avon Cemetery, where Homer Wing was, at last, laid to rest. 

To honor the fallen soldier, the American Legion post in Rochester adopted the name of Homer Wing, and the organization memorializes his sacrifice to this day. 

Polar Bear Monument at White Chapel Cemetery

Polar Bear Monument at White Chapel Cemetery

In 1929, a commission was appointed to recover the bodies of American soldiers who had been buried in Archangel. Those remains that were brought back to U.S. soil were buried at White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery in Troy, and a monument was raised there to forever honor the memory of Michigan’s Polar Bear soldiers.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

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