World War One was a watershed in American history. The United States' decision to join the battle in 1917 "to make the world safe for democracy" proved pivotal in securing allied victory — a victory that would usher in the American Century.
In the war's aftermath, individuals, towns, cities, counties, and states all felt compelled to mark the war, as did colleges, businesses, clubs, associations, veterans groups, and houses of worship. Thousands of memorials—from simple honor rolls, to Doughboy sculptures, to grandiose architectural ensembles—were erected throughout the US in the 1920s and 1930s, blanketing the American landscape.
Each of these memorials, regardless of size or expense, has a story. But sadly, as we enter the war's centennial period, these memorials and their very purpose—to honor in perpetuity the more than four million Americans who served in the war and the more than 116,000 who were killed—have largely been forgotten. And while many memorials are carefully tended, others have fallen into disrepair through neglect, vandalism, or theft. Some have been destroyed. Watch this CBS news video on the plight of these monuments.
The extant memorials are our most salient material links in the US to the war. They afford a vital window onto the conflict, its participants, and those determined to remember them. Rediscovering the memorials and the stories they tell will contribute to their physical and cultural rehabilitation—a fitting commemoration of the war and the sacrifices it entailed.
We are building a US WW1 Memorial register through a program called the Memorials Hunters Club. If you locate a memorial that is not on the map we invite you to upload your treasure to be permanently archived in the national register. You can include your choice of your real name, nickname or team name as the explorers who added that memorial to the register. We even have room for a selfie! Check the map, and if you don't see the your memorial CLICK THE LINK TO ADD IT.
The memorial acquisition had its beginnings as early as March 1920 when a successful campaign was conducted to raise funds to acquire the plaque by public subscription. The original plan was to place it on a large boulder at the Franklin County Courthouse, but a state art commission rejected that plan. After considerable delay, the base shown in the above photograph was built and the Doughboy was dedicated at the current location on a rainy November 12, 1923 – Armistice (November 11) was on Sunday that year. The parade paused for a minute of silence at 11 a. m. to recognize the effective time of the armistice five years earlier. Numerous organizations, bands and speakers participated in the ceremony.
The First Division Monument sits on a plaza in President's Park, west of the White House and south of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) at the corner of 17th Street and State Place, NW. (The EEOB was originally known as the State, War, and Navy Building and then as the Old Executive Office Building.) The monument was conceived by the Society of the First Division, the veteran's organization of the U.S. Army's First Division, to honor the valiant efforts of the soldiers who fought in World War I. Later additions to the monument commemorate the lives of First Division soldiers who fought in subsequent wars. The World War II addition on the west side was dedicated in 1957, the Vietnam War addition on the east side in 1977, and the Desert Storm plaque in 1995. Cass Gilbert was the architect of the original memorial and Daniel Chester French was the sculptor of the Victory statue. Gilbert's son, Cass Gilbert Jr., designed the World War II addition. Both the Vietnam War addition and the Desert Storm plaque were designed by the Philadelphia firm of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston, and Larson. Congressional approval was obtained to erect the First Division Monument and its later additions on federal ground. The Society of the First Division (later called the Society of the First Infantry Division) raised all the funds for the original monument and its additions. No federal money was used. Today, the monument and grounds are maintained by the National Park Service. (Courtesy National Park Service)
The Eastern High School Alumni flagstaff commemmorates seven former Eastern High students who were killed in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Paid for by alumni of the school, the flagstaff stands before the school's main entrance. It was in place when the school moved to this then-new building on March 1, 1923.
The Polar Bear Monument depicts a menacing polar bear, sculpted from white Georgian marble, advancing past a cross with a WWI helmet strapped to it. Designed by sculptor Leon Hermant, it is a monument to the "Polar Bears", a portion of Michigan's 339th Infantry Regiment, who were sent to Archangel in Northern Russia in 1918 to prevent a German advance and help reopen the Eastern Front. Instead, they fought Bolshevik revolutionaries for months after the Armistice ended the official fighting. They had killed 94 before they withdrew in April of 1919. In 1929, two commissions were sent to Archangel to recover the bodies, and they found the remains of 86 of the men. On Memorial Day in 1930, 56 of them were buried here.
In 1988, the Monument and surrounding graves were recognized as a registered Michigan Historic Site and a state historical marker was erected nearby. The marker reads as follows (note that the text provides the wrong number of burials that actually took place on May 30, 1930):
THE POLAR BEARS
In the summer of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, at the urging of Britain and France, sent an infantry regiment to north Russia to fight the Bolsheviks in hopes of persuading Russia to rejoin the war against Germany. The 339th Infantry Regiment, with the first battalion of the 310th Engineers and the 337th Ambulance and Hospital Companies, arrived at Archangel, Russia, on September 4, 1918. About 75 percent of the fifty-five hundred Americans who made up the North Russian Expeditionary Forces were from Michigan; of those a majority were from Detroit. The newspapers called them "Detroit's Own,"; they called themselves "Polar Bears." They marched on Belle Isle on July 4, 1919. Ninety-four of them were killed in action after the United States decided to withdraw from Russia but before Archangel's harbor thawed.
In 1929, five former "Polar Bears" of the 339th Infantry Regiment returned to north Russia in an attempt to recover the bodies of fellow soldiers who had been killed in action or died of exposure or disease ten years earlier. The group was selected by the members of the Polar Bear Association under the auspices of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The trip was sponsored by the federal government and the state of Michigan. The delegates recovered eighty-six bodies. Fifty-six of these were buried on this site on May 30, 1930. The Polar Bear monument was carved from white Georgian marble; the steps, from white North Carolina granite. The black granite base symbolizes a fortress, and the cross and helmet denote war burial.