After the surrender of Germany in May 1945, the 85th Division was assigned occupation duty in northern Italy before it was tagged in June to be sent stateside. The original members of Combat Team 9 were reassigned to other divisions for continued occupation and administrative duties in military districts in Italy, mostly along the Yugoslavian border. Most "Polar Bears" were sent to military police platoons, the engineers, maintenance units, or assigned as truck drivers in the 88th and 34th Divisions. Aside from many of the 339th's headquarters officers and company commanders, the original regiment had ceased to exist; the ranks were now filled with soldiers from other divisions who had enough points (85) to return home to the United States. In August, the division boarded the USS West Point at the Naples Port of Embarkation and sailed for Norfolk, Virginia. The ship steamed into Hampton Roads where the men disembarked and were treated to a steak dinner with all the trimmings, finished off with real ice cream. The following day, August 26, 1945, the Custer Division was formally inactivated.
In the war's aftermath, most of the enlisted men were discharged and returned to their former jobs or went to school with financial help from the GI Bill. Many of the officers remained in the service and some saw action in Korea and Vietnam. Many were never the same after experiencing combat and like all veterans of severe conflict, they attempted to get rid of the past and back to the business of living. Luckily, most made it.
"In September 1950, a group of 25 former officers of the 339th Regimental Combat Team met in Cincinnati, Ohio to renew long-time friendships with a vow to keep in touch. Four years later, some of that group met near Grand Rapids, Michigan near the home of Colonel Paul J. Vevia, who also attended, but less than a dozen officers came to the meeting. It became obvious that RCT-9 could not long survive without the enlisted men, just as the war could not have ended without the 'dogfaces'.
- from The Forgotten Front, Polar Bear Association of World War II, 1982.
Since 1996 of the Polar Bear Association held reunions in Williamsburg, Virginia, Asheville, North Carolina, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Gulfport, Mississippi where the Polar Bears were joined by several members of the 338th Infantry Association and veterans from other units of the division. The highlight of that 2002 reunion was the dedication of the monument to the 85th Infantry Division at Camp Shelby, overlooking the historic parade ground where so many of them had marched and drilled together in 1942.
The Polar Bears held their 2004 reunion September 23-27, 2004 at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Over fifty veterans and families enjoyed several days of comradeship and sunny weather, the highlight of which was a river cruise and then a visit to the new World War II Memorial! In September 2006, approximatley 100 veterans and their families attended the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the Polar Bear Association held in Branson, Missouri and a grand time was had by all who could make it.
The final reunion of the Polar Bear Association of World War II was held in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in September 2008. Twenty three veterans and their families attended and had a great time, though there was also great sadness knowing that this was going to be the last reunion. According to the by-laws of the assoction, whenever the reunions could not be attended by a quorum of at least thirty members, the association had to disband. This decision was made in Gettysburg. The association's archives and records will go to the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the site where the division began its World War II service in May 1942 and though the Polar Bear Association of WOrld War II has passed into history, the contribution of these great men will never fade from American memory.
One day, the last of these veterans will leave us. Only the legacy of their actions will remain and to them we owe a debt of gratitude for their service and contributions, not only as soldiers but as citizens. They preserved the democracy we enjoy and often take for granted today.
John Heiser, Gettysburg, PA