The Polar Bear Association of World War II


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.

Chuck & Mildred Isely in 1976.
As with most veterans, many former members of Combat Team 9 could not forget the friendships and brotherhood made while in service, a bond that welded these men together having all shared in the life and death experiences of the front. One such person was Charles Isely Jr., the former commander of the 1st Battalion, 339th Infantry, who had been with the regiment from its formation at Camp Shelby. Colonel Isely was the driving force behind the formation of an association of all of the veterans of Combat Team 9 and through his tireless efforts, the Polar Bear Association of World War II came into being. Isely set about renewing contacts with men who he had kept in touch with and searched for others who had moved onto civilian life or remained in service and his efforts were fruitful with a first get together in 1950 as discussed in one of the association's publications:

"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'.
"An extensive mail campaign was undertaken under the aegis of Chuck Isely, former C.O. of the 1st Battalion and the Polar Bear Association was born! From a number of outdated rosters, Chuck made an extensive search to locate all surviving members of RCT-9 and from the initial list of about 300 names, he built the mailing list up to over 2,000. He was appointed by that first group in Cincinnati to carry the lead. The first real meeting of the formal association was held in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1956 with about 50 in attendance. When temporary officers were named in 1958, Chuck was named president, a post he held until he became National Secretary and prime mover in 1964, holding that post until 1974."

- from The Forgotten Front, Polar Bear Association of World War II, 1982.

Mississippi Reunion 1956
The 1956 Reunion. Charles Isely sits at left. Shelton Braud, A-T Company sits at far right.
(photo courtesy of Shelton Braud)
From a fledgling organization of a handful of veterans, the Polar Bear Association of World War II grew during the 1960's and 1970's, peaking in 1982 with over 2,000 members and associates. The membership includes veterans and their wives from the 339th Infantry, the 910th Field Artillery Battalion, Company C, 310th Engineers, and Company C, 310th Medical Battalion. Reunions have been held every two years in different places in the United States. In 1992 the Association sponsored and dedicated the Regimental Combat Team monument placed in Tremensuoli, Italy. In 2002, the association provided the design and funds for a monument to the 85th Infantry Division placed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where the division was activated in 1942.

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.

Veterans at the Branson Reunion, 2006
Polar Bears gathered at the 2006 Reunion in Branson, Missouri.
(Polar Bear Association of World War II)

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
November 2008

339th Infantry in World War IIThe Polar Bears Main Page

Custer Division The 85th Infantry Division in World War II
The Unofficial Webpages of the Polar Bear Association of World War II:
Veterans of 339th Infantry, 910th FA Bn, 310th Engineer Bn, & 310th Medical Bn

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