Indomitable snowmen: World War I Battalion gets due in new documentary

By Kevin Denke
Posted 7/20/09

Kevin Denke John Henry Toornman Bales always knew his great-grandfather and namesake          was a war hero.     But there always was some …

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Indomitable snowmen: World War I Battalion gets due in new documentary


Kevin Denke

John Henry Toornman Bales always knew his great-grandfather and namesake  

       was a war hero.

    But there always was some inevitable head scratching when Bales tried to explain John Henry Toorman’s rightful place in history.

    “My great-grandpa was in World War I,” Bales would begin.

    “Where was he?” friends would ask, the images of battlegrounds of France, Italy and Germany immediately springing to mind.

    “Russia,” Bales would proudly respond.

    “We were in Russia?” they would then ask incredulously. “I didn’t know we were in Russia.”

    They weren’t alone.

    For the past 90 years, the story of the American soldiers sent to the frigid terrain of Northern Russia at the tail end of the war is one of the greatest and yet heartbreaking stories of military history never told.

    But that changed this year with the debut of a new documentary, “Voices of a Never Ending Dawn.” The film shares the story of the American Expeditionary Force, dubbed the Polar Bears, sent to Northern Russia in 1918 shortly before the end of the war. The group of men was originally made up solely of weather-hearty Michigan men of the 339th Infantry and several support units.

    Their mission was to join an international force, commanded by the British, to fight the Bolsheviks, (regarded as the first communists) with the hope that Russia would be convinced to rejoin the fight against Germany.

    Instead the soldiers became embroiled in Russia’s bloody civil war. They returned home well after the war ended weather-beaten and emotionally and physically scarred from their experience.

    Documentary filmmaker Pamela Peak, a Detroit native and Southern California resident, took on the project for a very personal reason.

    Her grandfather, Guy Campus, was a Polar Bear.

    “I always remembered my grandpa loving the fact that he was a Polar Bear and having to wear one of those little Russian hats when he shoveled snow,” Peek said. “He was such a cute, little Italian grandpa.”

    But Peak said Campus closely guarded the details of his war experience.

    “He never said much about it,” Peak said.

    It wasn’t until a 21-year-old Peak, tasked with driving her elderly grandfather to a reunion of Polar Bear members, realized the weight of his experience.

    “I walked in with him on my arm because he was very old and he burst into tears,” Peak said. “He looked at some things they had in a case there, some rifles, stuff like and he started crying, ‘My boys, my boys.’”

    The experience stuck with Peak but it wasn’t until 2007 that she decided to start putting the pieces together. Peak had just achieved success with her first major television documentary film “Colorblind” when a cousin approached her about telling the story of the Polar Bears.

    “He said, ‘You know I just came from this ceremony at the foot of the Polar Bear monument (Troy, Mich.),’” Peak recalled. ‘You’ve got to look into this story.’”

    “What’s the story?” Peak asked. “I could never find out what the story was because they wouldn’t talk about it.”

    What Peak found, through extensive research and interviews with families including relatives of John Toornman, was a story with eerie parallels to more recent U.S. military conflicts but its own unique legend.

    “There’s things about this story that are similar to Vietnam, a little similar to Iraq when we first went in but nothing’s ever been like this story,” she said. “Nobody’s ever been asked to fight in 60-degree below zero weather.”

The Mission

Peak said about 4,700 men were on the first boat to Russia and about 100 died of Spanish flu en route. While the initial group was made of Michigan men, new members were added from across the United States, including Colorado (see box), and the numbers swelled to 5,500. 110 men died in battle and 70 went missing.

    Peak’s documentary uses the stories of family members and the words of soldiers themselves from the countless biographies written in the wake of their experience, to bring the story to life. The movie spotlights the political engineering that sent the soldiers to Russia, their bloody, battle experiences and the public outrage that eventually brought them home. The latter particularly stands out to Peak.

    “It was (the soldiers) parents,” Peak said. “That’s what I loved about this story. It was the first time in history that the U.S. public ever affected U.S. foreign policy. It was the parents petitioning the president (Woodrow Wilson) and a congressman from California (Hiram Johnson). They were so vocal, they didn’t let up.”

    Peak said the voices of parents – disheartened that their children hadn’t come home from war with the rest of America’s sons – were eventually joined by Detroit daily newspapers, which editorially campaigned for the soldiers’ return.

    “They assembled and eloquently said ‘We don’t want our sons known as quitters but the war is over and they should at least have an equal chance at their lives like all the other boys that have already come home.’”

    The soldiers eventually did return and President Warren G. Harding later admitted the expedition was a mistake.

Proud to serve

The focus of the documentary dabbles less in the political side of the war than it does on the group of young men who went to battle, including Toornman, of Kalamazoo, Mich. Toornman, a Dutch immigrant, joined the Army almost as soon he came to America.

    Peak said she found in her research that kind of commitment to a brand new home wasn’t unusual.

    “They loved the principle of freedom,” Peak said. “Many of them came over on the boat, like my grandpa, seeking freedom in America. They were more than happy that ‘Hey, I’m drafted. I’m going to go fight for Uncle Sam.’”

    Peak was surprised to find the soldiers remained proud of their service and didn’t later resent the situation the government put them in.

    Pat Hunter, a longtime Brighton schoolteacher and Toornman’s granddaughter, vividly remembers her grandfather’s stories from the war. His grandfather and the stories are more vague to Bales. He was just a toddler when Toornman, 92, died in 1986.

    A favorite story that Toornman shared often was how he and another soldier, both desperately hungry, got taken on a bad, $10 egg from a Russian boy.

    “They took it behind the shed to eat it and when they cracked it open, it was rotten,” Bales said.

    The completion of the documentary also prompted Bales and Hunter to dig out a cedar chest of Toornman’s war memorabilia that they will soon donate to a Michigan museum that honors the Polar Bears. Some of the stories Toornman shared were darker and more indicative of the harsh realities of war.

    Among the items in the cedar chest is a steel helmet that Toornman wore during battle. On the front of the helmet is a large divot from a bullet deflection and in another spot is a blood splotch. Time has turned it from red to a rusted black.

    “One time when they were traveling through Russia, one of his friends got shot in the head and his helmet fell over the wound and froze,” Bales said. “No one realized he was shot, they thought he had hypothermia. They carried him five miles in the snow until they got to their next stop and realized he’d been shot in the head.”

    Other items in the chest include an honorary sash bestowed upon Toornman by Russian nuns, a thick blanket and a still-working watch, presumably from a former Russian czar.

    As Hunter flips through a book called “Quartered in Hell: American North Expeditionary Forces 1918-1919,” she recalls seeing some of the pictures from her grandfather when she was young. Toornman, an artist before and after the war, handled the pictures for the book.

    “I saw these pictures when I was young but as he got older, he burned them,” Hunter said. “I think things came back.”

Bringing the story

to the screen

Peak faced several challenges in creating the movie. First, and foremost, the last member of the Polar Bears died in 2003. She relied on interviews with families, historians and the words of soldiers who wrote books about their experience.

    “I was so lucky that the Polar Bears wrote books,” Peak said. “They didn’t talk about it but they felt so much that they had to talk about it. I was handed six, seven vintage books to use.”

    Culling much of the story from those books makes Peak especially proud.

    “I’m very proud as a writer that I selected what I selected to piece the story together. I think that was the biggest challenge, sitting quiet in my office, sometimes just on the floor with storyboards all around me, almost feeling like I was channeling their voices. I think working and reworking the story line to make sure I got it down to the essence, that it was accurate and it brings the viewer through the emotional journey, that was my goal.

    Peak calls Toornman’s scene one of the most emotional scenes in the movie as Toornman, portrayed by actor Tim Shaw, clutches the belongings of two fallen friends, both from Kalamazoo, intent on returning the items to their parents. Peak said a driving snow punctuates the scene.

    “It’s a very emotional movie,” she said. “It might be a documentary but it’s a very emotional movie with battle scene re-enactments that really come alive almost like a feature film.”

The Legacy

Peak said her memories of her grandfather propelled her to make sure she got the story right.

    “My mom and I would be having a cup of coffee and she’d turn to me and say ‘If only Grandpa knew what you were doing,’” Peak said. “I’d think that so many times. I wish he knew. Somehow he might. It meant a lot to me.”

    Hunter and Bales are not featured in the film. Another relative, Eugene Toornman, does have a role in the documentary.

    Pat has always been fond of telling her son “he has quite a name to live up to.” Now, there is a new generation ready to carry the Toornman name forward.         As Bales cradles his son, 5-month-old John “Jack” Henry Toornman Bales, on his lap, he thinks about his great-grandfather and the place he has in history with this brave group of men.

    “To have my grandpa fight in World War II and my great-grandpa was in World War I, it’s significant and it makes me proud to bear the name,” Bales said.



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