Polar Bears celebrate regiment's history with 31-mile foot march at Fort Drum
October 24, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- The pages of the 31st Infantry Regiment's history reveal the many battles the regiment fought from World War I to the war on terrorism. Among the tactical procedures and navigational strategies are the courageous actions of thousands of Soldiers who served with honor and distinction during those battles.
To commemorate the regiment's rich history, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, held a 31-mile Memorial March on Thursday and Friday on Fort Drum.
The event focused on visiting veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam; the Shanghai Bowl ceremony; and a 31-mile march the current Polar Bears conducted throughout the night.
To kick off the event, Lt. Col. Roland Dicks, 4-31 Infantry commander, began by welcoming former 31st Infantry Regiment veterans and their Families to the ceremony.
"Welcome to the punch bowl ceremony and the 31-mile foot march that we are about to begin," Dicks said. "I am very happy that you were able to make it up here to Fort Drum to celebrate the history of the 31st Infantry with us today, and I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to quickly introduce each of them."
Honored guests included John Mims, World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, assigned to B Company, 1-31 Infantry, and his wife Nina; Ed Bettis, Korean War veteran, assigned to G Company, 4-31 Infantry, and his wife Judy; Jack Considine, Korean War veteran, assigned to B Company, 4-31 Infantry; Dennis Walker, Distinguished Service Cross recipient during Vietnam, assigned to D Company, 6-31 Infantry; Daniel Wood, Distinguished Service Cross recipient during Vietnam, assigned to D Company, 6-31 Infantry.
"This evening we will use the 31-mile foot march to celebrate our history and remember the sacrifices of those of us that have gone before. This includes the renowned Bataan march of April 1942," Dicks continued. "So gentlemen, I am humbled to stand before you and have you among us today. Thank you for your service and what you have contributed to this nation and continue to contribute to the 31st Infantry Regiment."
Following thunderous applause for the returning veterans, the Polar Bears performed their traditional Shanghai Bowl ceremony.
The bowl has figured prominently in the regiment's ceremonies and social functions for almost a century. It was originally purchased along with 29 ornamental cups by the officers of the 31st Regiment for $1,600 in 1932; the ornate silver punchbowl was wrought by Chinese silversmiths to commemorate the regiment's service in Shanghai during pre-World War II tensions between the Chinese and Japanese armies.
The bowl brings a history of its own. When members of the 31st Regiment were sent to defend the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, they took the bowl with them. When it appeared Bataan would fall to the Japanese in September 1942, the Soldiers buried the bowl in Corregidor so the Japanese would not confiscate it. The bowl was reclaimed in 1945 when the Philippines were recaptured from the Japanese.
The Shanghai Bowl ceremony tradition includes the making of a punch that consists of drinks from around the world in which the regiment has served. For this ceremony they included pineapple juice from the Philippines, vodka from Russia, sake from Japan, soju from Korea and chai-tea from Iraq. Once the punch is mixed, it is tasted by command and deemed fit for consumption by the troops.
Before the Soldiers received their share of the punch, they had to complete a 31-mile foot march.
Soldiers began their march at battalion headquarters. They marched in tactical formation with their own company and made their way through the main post to the training area across Route 26. Most of the march was done on unpaved roads during the night, in cold, wet weather.
Each group stayed in contact with a tactical communication center and passed by several check points along the route. The CPs were named after many countries in which the regiment has had campaign participation: Philippines, Siberia, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 31st Infantry Regiment was formed in 1916 at Fort McKinley, Philippines, to strengthen forces protecting U.S. interests in the Philippines. During WWI, the regiment received the call of duty to deploy to Vladivostok, Russia, in 1918, where they kept the Trans-Siberia railroad open and gained the battalion its nickname "The Polar Bears" and its first battle streamer.
In February 1932, when the Japanese invaded China, the regiment was called into action again to protect Shanghai's International Settlement. The regiment returned to the Philippines that summer.
In December 1941, the Japanese attached U.S. military bases in the Philippines, drawing the troops into another battle. By April 1942, the infamous Bataan Death March was under way, which claimed the lives of hundreds of men.
From 1946 to 1948, the 31st Infantry performed occupation duty in central Korea, facing the Soviet army across the 38th Parallel. In 1950, war broke out between North and South Korea. The 31st Infantry fought hard in the war's most famous battles, like Pork Chop Hill and Triangle Hill.
During the Vietnam War, 4-31 Infantry fought to keep Viet Cong guerillas and the North Vietnamese army from capturing coastal lowlands, while 6-31 Infantry fought across the Mekong delta and Plain of Reeds.
By the turn of the century, America's involvement in the war on terrorism became the main focus of the U.S. Army. Soldiers of 4-31 Infantry have deployed several times for more than a decade to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, receiving numerous awards and decorations for their actions.
Pages of the regiment's history continue to accumulate as new Soldiers make their mark, and the stories of veterans will live on.
Mims, who retired from the Army as a sergeant first class, was a corporal in 1942 when he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to march more than 60 miles with sparse food and water. Memories of the Bataan Death March still haunt him today.
He remembers burying his weapon in a creek with the other Soldiers so if they came across ammunition they would be able reclaim them and fight. He also recalls how he lost his teeth when a Japanese soldier beat him for not bowing with respect.
Perhaps the most haunting memory is the loss of his fellow Soldiers. Mims came to 4-31 Infantry's ceremony to remember those who served with him in WWII.
"(I came today) because I love the 31st Infantry Regiment with all my heart, body and soul," Mims said with a broken voice. "I owe it to my friends and buddies that didn't come back. Anything I can do in their honor is a great honor for me to do, because I had to watch a lot of them die, and there was nothing I could do about it."
From 1950-51, Bettis was a corporal fighting in the Korean War. His memories take him back to the Korean mountains that he climbed to chase out Korean soldiers. He also recalls the bitter cold winters when summer clothes were all they had.
"We got thrown in Korea with a lot of people that were not trained properly and the supplies were not that great either. We wore summer clothes in the winter," Bettis recalled.
Bettis currently lives in New York and serves as the northeastern director for the 31st Infantry Regiment Association. He visits the Polar Bears often with fellow Korean War veteran Considine, who is a former adjutant and membership chairman for the 31st Infantry Association.
"We enjoy coming up here and enjoy talking to the (Soldiers). There is a bit of camaraderie that is unbelievable; they accept us old veterans," he said. "We feel closeness to these Soldiers. Someone said, 'once a Polar Bear, always a Polar Bear.' I guess they are right."
The most important thing Dicks wanted to get out of this event was building the Polar Bear team and celebrating the proud history of the regiment with veterans and current Soldiers.
"I could not be more proud of the Polar Bears, not only about the 31-mile foot march, but on a daily basis. They train hard, and they are combat-ready. That takes a lot of work, and they work hard to accomplish that," Dicks said proudly. "The veterans were very pleased at how we still focused on the entire history of the regiment, and they were more than happy with the readiness and the proficiency of the Soldiers they got to talk to."
By 8 a.m. Friday, all of the Polar Bears who set out to complete the foot march had returned to battalion headquarters water logged and weary.
Dicks and Command Sgt. Maj. James Stallworth, 4-31 Infantry senior enlisted adviser, stood at the edge of the headquarters parking lot, wet and exhausted themselves, to greet and shake the hands of their returning men.
"Walking 31 miles is difficult, but we went into the event knowing it was going to be hard, and it was quite an accomplishment for those Soldiers who were able to complete that foot march," Dicks said. "Watching my Soldiers come across that finish line after they accomplished 31 miles of foot march, most of it in the rain, I couldn't feel more proud of what they were able to accomplish."
One of those Solders was Sgt. Melvin Wilkins, a combat veteran who deployed with 4-31 Infantry to Iraq in 2009. Wilkins, who has been a computer detections systems repairer in F Company for five years, said he was glad his company participated in the foot march.
"I think (the march) was a very nice tribute to the past and present warriors of this great regiment; 31 miles for the 31st Regiment," he said. "There was a very slippery part for a good mile that we had to get through, but the majority of us pulled through. I think it was a great camaraderie event for Fox Company, and I am glad we participated."
Long, arduous foot marches are never easy, and not everyone makes it to the finish on their own.
But, 83 percent of the Polar Bears did make it. They were able to raise a cup filled with the punch that was only pineapple juice, from the Shanghai Bowl and give a toast to their country, regiment, their fallen comrades and each other.
"If you are one of those that finished, you should be proud of what you have accomplished," Dicks said. "It wasn't easy, and Mother Nature made it a little more difficult with the rain that she provided us last night, but this foot march was in celebration of our history and is something that you will remember for a long, long time. So be proud of it.
"It's about the Polar Bear team; it's about being a professional infantry Soldier," he added. "It's about celebrating the distinguished history of the 31st Infantry Regiment, so congratulations. Pro Patria!"