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By Monte Erfourth - May 27, 2024


Every family experiences the pain of loss.  It came to my family last week when my nephew Mike was killed in a motorcycle accident.  He was 41 and left behind a grieving wife, a nine-month-old baby girl, heartbroken parents, and an extended family left shocked and saddened. The family gathered to grieve, tell stories, eat, and laugh.  It’s where healing begins.  Discussions led to the topic of registering Mike’s baby girl with the Indian tribes to help with financial costs.  My brother Geoff's wife Sheri (Mike’s mom) is descended from the Ottawa/Chippewa tribes of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada. Registering with the tribe is not an easy matter.  You have to prove a lineage, which means bureaucracy.  Not as diabolical as smallpox-laden blankets or reneging on agreements, America also gave the tribes bureaucracy.  Sheri had to start digging in old records her mother had assembled to help her granddaughter register.

While digging through the records, Sheri came across her great-grandfather’s service record and death certificate.  Aaron Shaw, from Walton Junction, Michigan, had served in the U.S. Army during WWI.  But there was an oddity to his service. The records indicated he served in Russia, mostly after the war in France was over.  Sheri did not know much about Aaron Shaw, so there was an interesting mystery to this lost relative who served in combat so long ago. Who was this man? I decided to look into it.

In all likelihood, Aaron Shaw volunteered like 12,000 other American Indians during WWI.[1]  Aaron was not even recognized as a citizen when he entered service, as that recognition did not come for all Indians until 1924. His service record and death certificate were surprisingly detailed. Aaron James Shaw was born in Walton Junction, Michigan, on June 29, 1892. There was no information on his parents or his early life.  We can assume he grew up on or near one of the close to a dozen reservations set up by treaty in 1864.[2]

At his birth, many indigenous tribes practiced the Ghost Dance, which began with a dream by Wovoka, a Northern Paiute, during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. In his dream, he saw all Native Americans being taken up into the sky and the Earth opening up to swallow all Whites so that the Earth could revert back to its natural state. Wovoka claimed that the dream would become a reality by dancing the round dance continuously, and the participants would enjoy the new Earth achieved with the help of their ancestors.[3] The wars declared on the tribes by the U.S. government, the broken land deals, the massacres, disease, and the loss of the buffalo led to the end of widespread resistance across the tribes.  The Ghost Dance was a spiritual longshot to remove the whites for good, but it was also eventually abandoned.  Shaw very likely had heard of the dance or perhaps even saw one. He wasborn at the end of an era for a proud people.

The Indian volunteers were looking to prove themselves in battle as their ancestors had done.  Many Native Soldiers joined to gain respect as warriors or to seek a better life for themselves and their families.  Others believed that their efforts in the war would prove their patriotism and help achieve citizenship for all Native peoples.[4]Whatever the reason for Aaron Shaw, his service record indicates he arrived at a Michigan Army center ironically called Camp Custer on June 25, 1918.  He was enlisted as a private (PVT) and a month later was transferred to Camp Mills, Long Island, New York, for embarkation on a trans-Atlantic ship bound for England on July 22, 1918. His ship landed in Liverpool, England, where he was sent to Stoney Camp.  Now officially assigned to the 339th Infantry Regiment, E Company, PVT Shaw would remain in England until September 5th, when his regiment deployed to Archangel, Russia.



American troops arrived in France to support the French and British armies on the Western Front. In the meantime, Russia faced turmoil on the Eastern Front, leading to the Bolsheviks seizing power and signing a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1918. The situation in Russia during the Civil War led to Allied military intervention, with troops from Great Britain, France, the United States, Canada, and Australia getting involved. President Wilson aimed to keep American troops out of combat and remain neutral, as outlined in the "Aide-Memoire" by Secretary of State Robert Lansing on 17 July 1918.

The United States deployed two expeditionary forces to Russia, the American North Russia Expeditionary Forces (ANREF) and the American Expeditionary Forces-Siberia (AEF-Siberia). They were commanded by Colonel George E. Stewart and Major General William S. Graves, respectively. American forces quickly organized and deployed nearly 5,000 troops to Archangel and over 8,000 troops to Vladivostok. AEF-North Russia had engineers but lacked logistical support, while AEF-Siberia had logistical support but no engineers. Both groups had extensive medical assets.



Before departing for Russia, the now artic-prepared Americans dubbed themselves “The Polar Bears.” Serving in bitter cold and deep snow with poor supplies, the moniker probably meant a lot more to them in hindsight.  The 339th Infantry Regiment, part of the American Expeditionary Forces in North Russia, engaged in various combat operations from 1918 to 1919. In September 1918, the regiment first saw action at Seltso on the Dvina River. Here, they suffered casualties, and Lieutenant Albert Smith earned the Distinguished Service Cross. Later that month, Companies I and K fought near Seletskoe on the Emtsa River, resulting in more casualties, including the death of Lieutenant Charles Chappel.

Company C was deeply involved in these early engagements. In September 1918, it participated in the operation at Seltso, encountering severe resistance and suffering casualties. In October, it was engaged in combat at Kodish, facing intense fighting and further losses. Company C endured harsh conditions and continued skirmishes throughout its deployment, contributing significantly to the broader efforts of the Allied forces in the region. On December 30, 1918, PVT Shaw was wounded fighting south of Kodish. The wounds were not severe, and he returned to duty.

In November 1918, significant fighting occurred in Toulgas on the Dvina River. Company B, with support from British and Canadian units, repelled a major Bolshevik attack, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties.

In January 1919, the regiment was involved in the battle for Shenkursk, where they faced severe Bolshevik assaults. Despite fierce resistance and casualties, they were eventually forced to withdraw. The harsh winter conditions and limited supplies made the situation even more challenging.

By March 1919, the regiment participated in the Battle of Bolshie Ozerki. The Allies, including Companies E and H of the 339th, launched attacks to recapture the village. Despite initial setbacks, they managed to hold off Bolshevik forces with effective artillery and machine-gun fire. By June 3, 1919, the Regiment embarked on ships sailing back to America. They had suffered 583 casualties while in Russia, and an outbreak of the “Spanish Flu” cost another 75 men their lives on the sail home.

PVT Shaw arrived in the U.S. on July 7, and by July 16, he was mustered out of the Army. He went on to marry and have children. He worked as a laborer and died at age 50 in a military hospital in Detroit. Unlike his birth, he was born at the begining of a war, not its end.


PVT Shaw returned to America with a Purple Heart and an experience.  Perhaps like his ancestors, he counted coup on Russian enemies. This achievement allowed warriors to gain different levels of prestige and status through acts of bravery by touching or, more likely, striking an enemy with a coup stick, club, bow, or hand.[5] Even more honorable would have been stealing Bolshevik’s weapons or horses.  Perhaps PVT Shaw did those things. Maybe his time was more typical, even boring. We’ll never know.

Like many veterans, Aaron Shaw’s story is mostly lost to time. The family members who knew him have passed away, and only a few pieces of paper remain to tell his story. At some point, this is pretty much the fate of every veteran. Families age and those once young and vigorous become old, die, and fade out of memory.  How many families have an “Aaron Shaw”  lurking in cabinet drawers, safes, or old photo albums?  Some 248 years after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, I would venture most of us have at least one veteran in our family. This Memorial Day, skip some of the sales on bed sheets and poke around your drawers, the internet, or a grandparent’s photo album instead.  You might find a hidden veteran you didn’t know you could honor on Memorial Day.

My nephew Mike has had numerous relatives, both close and distant, who have served the nation or tribe in combat. This includes tribal warriors of old, those who served in World War I and World War II on his maternal side, and on his paternal side, his great grandfather and six brothers who served in World War II, and a distant relative named General Ulysses S. Grant. Despite not serving himself, Mike, like all of us, has benefited from the sacrifices made by his family members. This also extends to his baby girl, who may one day follow in the footsteps of her ancestors and serve. Mike and his daughter have been given opportunities thanks to the service of their family members, as well as all the other families who have seen their loved ones serve. In a time of division, it's important to remember that we depend on each other and that our collective ancestors made sacrifices so that we could have a better life. Don’t let it take losing someone you love to connect with this notion.

We are a nation based on a common language, territory, and culture. Our country is an independent sovereign state with a government protected by those willing to fight for the land and the people. In our age of partisanship and failing devotion to truth, we have seen an erosion of national unity that undermines American values and complicates the nation's ability to ensure physical security and economic prosperity. Sometimes, we just need to see the common threads that bind us. Service to the nation by yourself or family members is common to most of us and benefits us all. Today, let’s honor our community of Americans by honoring those who have served, those who have not, and those that will.


[1] History That Doesn’t Suck. Episode 148 - Epilogue (To WWI)

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