Remembering Frederick Polenske and learning from the past

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

“My dad was always my hero,” Caren Fagerdahl said of her dad Frederick Polenske.

“I didn’t realize until after he died that he was a war hero.”

Growing up, Fagerdahl said, she knew her dad had served in World War II, but like many returning veterans who had served in the conflict, it wasn’t something he really talked about.

“He would talk very little about the war,” she said.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air ….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

High Flight

“Most of my knowledge comes from literature that was left behind after he died. He didn’t talk a lot about his war experience, and we have found out since he passed away that he was a decorated soldier, that he had medals, but we don’t have them. We don’t know where they are because he didn’t talk much about the war at all.”

As she discovered, Polenske was a member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated U.S. unit of specialized parachute infantry that saw conflict in Southern France and Italy during the war, as well as participated in the Battle of the Bulge. According to its Wikipedia page, the unit received a cumulative 131 Silver Stars, 631 Bronze Stars, 1,576 Purple Hearts, six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Legion of Merits, four Soldier’s Medals, two Air Medals and 17 French Croix de Guerre, along with a Medal of Honour. These accolades, however, came at great cost.

“They lost one third of their members,” Fagerdahl recalled.

“I’m very grateful that my dad was not one of them. My dad was a very gentle, kind man. Reading about what a ferocious troop they were, in my head it just doesn’t match up. That may be why he never talked about it, was because he was really a gentle soul.”

While Polenske did not share many stories of his time serving in the war, Fagerdahl remembered that his time serving was always very important to her dad, with him entertaining his army buddies who came to visit from time to time. He would also travel down into the United States to attend the regiment’s reunions over the years, including one held in 1975, the last one Polenske was able to attend, that saw him hit the pages of the Fort Frances Times.

“I have a picture of my dad on his last jump,” Fagerdahl said.

“This picture was actually put in the paper, it says, ‘After lapse of 31 years, Fred Polenske jumps again’ and my dad cut out and saved it. A group of them actually parachuted again together at that reunion, it was pretty awesome. They remained close all their lives. We often had visits from his army buddies that would come and spend some time in the summer with us.”

Even though her dad didn’t often talk about his time in the war with his family, Fagerdahl said that they were always sure to recognize Remembrance Day, as well as those who had served alongside him.

Frederick Polenske
member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team

“We always went to the service at the Cenotaph,” she recalled.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t go to school [on Remembrance Day]. We had the day off school and my family always went to the Cenotaph service. It was very important to him that we attend. His cousins, my grandma’s sister’s sons, they were all very, very close, and they fought in the American Navy and Air Force. So it was always important to be respectful of their service. We were brought up to be very grateful for their service.”

Fagerdahl said she remembers her dad reading poems such as “In Flanders Fields” to the family around the time of Remembrance Day, as well as war poet John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s classic sonnet High Flight.

“We recited that together at home,” she said.

“And he knew ‘In Flanders Fields,’ and he recited a lot of those kinds of things with us, or taught us those things. But he didn’t talk directly about his experience.”

Since her dad’s passing, Fagerdahl said Remembrance Day has continued to remain an important day for her entire family, even those who are no longer living in town.

“When my dad died, he left me a necklace that has a pendant on it with his wings,” she said.

“I wear that for the whole month of November every year, along with my poppy. My children have been brought up always going to the Cenotaph services. During the month of November we put on the wall a picture of my dad and his uniform, and a plaque he received as part of the 517th. My daughter takes her children to the Cenotaph down in Peterborough and we usually talk on the phone on Remembrance Day as well, with both of our children.”

Fagerdahl said she believes the importance of value lies as much in remembering those who served and what they sacrificed, as it is in remembering what happened during the war so that we don’t repeat those same mistakes in the future.

“We need to know our history and be watchful of today’s politics so that we speak up and stand up so our history is not repeated,” she said.

“I think Remembrance Day is more about teaching us peace than about war.”