Local Relief Activities during the Winter War

From the book Finnish-Americans in War and Peace. Pages 95-95. St. Magnus Press 2015. Author Rainer G Langstedt

Local Relief Activities

The reverend Frank Pelkonen was the pastor in the Lutheran Church in Spencer and became spokesman for the “White Finn” community in Spencer. Pelkonen was an immigrant who had attended divinity school in the United States. The Spencer Finns were first- or second-generation immigrants, most of whom had close family members who were back in Finland repelling the attack. Pelkonen organized local events and fund drives to support Finland, and by January 17, 1940, this small farming community had already sent over $600 to Finnish relief.

For more than a year after the peace treaty was signed, the local Finnish relief committee continued to arrange meetings and events to collect funds, arranging events approximately every two months.181 Collections of clothing took place in several communities around Spencer, and while the Tompkins County Red Cross did not collect money, they did collect warm clothing and surgical dressings.

Former President Recognizes Relief Fund Organizer and the Communities of Spencer and Van Etten

An influential Elmira clergyman Rabbi Frederic Doppelt promoted and organized collection of aid for the Finns, so the Elmira Star-Gazette often reported on his activities. Doppelt even visited with former President Hoover to coordinate the relief efforts. His energetic efforts resulted in Elmira’s quota of $1,000 being reached in only a month. The JTA news agency distributed the news:

Chapter 12: American Volunteers in the Winter War

One of many letters sent to the Finnish Embassy in Washington.

From Marshal Mannerheim’s farewell speech to American volunteers after the Winter War on their departure June 21, 1940. “Let your knowledge of having fulfilled your duty be a dear memory to you. We will never forget your manly deed.”

At the inception of the Winter War, the United States had a “Neutrality Act” that prevented American citizens from volunteering in wars that were not directly affecting the United States. A Finnish-American Spencer resident, “Iso Aaro” Mackie (the original family name was Mäkelä), wished to volunteer for the Winter War, but his status as an American citizen made him subject to the Neutrality Act and was unable to enlist.182 The ban did not concern non-US citizens, with a total of 372 Finnish Americans arriving in Finland during the Winter War to enlist. The first 20 volunteers arrived on Christmas Day 1939. A pilot and one other volunteer were sent to the Air Force, with the remaining 18 sent to an infantry unit “Ryhmä Talvela.” The Ryhmä Talvela unit has 2,500 men who had suffered severe losses three days earlier. Fighting in Tovajärvi and Ägäläjärvi, the unit had destroyed a Russian Division of 15,000.

Eventually, the US government declared that Americans volunteering for Finland would not lose their citizenship. This decision occurred so late that the volunteers did not reach Finland before the cease-fire. The ban delaying enlistment, there were about 1,000 volunteers still in New York when the war ended.

The Finnish American Legion

Most Finnish American volunteers arriving after December 25, 1939, were assigned to “Ameriikan Suomalisten Legioona” or ASL for short. The Finnish-American Legion was trained in Oulu, which is on the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska; the extreme cold being a new experience for the Americans that had grown up in more southerly climates. The unit was an infantry company and, as more volunteers arrived, there were two infantry companies in the Legion.

Most of the volunteers did not have military training, but quite a few of them did. There were two captains, one lieutenant, six 2nd lieutenants, 46 noncommissioned officers, and 21 corporals. Most of the rank above private had served in the Finnish military, but there was a sergeant of the US Army that had volunteered. The youngest was 14-year-old Ilmo Pihkala, who served as a runner on the home front. The most promoted was Kullervo Wallenius who was promoted from private to 2nd lieutenant. (All the volunteers are listed in Appendix I on page 173)

The training of the volunteers included exercise in cross-country skiing. Skiing was a skill that every Finnish country boy had to master in order to get to school and to meet friends in the wintertime. The war was fought in wilderness where skis were the only means of transport. For purposes of survival, every infantryman had to know how to cross-country ski.

On March 9, 1940 after two months of training, the 1st Company was sent to the front from Oulu. The train transport took the troops through Mikkeli to Jääski where the troops were unloaded on March 12. They got their orders to man the front line on the morning of March 13. The order was cancelled with a cease-fire taking effect at 11 a.m. the same morning.185

Thus, the Legion troops got by without casualties. There were casualties of Finnish-Americans among the troops that were engaged elsewhere, in Lapland and with group Talvela. Conflicting accounts make the number of US casualties. One source reports that among the American volunteers, three died and five were wounded.183 When the author researched material for this book at the Finnish National Archives, it had been recorded there that there were eight casualties. Thus, the total death toll for Finnish-Americans was 13, when including the five fighting for the Soviets. All US volunteers fighting for Finland are listed in Appendix I page 173.

The heaviest sacrifice of the Finnish American-volunteers struck the Astikainen family, who lost two siblings. The younger brother Henrik Astikainen died on the Karelian Isthmus the day before the cease-fire. He was probably unaware that his older brother Kaarlo had died two days earlier in Lapland.

Some of the volunteers for the war arrived after it concluded. A unique example is Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, who had an interesting, albeit not illustrious, military career while joining three countries air forces. Also known as “The Black Eagle of Harlem,” a more detailed account of his life can be found in the appendix E page 167.

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