Bob Bergren was 17
years old in 1949 when his mother signed him up in the U.S. Marine Corps.
father--who enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I when he was only
16--Bergren didn’t have to lie about his age. But the boy was showing signs
of needing a firm hand, and he and his ma both figured the Marine Corps
probably had DIs and gunnies enough to provide one.
“I was a rebel in
those days,” Bergren says. “I’d run away from home, went to school one
morning and ended up six days later in Arizona. I thought enlisting was the
best thing to do.”
Under the tutelage
of two friends in his church--veterans of the USMC in World War II--Bergren
had already come to admire the Corps for its values and culture, at least as
much because of, not in spite of, the marine’s reputation as the U.S.
military’s shock troop of choice. “I just had great respect for the Marine
Corps,” he says.
Still, the world in
1949 seemed quiet enough, barring the Communist brushfires in Greece,
Malaya, and French Indochina, barring too the savage civil war in China. And
a 17-year-old, just looking to grow up and maybe go adventuring some, could
be forgiven for thinking that the domino theory had nothing to do with him.
When Boys Became
Then, on June 25,
1950, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) under Supreme Leader Kim
Il-sung--grandfather of North Korea’s latest supreme leader and maniac, Kim
Jong-un--crossed the 38th parallel and within weeks had come within a hair
of pushing South Korean forces, along with piecemeal U.S. units, into the
Sea of Japan.
Three months later,
on Sept. 15, Bergren found himself on an LST off the mud flats of Inchon, a
tiny cog in the second greatest amphibious assault in military history,
hoping fervently that none of the odd KPA artillery batteries still in place
would fire that lucky shell, thinking perhaps that maybe he ought to have
gone to school that day after all.
Bergren is now 85.
For nearly 60 years he’s been the owner and operator of the House of
Berggren at 686 Broadway in Chesterton. He’s raised a family. He’s done his
bit in this community. Yet, a very long lifetime later, Bergren’s war is
only a memory away.
The Forgotten War
the most catastrophic conflict in human history and this country’s most
unpopular military adventure, the Korean War--as Bergren himself points
out--has been dubbed the Forgotten War. Not forgotten by those who fought
it, certainly, not by those whose loved ones died in it, but there’s a truth
in the cynicism anyway.
In an America where
millions of veterans were trying to forget the last war from their ranch
houses in suburbia, where men in gray flannel suits were inventing brand-new
ways to sell brand-new modern conveniences, where TV was teaching a rising
middle class how to be middle class, the brutality and privations on
the battlefields of the Korean Peninsula must have seemed very distant,
alien and unassimilable, even--in some sense--offensive to the fruits and
promises of the American Dream.
If Bergren ever had
reason to feel his service unappreciated, he doesn’t say so. He’s a humble
man, and unassuming. There is, however, an organization whose sole mission
is to honor the men and women who served in defense of a sometimes grateful,
sometimes unmindful nation: the Honor Flight Network, a not-for-profit based
in Springfield, Ohio.
At 4 a.m. April 12,
Bergren boarded a Southwest Air jet at Midway--along with three World War II
veterans, of whom there are few left now, and 108 Korean War veterans, of
whom there are fewer every day--for a flight to Washington, D.C.
Bergren spent his
war in a 1st Marine Regiment 4.2-inch mortar company, never very far from
the front lines, a quarter mile at the best of times, 100 yards at the
diciest. He fought in six officially recognized battles, including the
battle for Seoul, where there wasn’t much of a front line at all but “a lot
of house-to-house fighting.”
Bergren was wounded
too, badly enough to spend 10 weeks in a military hospital, when the 6x6 he
was riding in, transporting a load of 25-pound mortar shells, hit a land
mine. Bergren is almost apologetic in speaking of the incident, as though
traveling by truck were a sin against the 1st Marine Regiment’s
footsloggers. For his sacrifice he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Bergren recalls the
tenacity of the Chinese soldiers. “The Chinese would take a hill, then fall
back when we started dropping mortars on it. Then they’d re-take it. But
we’d have the hill zeroed in. One hill we did at least four times before
they had the sense not go back up again.”
Bergren recalls as
well the cold of the Korean winter, where temperatures could fall to -50
Fahrenheit and rifles would freeze after firing a handful of rounds. Marines
fortunate enough to have gunnery sergeants who served in World War II--and
who knew a few tricks for keeping warm, like carrying an extra pair of felt
boot linings under the arm pits--did okay.
particularly proud to have served under Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, still
the most decorated marine in the history of the USMC. “Chesty was a great
leader. He had the confidence of his men. If you were advancing, he would
walk in front. He would give us pep talks and tell us why we should do what
we were going to do.”
Of the value of
what is still known as a United Nations police action, Bergren has no doubt.
“I think what we did was worthwhile,” he says. “If we hadn’t, the whole
country would be North Korea today. Or China. We saved the lives of a lot of
people and we taught them a lot.”
“I’d do it again in
a minute,” Bergren adds. “I tried to join up again in Vietnam but they
wouldn’t take me.”
The Honor Flight
The Honor Flight
Network’s only goal: to fly this nation’s senior veterans to Washington,
D.C., and there give them the opportunity--for many of them, including
Bergren, the first of their lives--to visit their war memorials and reflect
on their own sacrifices and on their comrades’.
A simple goal but
Bergren hasn’t the words to express the fullness of his heart or the depth
of his gratitude to the Network.
In D.C. Bergren’s
Flight was greeted by the Marine Corps Drill Team, then bused to the World
War II Memorial, where Four-Star Gen. Colin Powell (U.S. Army, ret.) met the
111 veterans and for 90 minutes swapped stories with them. The Flight then
visited the Korean War Memorial and finally the Tomb of the Unknowns at
Arlington National Cemetery.
On returning to
Midway, at 10 p.m. the same day, the Flight was met and honored by U.S. Navy
personnel, a pipe and drum band, and thousands of well-wishers. “My family
was all there and 10 or 15 people from Chesterton,” Bergren says. “I never
Through it all the
arrangements laid on by the Honor Flight Network were superb, thoughtful,
and compassionate. “I was in tears,” Bergren remembers. “The people treated
you with so much respect. And it was sincere. Nothing was put on. It was
just unbelievable. I’d heard all about the Honor Flight but until I did it I
never really realized.”
“Outside of my
wedding and having my kids, I think it was the nicest day of my life,”
Bergren says, crying all over again.
urges his fellow senior veterans to register for an Honor Flight. Visit