Everyone has a story. It could be a simple story or complex. Some may experience a moment that can change their lives forever. For retired Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, 26th Cavalry Regiment air mechanic, his time in the Air Force proved to be life changing, and he shared it May 15 at Club Five Six during a Focus 56 meeting.
Bergbower was born May 11, 1920, in Newton, Illinois. He joined the Army Air Corps May 12, 1939. One year later, he went to school at Chanute Field, Illinois, and became an air mechanic. In January 1940, he volunteered to go to the Philippine Islands.
Bergbower stayed there for a year and a half. Everything was good until Dec. 8, 1941.
“We just got word that Pearl Harbor was bombed,” he said. “We also heard that Clark Field had been bombed as well, but we were on Clark Field at the time, so we thought it was a joke.”
No more than 10 minutes after hearing the statements on the radio, Bergbower saw Japanese bombers fly over Clark Field and drop bombs.
“The first few bombs dropped and then it was silent,” Bergbower said. “Seconds later came the impact, and I was hit. I remember waking up in the morgue at Fort Stotsenburg about 80 km north of Manila. I crawled out of the morgue, went back to my squadron and went back to duty.”
After the incident in Clark Field, Bergbower fought with Troop B of the 26th Cavalry Regiment for about two-and-a-half months because his original squadron was miles away from where he was.
“The food was so scarce that we used the horses and mules that we rode on for food,” Bergbower said.
Bergbower found out that his squadron was at Mindanao. With the help of the 26th Cavalry Regiment, he was able to rejoin his original squadron. Engaged by the Japanese, they fought with all their might but had to surrender. Japanese soldiers took them to a prison camp called Malaybalay, which was in the northern part of Mindanao. They were there for about three months and then transferred to Davao Penal Colony, where they were forced to farm.
“We raised rice and learned how to use a caribou to plow in the fields and paddies,” he said.
Bergbower and other prisoners farmed the fields of Davao Penal Colony for about four months until the Japanese soldiers decided to throw them on a “hell ship” and send them to Japan to work as slave laborers.
“They packed us in that ship from shoulder to shoulder, front to back,” he said. “You couldn’t even sit down. The ship ride was all a blur. I don’t remember anything until we landed in Japan, and that’s when everything came together.”
The unit was dropped at a warehouse to be hosed off. The Japanese took them to a steel mill where they worked until the war ended.
“The way we found out the war had ended was when people with the Red Cross came into our camp and said, ‘The war is over. We have entered the atomic age,’” he said. “The atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered.”
The U.S. won the war and the American prisoners were set free. Bergbower and his crew were sent to Tokyo on a hospital ship called The Rescue where they received treatment, hot meals and new clothes. The unit was able to send a telegram home. It went to a telegraph service in Canada where it was then delivered to his parents’ house by regular mail.
“My mother had received a letter and a telegram from the president about the death of her son Dec. 8, 1941,” he said. “It’s September 1945, and she gets this telegram saying that I’m alive. Of course she went into shock, but the doctor took care of her.”
Bergbower came back to the states in October 1945. He took the train from San Francisco to Galesburg, Illinois, to Letterman General Hospital and from there he called his parents. He was released from the hospital and went back to his parent’s home in Decatur.
“It was an honor to have Chief Master Sgt. Bergbower as a special guest for our Focus 56 meeting,” said Staff Sgt. Arlene Gutierrez, 56th Security Forces Squadron secretary. “Hopefully attendees who were at the meeting will pass on this incredible story to young Airmen and use it as motivation to succeed in their Air Force career.”