Peoria veteran tempts death during war and peace time

Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower lives to tell about his time spent in POW camps. [Independent Newsmedia/Philip Haldiman]
By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower may as well be a cat with the number of lives he’s seen and lived to tell about.

The 97-year-old Peoria resident was shuffled through at least six prisoner of war camps in the Philippines and Japan during World War II. He continued on to serve in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years, with decorations to blanket his sleeves and walls.

Mr. Bergbower recently celebrated a birthday, which included a tour of honoring his decades of service. It has been a lot of hand-shaking and speaking with people he never met but who were interested in his story, he said.

“My hand has been getting a work out,” he said.

If Mr. Bergbower has multiple lives, his first life ended as bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and Japanese fighter planes flew over an emergency landing strip where he was stationed in the Philippines.

On Dec. 8, 1941, he came out of a mess hall at Clark Field, on the Philippines island of Luzon, saw Japanese planes fly over, and was hit by shrapnel from a bomb. He doesn’t know how or why, but he was pronounced dead and later woke up in a morgue at Fort Stotsenburg about 50 miles north of Manila.

“And my parents didn’t know any differently until after the war,” he said. “I have no clue how I got there, but I was out. I was unconscious. I went back to my squadron and the guys were shocked.”

A couple months later, as the Japanese were rounding up American and Filipino troops on Bataan, Mr. Bergbower and three Filipino scouts found a fishing boat, avoiding the Bataan death march in 1942 in which 75,000 Filipino and American troops were forced to march to prison camps after Pearl Harbor. They sailed to a southern island named Mindanao where Mr. Bergbower was able to reunite with his unit, the 28th Bomb Squadron.

He fought briefly in the infantry until his capture by Japanese troops while on patrol in May 1942, beginning a string of imprisonments in at least six prisoner of war camps. Mr. Bergbower recalled his time at Davao in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where he temped death once again. In a last minute decision, his captors decided he was more valuable alive than dead and sent him into slave labor in Japan.

“There were 10 American officers who escaped the camp, and they said the next day they would shoot 10 people for every guy that escaped. I was one of the 100,” he said. “But the next day, the Japanese empire said ‘don’t shoot them, send them to Japan because we have jobs for them.’ That was when I was sent to a camp in Japan to work in a foundry.”

Mr. Bergbower was liberated Sept. 1945, and returned home Oct. 31, 1945.

Not to be undone, even during his life as a retired veteran living in Sun City he has danced with death. During one of the heaviest rain storms of the 1970s, Mr. Bergbower found himself in a perilous situation, driving and about to cross the Friendship Bridge on Bell Road over the Agua Fria River near Surprise.

“The bridge was swaying, and the car in front of me stopped, so I stopped, and he started backing up, so I started backing up,” he said. “Once we had gotten off the bridge, the bridge collapsed and went down the river.”

These days, Mr. Bergbower lives in Peoria, where he has spent the last 14
years free from errant shrapnel and failing infrastructure.

He said he has been blessed to live a full life of sharing his stories, and
attributes two things to his longevity — one of them is faith.

“I thank the good lord every day,” he said. “But I have also been so lucky all my life.”

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