Clark County Press, Neillsville, Wisconsin
November 8, 2017, Page 10
Contributed by "The Clark Co. Press"
Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.
Index of "Oldies" Articles
Compiled by Dee Zimmerman
Clark County News
A Veteran’s Experience,
World War II Veteran Max Bergen
Max H. Bergen, Prisoner of War Record held in Stalag 17 B near Krems, Austria.
Max H. Bergen was a Sergeant in the Army during World War II. Max was captured by the Nazis while serving in Germany, and was sent to Stalag 17 B near Krems, Austria where 3,219 other American POWs were held. Max’s capture was first reported to the International Committee of the Red Cross on March 29, 1944, and the last report was made on January 25, 1946. Based on these two reports, Max was imprisoned for at least 667 days (1 year and 11 months.) The average duration of imprisonment was 363 days. Ultimately, Max was returned to military control, liberated or repatriated.
World War II veteran Max Bergen posed at the Wisconsin Veterans in Chippewa Falls. Bergen, who was a tail gunner in the war, spent more than a year as a prisoner of war in Germany and Austria.
Max Bergen recalls details from his time as a prisoner of war during World War II:
Max Bergen’s eye fluttered open, disoriented.
He was lying on a stiff table in a tiny room, ratty blanket at his side. A massive door with a peephole loomed over him. The 20-year old could feel pain in his side and face where Gestapo captors had struck him with the end of their rifles and fists. He sat up and perched on the edge of his makeshift bed.
“I woke up in that little cell, and then I knew fear,” said Bergen, now 92, his voice unsteady. Everything kind of came tumbling down then, and I shook like a leaf. I’ve never been that scared again in all my life.”
The reality of months as a tail gunner in World War II’s European theater and his crew’s eventual capture didn’t fully register until that moment in the Hanover, Germany, civilian prison, Bergen said. Running completely on adrenaline and instinctual reaction, Bergen had lived through an airstrike mission that killed over 600 of his comrades, midair shootouts with enemy planes and the crash landing that led to his capture.
Yet, his time as a prisoner of war was just beginning.
Bergen, formerly of Cameron and now a resident at Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa Falls, shared his story in honor of Veterans Day today.
When duty means a war –
The oldest son of a widow, Bergen didn’t have to go to war. His mother worried about letting her eldest child fight in a war that would become the deadliest in human history. Still, for Bergen, the call to defend his country was too strong to ignore.
“To serve in defense of my country was an absolute privilege,” Bergen said, “and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Bergen flew his first mission Dec. 22, 1943, on his 20th birthday. Thousands of feet in the air without pressurized cabins – his hearing still suffers – Bergen and his crewmates wore gloves and heated suits to protect against the minus 45-degree weather. Bergen explained through tears how many men could be lost in a single mission, regardless of weather conditions.
Bergen’s own journey into life as a prisoner of war began March 29, 1944.
It was his 21st mission and his pilot’s last scheduled mission. Bergen and his crew were leading the second element of the airstrike when enemy fire came out of the sun and destroyed two of their engines, started a fire and forced them to dive from 26,000 feet in the air. The aircraft evened out again, but Bergen said they were still in danger – other American planes observed that Bergen’s aircraft was still under heavy attack, their navigator was wounded, and they couldn’t decipher their location in Germany.
Bergen and his crew continued to fight until they were down to one engine and their intercom had been shot out. He couldn’t tell what was going on at the front of the plane, but he knew the craft was sinking lower and lower. His suspicion was confirmed with a tap on his shoulder; “We’re going to crash, come to the radio room.”
As Bergen crawled past the windows, he could see the tops of trees growing higher and higher into his line of sight. Miraculously the plane slid into a soft field, leaving all crew members alive. They fled into nearby woods, hoping to evade the German officers and civilians from a nearby army base. Bergen and his crewmates hid under brush, but a 12-year-old boy uncovered them.
They were confronted by a German sergeant and his pistol machine gun.
“For you the war is over,” they were told.
Whenever Bergen heard that number called out, he knew guards in the Frankfurt prison – his second of numerous holding locations – were coming to his cell. What awaited him, he said, was interrogation and mind games.
“They had a lot of background on you,” Bergen said. “It was amazing how much they knew. They knew I was from Cameron, they knew where I was in training.”
Bergen spent five days in solitary confinement in Frankfurt before moving on to the location where he would be held captive for a year: prison camp Stalag 17 B near Krems, Austria. Loaded in boxcars with barbed wire strung across half the front, Bergen and his fellow captives arrived at prison camp in April 1944 after days of sitting with each other’s human waste and fearing bomb threats.
Situated among rolling hills and fields was a crowded, dismal place, Bergen said. About 4,000 American airmen were forced to share small spaces and even smaller food portions. A common meal, Bergen explained, consisted of one loaf of bread made from sugar beets and sawdust distributed among 28 men. On a good day, there were small cooked potatoes. Throughout his months there, Bergen lost 80 to 100 pounds.
The men who tried to escape over the barbed wire fence were shot immediately, Bergen said, and buried among nearby trees.
About a year after Bergen arrived at Stalag 17 B, Russians arrived in nearby Vienna, spooking the German guards into moving all the prisoners. Bergen and the rest of the prisoners were put on a rope in groups of 500 and led toward American lines.
Bergen’s weeks-long march led him alongside the gates of Mauthausen concentration camp, smoke streaming furiously from its chimneys. He knew the smoke belonged to human remains – he saw the rest of the prisoners lined up along the fence, their bodies starved. “They knew they were going to die,” Bergen said, “by the looks in their eyes.”
The German offices outside the concentration camp beckoned ominously for Bergen’s guards to bring them all into the camp, he said, but his guards refused.
In late April 1945, Bergen and the prisoners were ordered to stop marching along the edge of a forest. They set up camp and hunkered down, not knowing when deliverance would come.
Finally, on a trip to collect water from a stream running along a cliff, Bergen took in the view of the town below. Sheets billowed from the church steeple and town windows, a U.S. armored division stationed down the road.
At all costs.
Following Bergen’s liberation, he went on to marry his wife, Florence, have three children and start a career in sales. But freedom from the war didn’t mean freedom from the consequences.
Bergen said he was plagued with night terrors after returning and sought psychiatric help. When even that didn’t work, Bergen’s wife urged him to revisit the site of the prison camp in Austria. Bergen didn’t want to relive the terror but went anyway in 1976 needing to find a way to get better.
“When I saw the woods (where bodies were buried), “Bergen said through tears, “I lost it. But it was therapeutic. I think I started to get well then.”
Bergen no longer suffers from nightmares, but his eldest son, Mark Bergen, said he wasn’t even aware his father was struggling as he grew up. His parents didn’t talk about the nightmares, Mark Bergen said, and his dad didn’t start talking about his war experiences with him until he was older.
As an adult, Mark Bergen said listening to his father’s experiences makes him appreciate veterans, no matter where they served.
“(Veterans) came back, raised their families, sent their kids to college, bought refrigerators, they went to work, and didn’t really talk about (the war) much,” Mark Bergen said. “A lot of these stories are dying now. It’s time for these stories to come out, Veterans Day.”
To Bergen, sharing his story is homage to those who cannot share theirs.
“I’m not a hero in any shape or form,” Bergen said. “In my opinion, the heroes are those who gave their lives. We need to remember then.”
(Near the war’s end, as Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his troops marched into a World War II prisoners camp, he said: “Anyone who has cameras, take as many pictures as you can, proof of what you are witnessing here today. The day will come when it will be denied that this ever happened. DZ)
Max Bergen’s POW Record Personal Details
Name … Max H. Bergen … Race, White … State of Residence, Wisconsin.
Military Branch: Army Arm or Service Air Corps; … Organization Type: Heavy Bombardment;
Parent Unit Type: Regiment; Parent Unit #0306; Serial number 36806942
Theatre of War … European; Capture Country: Germany; Detaining Power: Nazi Germany
First Report: March 29,1944; … Last Report: January 25, 1946; Days of Captivity: 667.
Status Returned to Military Control, Liberated or Repatriated;
Source of Report: Individual reported through sources considered official.
(This article is reprinted with permission of Lauren French, Eau Claire Leader Telegram.)
(Max and Florence Bergen owned and operated “The White Horse Inn,” which was located at the south end of Hewett Street, and south side of Division Street, starting in about the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Max tended the bar and greeted their customers while Florence took care of the kitchen and a dining area of five tables. The inn was small but was a favorite place to go for a night of dining and relaxation.
Max and Florence made many friends during the time they owned and operated their business in Neillsville.
The White Horse Inn was a favorite comrades’ stop, for one men’s late night-shift bowling team. They would have a lunch, then plug in the jute box and start singing. Max, who had an excellent singing voice, joined them in harmonizing.
Back then people enjoyed dancing, so there were those who often would waltz or two-step to music available on the jute box.
Thanks to Ben Urlaub for drawing our attention to this story about Max Bergen’s imprisonment during World War II. DZ)
History of Stalag XVII B
Germany had about 100 German military prison camps during WWII, 120 in 1942 and 98 in 1944. They were located mostly in Germany, but some were located in countries that Germany conquered and occupied.
How Germany named their military prison camps:
Before the war, Germany has established a system of Wehrkreise, (military districts), for the purpose of drafting and training soldiers. During the war, military areas were added, changed, merged, or dropped. They were given Roman numerals; XVII B was the designation for central and eastern Austria.
Stalag XVII B was a military prison camp for captured soldiers below officer rank, and became the largest German prison camp in Austria, the second largest of all German prison camps during WWII. It was also second worst among all camps in the treatment of its prisoners.
In the summer of 1943, thousands of Russian prisoners in the northeastern area of the camp were relocated to other German prison camps in Austria to make room for the captured American airmen who began arriving in October 1943. The number of prisoners in Stalag XVII B grew quickly to about 4,400 and stayed at that level until the war’s end. The arrival of the American airmen prisoners caused considerable problems for the German officers and guards. While the whole camp was under the overall command and control of officers and guards of the Wehrmacht (German Army), the part of the camp that now kept the American prisoners, was placed under the separate command and control of officers and guards in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). This situation changed in late 1944, when the SS and Gestapo took control of the entire camp.
As the soviet army got close to the camp, the German guards decided to force the American, British and French prisoners to walk west along the Danube River toward American Forces. The Germans reasoned that it would be far better to surrender to the Americans than to the Russians.
(Thank you to Max Bergen and the many other veterans who have served in defending our country’s freedoms, and who are to be remembered with honor on this Veterans’ Day. November 11, 2017. DZ)
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, a 4-engine heavy bomber, was developed in the 1930s for the United Army Air Corps (USAAC). It became the third most produced bomber of all times, being employed in daylight bombing missions against German industrial and military targets while being based at airfields in central and southern England. Max Bergen flew on bombing missions over Germany from Dec. 22, 1943, until being shot down Mar. 29, 1944, when he then became a prisoner of war for 667 days until being liberated.
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