Through more than three hellish years of captivity, Joe Bergstein survived it all.
The Bataan Death March. The POW transport ships. The angst of burying the bodies of his buddies as they fell beside him in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
But when he died at age 97 last December of natural causes, the World War II veteran and longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory employee bore no grudges against the Japanese. Nor did he express bitterness over that experience.
“He considered himself a liver of history,” said Bergstein’s daughter, Julie Gable of Scottsdale, Ariz., by phone Thursday.
Bergstein’s wife, Frances Safford of Los Alamos, said her husband did not consider himself “a professional veteran. He steered away from all of the meetings and celebrations for veterans. He just took being a veteran in stride; he didn’t make a big deal of it.”
Bergstein was interred with full military honors at the Santa Fe National Cemetery Friday. He was among the state’s few remaining veterans who survived the death march.
Bergstein was not among the many New Mexicans who joined the military before World War II broke out and later became embroiled in the battle for the Philippines after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Rather, he was born in McKeesport, Pa., a steel manufacturing town, in February 1923. A child of the Depression, he learned at an early age how to get by with little and persevere in the face of difficult challenges, his daughter said.
“He learned at a young age how to survive,” Gable said. “He had a really strong work ethic, he pretty much never took anything for granted. I think he fought for every day.”
Unable to find work during the Depression, Bergstein enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in February 1941. That summer, he was shipped to the Philippines. By the end of the year, he was getting shot at — a lot.
The Japanese took Bataan as part of the Philippines campaign, but only after four months of fighting outmanned American and Filipino troops. That spirited defense bought America and its allies much-needed time to organize forces and derail a Japanese plan to invade Australia, among other places. But it also led to one of the most infamous and brutal events of the early years of World War II: the Bataan Death March.
Bergstein endured that march and the brutality, starvation and other physical challenges that followed for the war’s duration.
He never let on that any of it hurt when he retold stories of his World War II experiences, his wife and daughter said. Instead, he often managed to put an amusing spin on some of the tales, making himself the hapless sad sack caught up in a tragedy not of his own doing.
“He never dwelled on anything that was awful,” his wife said. “He really didn’t talk about those kinds of things — only if it had a funny part to it or he could make something humorous out of it.”
Following the war Bergstein majored in physics and math at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. That led to a long career at the Los Alamos lab, where he worked in the weapons, nuclear reactor and physics divisions from 1953 to 1987.
Gable said her father had a mind for numbers. If, during dinner, someone said, “I wonder how much water evaporates from a swimming pool on a hot day in Phoenix,” he would stay up all night trying to calculate the answer, she said.
He became a master at duplicate bridge and loved to play golf. Otherwise, Bergstein could enjoy sitting outside amid the natural scenery for hours.
“He loved Los Alamos,” Gable said. “He thought it was the best place on earth.”
Speaking through tears, Gable said her father was always supportive of his children’s efforts.
“I always felt he believed I could do anything,” she said.
(c) 2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican
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