A Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin resident who was shot down over Germany during World War II will receive his Purple Heart on Friday.
Max Bergen, 94, has lived in the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls since January 2015.
Bergen joined the Army in 1943 and became a member of the Army Air Forces, where he served on a bomb squadron. They flew a B17 over occupied France and Germany. He flew 21 missions but was shot down on that final flight on March 29, 1944, he said.
“I was the tail gunner,” Bergen recalled. “We had flown over Brunswick, Germany. As we came off the target, we were hit by German fighters.”
The pilot dropped the plane down close to the ground, and he offered to let the nine others on the plane put on a parachute and jump to safety. He had no takers.
“We were told we were going to crash,” Bergen said. “Our pilot was so good — we slid in almost as gently as you would on a landing. I’d like to think God was flying that day.”
Once the plane hit the ground, the 10 soldiers fled in pairs in different directions. However, within two hours Bergen was captured. They had crashed near an air base, and the German troops were immediately looking for them.
“A German soldier, he said in perfect English, ‘Come out with your hands up,’” Bergen said. “He said, ‘For you, the war is over.’”
Bergen didn’t initially realize he was injured.
“I had a flesh wound in the left shoulder,” he said. “It was like someone threw gravel in my shoulder. It was shrapnel. My right ankle was bleeding. None of my wounds were serious.”
Because the plane was under fire, he isn’t sure exactly what caused the injuries.
Bergen spent the next 14 months as a prisoner of war in Austria, living in a cell with just a blanket and a board for sleeping, before being liberated on May 3, 1945. Bergen said all 10 people on the plane survived the war; he is now the last of them alive.
Bergen said he thought over the years about whether he should have been awarded the Purple Heart, which is given to soldiers injured in combat.
“Our sons had looked into it, but they ran into a brick wall,” he said.
Mark Wilson, the commandant at the veterans home, said there was a lot of bureaucracy involved, but he praised U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for helping get the honor for Bergen.
“The awarding of the Purple Heart requires written documentation describing the injury,” Wilson explained. “But he was taken directly from the crashed airplane to the prison camp; there was no documentation of the injury.”
Wilson took pictures of Bergen’s scars, and he researched information on which prison camp Bergen was brought to, looking for documents about treatment. Between the research and pictures, Wilson’s work paid off, and Bergen is receiving his medal.
Bergen fought back tears when talking about receiving the medal Friday.
“I don’t know if words can accurately describe how I feel,” he said. “It was overwhelming. I was stunned. It took a long time for it to sink in. I didn’t realize it would mean so much to me, but it does. I’m just grateful for all the work done for me.”
Katie Plendl, director of admissions and volunteer services at the veterans home, said everyone is happy for Bergen and thrilled Johnson is coming to the ceremony to present the medal.
“We are very excited to be able to give him this great honor,” Plendl said. “It’s a long time coming.”
Bergen grew up in Pipe Village, near Fond du Lac. He and his wife, Florence, moved into the facility together after she began struggling with dementia. She died last July.
He sees his three sons on a regular basis, as two live in Chetek and one in Holcombe.
© 2018 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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