By Mike Hixenbaugh
Harold Bergbower was pronounced dead the day America officially entered World War II.
Bergbower, a young mechanic in the Army Air Corps, had been hit by a bomb blast during the Japanese assault on the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941.
Within days, a telegram announcing his death reached his family in Illinois, and not long after, his name was added to a wall at his high school honoring a growing list of war casualties from his hometown.
Three years later, Bergbower returned from the dead.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to family members who had attended his memorial service.
On Friday, the 93-year-old former prisoner of war shared his remarkable story between bites of fried chicken and green beans at Bunny’s Restaurant in Suffolk.
He was among more than a dozen World War II POWs who traveled to downtown Norfolk last week for a survivors convention. They came to Bunny’s to rekindle an old tradition, at least for a day.
For many years, a group of former prisoners of war met weekly at the small country diner, where they swapped stories over coffee, eggs and fried potatoes. And for most of those years, construction company owner William Blair secretly picked up the tab – his way of thanking men who had survived the Bataan Death March and other horrors in Japanese labor camps.
Blair, who eventually was outed for his good deed, has continued to buy breakfast for local war veterans, even though the last of the ex-POWs passed away two years ago. But it’s not the same without them.
When he learned that a descendants group of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor was holding its annual convention in Norfolk, he contacted an organizer and offered to buy them all lunch.
“I miss my old POW buddies every day,” Blair said, seeming anxious as his guests arrived at the diner. “I can’t tell you how good it feels to have this place packed again with all these amazing heroes.”
Blair greeted each POW who walked through the door, thanked him for his service and told each to enjoy lunch. He didn’t press them for war stories – he learned over the years that many of their experiences were too painful to share. But it wasn’t long before the memories came spilling out.
One of the old-timers recalled surviving the brutal march north along the Bataan peninsula, then later being forced to bury the dead at Camp O’Donnell. Another said he still struggles with nightmares after watching so many of his friends wither away at a Japanese labor camp.
“I don’t dwell on these things,” one of the men said, declining to detail his time as a prisoner.
Bergbower, who traveled to Norfolk with his daughter, started his story with a smile: “I died on the first day of the war,” he said.
After an explosion knocked him unconscious at Clark Field, he was mistaken for dead. Bergbower woke up in the morgue, he said, and crawled out to rejoin his squadron. But not before notice of his apparent death was sent home.
He was on patrol months later when the U.S. surrendered Bataan, and he became one of thousands of POWs forced to march more than 60 miles under brutal conditions to a prison camp. He spent the next year in captivity in the Philippines.
At home, his family marked his birthday and wept on the anniversary of his death.
Later, Bergbower was among thousands of prisoners who were crammed into “hell ships” – Japanese warships used to move prisoners to Japan. Prisoners were stuffed into cargo holds with little air, food or water during voyages that often lasted weeks.
“I don’t really know what happened when I was on that ship, because they had us packed in there so tight, and it was so terrible, I have no real recollection of it,” Bergbower said.
He eventually arrived in Toyama, Japan, where he was forced to labor in a steel mill – grueling work in incredibly hot conditions. He dropped to 78 pounds, half of his pre-war weight.
The prisoners were fed a single rice ball, twice daily, and forced to work at least 12 hours per day. One by one, the men around Bergbower died. He pressed on, dreaming of life back home. He often imagined cutting into one of his mother’s cherry and rhubarb pies.
“It was a big day when the Red Cross entered the camp,” Bergbower said. “They said, ‘Gentlemen, we have entered the atomic age.’ ”
Once liberated, Bergbower and the other survivors were loaded onto a Navy hospital ship, where they were given “six shots.”
“The sixth shot was Jim Beam,” Bergbower said, and everyone within earshot in the diner laughed.
They laughed again when he told the story of his second night back in the United States. He and a few other recently returned POWs sneaked out of the military hospital in San Francisco. The men, weak and frail after years in captivity and wearing hospital pajamas, hailed a cab.
“We told the cabbie who we were, and he said, ‘I know just where to take you,’ ” Bergbower said.
The cab dropped them off at a swanky night club, where beautiful women in fancy dresses lined up to dance with the war heroes in hospital rags.
Bergbower became emotional when he recalled reuniting with his parents, who only recently had received notice that their slain son actually was alive. Later, Bergbower was invited to his old high school, where he had the honor of removing his name from the memorial wall.
“It’s hard to put into words what that felt like,” he said.
As Bergbower contemplated that thought, a woman stood up in the restaurant and began singing “Over There,” a popular song during the war.
Bergbower and the other old-timers gathered around and joined in during the chorus.
“Send the word, send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere.”
Later, the former POWs gathered for a group photo. Family members and sailors from the amphibious assault ship Bataan gathered close and stood on chairs to capture the moment on cellphone cameras.
Blair stood out of the way in the corner of the diner. He folded his hands at his waist. And he smiled.