OWLS HEAD, Maine — On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Infantryman Don Bergren was asleep when Japanese aircraft began dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor and machine guns started strafing his U.S. Army barracks.
It was a terrifying start to a day that President Franklin Roosevelt shortly afterward said would “live in infamy,” but the 87-year-old Rockland native said he doesn’t remember having enough time to be scared.
And he hasn’t forgotten much about the attacks. Twenty-one ships were sunk or badly damaged, 350 aircraft destroyed or damaged, and 3,500 people killed or wounded, according to a history from the U.S. Navy.
“They sure did make a mess of it,” Bergren said Friday at his home in Owls Head, adding that his regiment had tried to fight back.
“We put a machine gun on the roof. We got a Zero [Japanese fighter plane]. We all had a whack at it,” he said.
And then, in the chaos of battle, he was called down to pack up the kitchen. His regiment, stationed just above Pearl Harbor at the Schofield Barracks, was being sent to the beach to protect Hawaii from any possible sea-based attack by the Japanese.
World War II had now begun for an ill-prepared United States, and Bergren — carrying an antiquated 1918 machine gun among the 83 pounds of gear on his back — was in the thick of it.
“We dug foxholes and filled sandbags. We didn’t have any shovels. We filled the sandbags with our mess kits,” he said. “We thought surely we were going to be invaded.”
Bergren’s wife of 65 years, Cora, said his anecdotes about Pearl Harbor have made her think.
“They didn’t have any equipment to work with,” she said. “They couldn’t fight back. He said that if the Japanese had come ashore, they could have taken the island.”
Change of atmosphere
Bergren today is a trim octogenarian who wears dark glasses in the daytime because he is blind. That blindness began when he was stationed in Hawaii all those years ago, he said. For a long time, he and his guide dogs were fixtures on the Rockland streets, but these days he lives more quietly.
“I’m unsteady on my feet now,” Bergren said.
Cora Bergren said her husband usually prefers not to make a fuss over his wartime experiences. But he told his story Friday with a cheerful realism.
Unlike many Mainers who were inspired by the Pearl Harbor attack to enlist in the military, Bergren had joined up in peace time.
By 1940 when he was 18, he had spent three years delivering milk in Rockland.
“I got tired of wading through snow up to my waist early in the morning,” he said, smiling. “I decided to go where it’s warm.”
Bergren enlisted and was sent to Hawaii, where he spent a year “drilling and training and working” in the 35th Infantry, Tropical Lightning Division of the U.S. Army.
Some of the other guys spent their free time surfing or swimming off Waikiki and other beaches, and Bergren said that the night before the attack, he had been at the local beer garden. Life for an infantryman in Hawaii had been good.
“I enjoyed it,” he said
A couple of weeks before the attacks, the atmosphere on Hawaii changed. Security was tightened and the base put on alert.
“Intelligence on the island learned that something was up,” he said.
Even so, the Japanese aircraft were able to fly nearly undetected to the island of Oahu and the American military installations there.
“Two guys on radar announced there were planes coming in,” Bergren said. “But [officials] ignored it. They thought they were planes coming from the United States.”
‘We were united’
Cora Bergren was a girl of 14 when she heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
“I was at a friend’s house. I was helping make frosting,” the Owls Head native remembered. “I ran to tell my father. I really didn’t understand.”
She understood more and more as the war years wore on.
“It was a terrible time, but in another sense, it was a wonderful time — because we were united,” Cora Bergren said. “It’s never been like that since, and I don’t think it ever will again.”
Don Bergren felt that sense of unity, too. He was supposed to be discharged from the Army in June 1941 because of his night blindness.
“Instead, I stayed there. They sent me to demolition school,” he said. “I didn’t mind that.”
When his outfit left for Guadalcanal in 1942, Bergren was left behind in Hawaii where he trained new recruits — 10,000 of them. Then he got transferred to the military police in Honolulu, but his degenerating night blindness got in the way of those duties.
Bergren was discharged in 1943.
Life after wartime
Life went on. He was a warehouse foreman for a now-defunct grain company in Maine. He met Cora at a dance — “he followed me home,” she said teasingly — and they married and had two sons.
Bergren worked for 15 years as port engineer for the O’Hara fishing fleet in Rockland before his bad eyesight once again forced him to retire.
However, his eyes did not stop the Bergrens from making a 40th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii. They made a pilgrimage to the enormous military cemetery there that is tucked into the crater of an ancient volcano and looked for the names of some of his old Army friends.
The couple marveled at the high-rise hotels that mushroomed on Waikiki after the war, and they revisited his old stomping grounds.
But they skipped the memorial for the USS Arizona, where 1,777 men had died.
“I didn’t want to go to the Arizona,” Bergren said. “I’d seen it before it blew up.”