Ernest Bergman

Bergman photo

Ernest Bergman
U.S. Navy, Quartermaster, E-5
USS Windham County, USS Kemper County & USS Thomaston
Vietnam War (1966-1972)

Ernest Bergman, a Marin native, is a courageous veteran of the Vietnam War.  Bergman enlisted in the military while still in high school.  Despite football scholarship offers and strong grades, Bergman wanted a big adventure; something college could not offer.  Although service in the Navy certainly provided Bergman with some adventure, it also came at a high price.  He was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, which resulted in cancer.  Today, Bergman’s cancer is in remission, he relishes life, and life itself is his big adventure.  Bergman advises, “live life, experience it, and drink it in.”

Ernest Bergman was born on March 31, 1948 in San Francisco, California.  He grew up in Mill Valley, California and attended Tamalpais High School where he was a standout football player.  His mother was a nurse and his father, a Merchant Marine Sea Captain.  Bergman’s father served in World Wars I and II, Korea and very early on in Vietnam.  His extended family also had a long tradition of service to our country.  Bergman actually joined the service before graduation from high school in May of 1966.  Although he could have gone to college, Bergman felt he was a lost soul, had no motivation, and was immature.  He noted, “I wanted to see the world, I was dying to get out of the house.”  Bergman further noted, “I enlisted in the service not to go to war; I enlisted in the service because to me it was just one big adventure.”

Bergman chose to enlist in the Navy because his father had spent 52 years at sea.  Although he initially wanted to be a Green Beret and was influenced by John Wayne, the influence of his father took precedent.  At the time of his enlistment, his father was very happy.  He thought both of his parents were really happy because they knew he wasn’t really motivated to go to school.  After graduation from high school, Bergman attended basic training in San Diego, at the Naval Training Center, from September 1, 1966 to November 22, 1966.  While in basic training, Bergman jested that he “marched and marched and washed clothes, and marched and polished shoes, and marched and polished shoes and marched.”  He felt the naval training was taken very seriously.  “Basic training teaches you certain things, but more importantly, it teaches you how to take orders and how to work as a team,” emphasized Bergman.  He was able to cope with the rigors of training because a lot of it was competiveness, something Bergman was used to due to his football background.  As an athlete, trying to do one’s best in a group situation was something Bergman excelled at.  He just wanted to make sure that he didn’t fall behind. 

After basic training, Bergman qualified for “A” school, preliminary naval training to be a quartermaster or navigator.  The training was 4 weeks long in San Diego and he graduated at the end of January 1967.  His rank at this time was E-2.  On February 15, 1967, Bergman was shipped overseas to be attached to an Amphibious Landing Ship, the U.S.S. Windham County.  The ship was home ported out of Yokosuka, Japan although it operated all over Southeast Asia.  Bergman recalls his first day in Vietnam was April 4, 1967.  He grew up very quickly.  Bergman felt good about being aboard ship and his assignment.  Unlike most in the Navy, he already had a designation and knew what he was going to do for the rest of his naval career. 

According to Bergman, the Windham County was a smaller ship with only 5 quartermasters, so they basically did everything.  Their duties included: standing in watches, making sure the navigational charts were kept up to date, and they kept the ship’s log to record every single thing the ship did.  There were usually 3 section watches.  Every 8 hours, a quartermaster would go on duty, stand watch for 4 hours, and then have 8 hours off.  If they had the mid-watch, 12 midnight to 4:00 a.m., the men tried to get some sleep early, otherwise they had to be up all night.  If there was a chance to navigate, Bergman did both visual and celestial navigation to make sure he always knew where the ship was located.  His primary function was to keep the officer of the deck informed about where the ship was, where it was going, and what was going on around the ship at all times.  The Windham County was a tank landing ship or LST.  Bergman called it a “large, slow target.”  An LST is flat bottomed, so it can go into very shallow areas.  LSTs patrol very close to shore and carry troops and supplies.  LSTs also act as landing crafts.  According to Bergman, the Windham County resupplied an awful lot.  He called his branch of the Navy, the Amphibious or Working Navy.  Bergman noted, that while carriers and destroyers were important; “we were the guys that were close in and basically did all the hard work working with the Marines and Army.”   

Bergman explained that onboard ship he lived in a compartment.  Depending on the size of the compartment, there could be anywhere from 10 to 30 guys sharing the space.  They slept on canvas bunks, or “racks” which were only 12 inches apart.  Bergman’s aluminum locker, which housed everything he owned, was about 2-1/2 feet by 2-1/2 feet, and had to be polished regularly.  Bergman noted that living conditions were very crowded, but he claimed that in boot camp you were taught how to live anywhere and keep all your stuff within a certain area.  According to Bergman, that was just the way it was, so you got used to the lifestyle.  He explained, “One thing about the Navy, which the Army and Marines always complain about, is that every night I was in clean sheets, had a shower every day, and clean clothes.”  That was part of the attraction to the Navy for Bergman. Bergman also felt the food was pretty good.  It was certainly better than anything provided in the Army or Marines.  People complained, but looking back, Bergman felt he was very lucky.  During the daytime, he explained that usually you didn’t have time to relax.  You were either maintaining your space, updating charts, or you were helping the person on the watch.  In his leisure time, Bergman played a lot of cards, read, wrote letters, hung out with the guys, and watched movies.  

Overall, Bergman felt the morale was good aboard ship for the 2 years he served on the Windham County.  There were only about 125 crew members and everyone knew each other.  Bergman stated, “we were always very busy and very good at what we did.”  He felt they had a great crew and most were wonderful guys.  He still keeps in touch with many of the men and they are still the best of friends.  Bergman also felt that most of his commanding officers were good guys.  He described his commanding officer on the Windham County as a “mustanger”, someone who starts out as an enlisted man and works his way up to become an officer.  Bergman recalls that his commanding officer was very smart, tough, but very fair.  Bergman felt he was very lucky; he had a great crew, great shipmates, they were all very good at what they did, and they took their jobs seriously.

Bergman rose through the ranks quickly and was promoted to E-5, Petty Officer Second Class.  While with the Windham County, Bergman never knew in advance what they were going to do, or where they were going.  There was no real specific mission.  They did some humanitarian work with Operation Schoolhouse Lift, picked up troops and supplies out of Okinawa, transferred troops from one place to another, and resupplied a lot of areas.  They also participated in a couple of landing operations at Wunder Beach, South Vietnam; river operations in the Mekong Delta in 1968; and provided support to the mobile riverine warfare operations in or near Dong Tam.  Bergman also noted they did a lot of mail runs.  Although it isn’t very exciting, Bergman explained that it’s all part of the deal.  “For every one person that’s on the front line, you have 10 people supporting him and all of them have to do their job, otherwise that guy’s gonna fail”, he claimed.  Bergman further claimed, “they participated in a lot of different jobs and operations, whatever needed to be done, we were called to do it.”  According to Bergman, he did not receive any additional training as a quartermaster.  Everything was on the job training from his fellow quartermasters.  For her Vietnam War service, Windham County received three Navy Unit Commendations, three Meritorious Unit Commendations, a Presidential Unit Citation, plus others, and 14 battle stars.  Bergman recalls receiving ribbons for operations in Danang in 1967, and support of the mobile riverine force in 1968.  He also received 5 ribbons from the South Vietnamese government.

After his 2 year tour of duty on the Windham County, Bergman was transferred for 6 months to a small ship, the U.S.S. Kemper County that had lost its quartermasters and was stuck in Japan.  Kemper County was also an Landing Ship Tank, LST-854, an old World War II class ship.   Bergman served as the senior and sole navigator and helped steer it home to San Diego for decommissioning in 1969.  In San Diego, Bergman attended advanced sea school in celestial navigation.  After graduation, with a year left to complete his service, Bergman was transferred to an LSD, the U.S. S. Thomaston LSD -28.  An LSD differs from an LST in that an LST has a huge tank deck in the middle with a ramp to offload trucks, jeeps and other vehicles.  An LSD, on the other hand, is a larger ship and acts like a dock.  Landing craft can float in on an LSD, in addition to carrying vehicles.  Bergman served aboard the Thomaston as the Leading Petty Officer of the Navigation Division.  At this time, Bergman was only an E-5, but doing the work of a Chief, or E-7.  Bergman felt he was qualified to do the job because he had such good training.  He was also very proud that he was so good at his job.

Bergman served onboard the Thomaston from August 1969 to June 1970.  As the lead petty officer, Bergman had 6 quartermasters working underneath him.  The duties were the same as those on the Windham County, except now Bergman was the lead navigator, a position he loved.  Overall, Bergman coped well while on the Thomaston and the experience was positive.  He felt he was very good at what he did, made friends easily, and fit in very well.  Bergman felt he gained respect immediately from his peers because he was good at what he did.  Although Bergman felt he was motivated during his service, it was more out of a sense of duty.  He had a job to do and he had to work within a team.  Although Bergman recalls complaining and wanting his tour of duty to end, his sense of self esteem, pride that he had the ability to do his job and work within a team that really motivated him.  According to Bergman, all military personnel have the same motivation, “do not let your team down, do your job, and get everyone home safe.” 

Ernest Bergman was separated on June 1, 1970, as the result of a school cut via NAV OP-5 to reduce forces.  As a result, Bergman only had to serve active duty for 3 years and 9 months of his 6 year total requirement.  He remained on inactive reserve until May 1972 when he was finally discharged.  As a result of his service in Vietnam, Bergman received numerous ribbons including individual combat ribbons, 3 meritorious unit commendations, a navy unit commendation, a presidential unit ribbon, a civic action ribbon, and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

During Bergman’s service he received an injury to his shoulder early on.  As a result, he received a 10% disability.  However, Bergman was also exposed to Agent Orange; a defoliant used by the US Air Force in the Makong Delta in 1968.  Bergman and all others serving on LSTS in the area were sprayed.  Bergman recalls looking up into the sky and seeing the planes spraying the chemicals over the jungle and rivers.  It was like Roundup, but a thousand times stronger.  Agent Orange was considered to be the most toxic and it was even sprayed in the drinking water of the US troops.  Bergman claims, he didn’t know what was being sprayed on him or its toxicity.  He didn’t care because he didn’t know the harm of Agent Orange.  Today, it has been established that Agent Orange exposure can cause at least 25 specific diseases or conditions.  Bergman also noted that he was exposed to brown water in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 while aboard an LST that operated in very shallow water.  Brown water is river water that is very dirty and contaminated with chemicals and other pollutants.  Bergman did not seem to have any side effects from the exposure to Agent Orange and brown water until 1977.  In September 1977, Bergman began to experience severe pain in his back.  In December, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his back, abdomen, lymph nodes and spine.  In addition, he had 12 tumors in his lungs.  He had late stage IV cancer and was given about 6 weeks to live.  Bergman was only 29.  Although he had been able to complete college and had started a career as a stock broker, Bergman really did not have the opportunity to start his life.

Always the fighter and one to relish life, Bergman began the fight for his life.  With the help of his sister, Bergman sought out treatment and finally was placed in an experimental clinical trial at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, California.  He was not expected to live, but was allowed to participate in the trial because his case was considered so amazing.  Bergman received 3 separate experimental chemotherapies for 6 months.  He lost the ability to walk, couldn’t see, went bald and suffered every side effect possible.  Despite the treatments, Bergman still showed signs of active cancer cells.  In a radical move, Bergman’s doctor removed about 110 of his lymph nodes because that is where the active cancer still resided.  By May 1978, Bergman was in remission.  He was the first survivor in the trial. He regained his sight and slowly began to walk.  For 2 and ½ years, Bergman received maintenance chemotherapy.  Today, he is cancer free and a medical miracle.  Bergman never gave up hope.  He calls himself the “bionic man’’ because he has undergone extensive chemotherapy, survived Agent Orange exposure, and had both knees, shoulders and hips replaced.  He lives with pain, but is thrilled to be alive.  Despite his unique cancer and exposure to Agent Orange, Veteran Affairs (VA) has denied Bergman’s cancer was the result of his exposures during Vietnam.  Ironically, Bergman’s type of cancer was not one of the 25 specific diseases recognized by the VA.  Although the VA did not dispute his exposure, he was denied disability benefits because his cancer was not the right kind of cancer.

After his recovery, Bergman went back to work with Dean Witter, his employer at the time his cancer was discovered.  He was accepted as a senior instructor of a national training center in San Francisco.  For a year and a half, Bergman was a senior instructor and then became a retirement plan specialist.  Thereafter, he went on the road and did wholesale work for Dean Witter Mutual Funds.  After 10 years, Bergman left Dean Witter and became a product specialist at several companies in the financial services business.  He was worked in this industry for over 35 years.  Bergman claims, “he never would have predicted it, but it has been a great experience. I really have lived a good life even though I had plenty of hurdles along the road.  I have no complaints about my path and where I ended up.”

Bergman is very proud of his service in Vietnam.  He is the unofficial president of the Windham County Association and helps host reunions around the country for this ship.  He is also involved with a huge reunion scheduled for October 2012 that will include all Vietnam squadrons based out of Yokosuka, Japan.  In addition, Bergman is the President of the Marin Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 547.  He also joined a local American Legion Post when he was discharged.  After 5 years, he terminated his membership because he was told that the Post didn’t have any room for Vietnam Veterans because they were a bunch of cry babies.  According to Bergman, this “broke his heart.”  Any post traumatic stress he suffered was not the result of his service in Vietnam, exposure to Agent Orange or cancer.  Bergman’s stress was the direct result of his poor treatment by his fellow Americans and his local American Legion Post.  Like all other veterans, Bergman served his country proudly.  He did not understand why he was not welcomed with open arms like the World War II veterans.  Today, in order to dispel any myths about Vietnam, Bergman regularly speaks in Marin County high schools.  He likes to provide a realistic overview of the military, war in general, and the Vietnam War.  Bergman notes, “he was a lost soul when he enlisted and speaks out because there are many lost souls in the classrooms that need to know that there are options.”   According to Bergman, he still believes service in the military was good for him.  After 42 years and much reflection, he would still do it all over again because he knows what service did for him; it made him the man he is today.

Upon reflection on his service during Vietnam, Bergman claims the toughest part was having to speed up his maturity.  He became a man quickly and it was a challenge.  He learned to take care of himself and his buddies in a vastly new environment.  Bergman also learned that “you didn’t fight for apple pie and baseball.”  “You do your job, work within your team, take care of yourself and your buddies, and get everybody home safe.  That’s what you fight for,” explained Bergman.  He also noted that there was always stress while you were in country in Vietnam.  You were always scared because you were susceptible to different kind of risks.  Bergman’s most emotional day in Vietnam was his first.  Even at 1am, the weather was extremely hot, he could smell jet fuel, human excrement, and even the heat smelled.  Bergman was assigned to stretcher duty loading and unloading wounded at a helicopter pad at Camp Ten Cho.  It was the first time Bergman saw dead people.  He stated, “war is hours and weeks of pure boredom, interrupted by moments of terror.”  Bergman recalls that 2 soldiers died on him that day and he still remembers their faces.   For Bergman, day one in Vietnam was the most shocking, emotional and difficult day of his life.  “You can never prepare yourself for real blood, combat, or war.  There is just no way, if you never experienced it, to prepare your emotional being for seeing one of your buddies get killed”, exclaimed Bergman passionately.

Today, Bergman is still pro-military, but anti-war.  He believes, “if you ever been in combat, you cannot be pro-war.”  According to Bergman, “real combat just woke me up that first day.”  He does believe, however, in an automatic national reserve for everybody.  Not necessarily military – domestic, foreign or military, first come, first served.  Bergman also feels that the sacrifice he made in Vietnam was justified.  He is very proud to have served his country, he saw the world, grew up, and got motivated for college.  As a result, he attained a great amount of self confidence that he never had before.  Bergman feels that the service probably did as much, if not more for him, than he did for it.  The military launched Bergman and helped make him the successful and responsible person he is today. 

Bergman advises young men and women about to serve to “keep an open mind, look at all your options, understand that you’re gonna be obligated to something else.  You can’t quit for a few years.”  He also advised, “be very specific about what you feel you’re gonna get out of it, but don’t be afraid to make a choice.”  Young people today have choices, noted Bergman, and he wants them to think it through.  “If you’re not ready, look at all your options’, recommends Bergman.  Bergman wants all young people to “live life, experience it, and drink it in.”  His advice, “don’t just go through life and not look to the left and right and not recognize things that are going on.  Things don’t go back, they only go forward.”  Bergman wishes now, in hindsight, that he paid more attention.  Bergman has many more adventures ahead of him.  He will continue to relish life, live it and feel it fully.

Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 23, 2011.     

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