With a skip in his step defying his 92 years, Bob Bergstrom walked into his house near Bock, Minn., feeling happy despite diminishing returns.
“Yesterday, I picked an ice cream pail of raspberries, but today I only managed half a pail,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We’ll eat some tonight and freeze the rest.”
These are idyllic days for Bergstrom, who first moved to the 40 acres where he now lives in 1930 when he turned 5. His parents decided to head about 70 miles north of Minneapolis to Bock, pop. 100, to try farming just as the Depression dawned.
A 1943 Milaca High School graduate, Bergstrom earned his Army Air Forces wings at 19 and flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki with radiation filters just weeks after the atomic bombings. He manned the radar on 40 Korean War B-29 bombing runs, then spent time in Alaska and nearly two decades as a missionary in Africa — building, among other things, a hydroelectric plant in Zaire.
Now, 88 years after he first arrived, Bergstrom and his wife, Erma, are back in Bock — “enjoying our latter days,” he said. From their window, they can see lilac bushes, birch, spruce and apple trees and the dahlias and roses they planted.
While his days are sweet as fresh raspberries, Bergstrom’s nights have been wracked with nightmares from a bombing mission over North Korea on Oct. 23, 1951.
“I see my buddies killed and get up in the middle of the night,” he said. “My wife has really helped me get over it. She’ll say, ‘You don’t have to fly again.’ ”
For years, he couldn’t even look at pictures of the B-29 so-called Superfortress — a heavy, 1940s-era bomber. “Too many memories,” Bergstrom said.
Part of an 11-member crew, he monitored the radar in the back of the plane. On what became known as Black Tuesday, nine B-29s took off from Okinawa before sunup, each carrying 144 bombs weighing 100 pounds apiece.
Their mission: obliterate the Namsi air force base under construction in North Korea. Six hours into the assignment, anti-aircraft flak from the ground began peppering the plane with holes. Then up to 80 Russian MiG-15 fighter jets “were on us,” Bergstrom said.
“I thought ‘This is the end,’ ” he said. “They had us outgunned … and shot a big hole about five feet from me.”
Six of the nine B-29s failed to make it back that day, the highest percentage of U.S. bombers ever lost on a major mission, according to Earl McGill’s book “Black Tuesday Over Namsi.”
McGill wrote that “many experts” considered the clash “the epic air battle of the Korean War and perhaps the greatest jet engagement in the history of aerial warfare.”
Bergstrom was in the second of the nine B-29s and watched his close friend’s first plane disappear in the chaos.
“We never did see him again,” he said.
Somehow Bergstrom’s plane kept flying with enough fuel to drop its bombs and return to Okinawa. “The radar was inoperable,” he said. “And we had no hydraulics.”
He crawled into the bomb bay with left gunner Don Bruegeman and cranked the landing gear into place by hand — learning later that more than 700 cranks were required. Even then, they weren’t sure it would work.
Capt. Jim Lewis, the flight commander, “went on the intercom to say we could all bail out if we wanted,” Bergstrom said. “But one by one, all 11 guys decided to stay and sweat it out.”
Bergstrom was only 25. But those 15 chaotic minutes, he said, shaped his next 67 years. First, he reached out to Erma, whose sister-in-law was Bob’s cousin. She was working as a nurse in Alaska when statehood arrived in 1959.
“I wasn’t impressed,” said Erma, 87, a Foley High School graduate. “No sparks.”
When she moved to a nursing job in Minneapolis, Bob persisted.
“We courted awhile,” he said. “I popped the question and she said ‘Yes.’ ”
They married on Oct. 23, 1965 — 14 years to the day after Black Tuesday. In 1973, they moved to Nome — Erma’s old nursing venue. Bob built a parsonage for the Covenant Church of Chicago.
Following a religious calling, they moved in 1974 to what’s now known as the Republic of Congo with the eldest three of their four children.
“Erma had the suitcases packed,” amid frequent military clashes, Bob said in a 2013 interview. But they remained in Africa, on and off, for 20 years.
They moved back to Bock in 2002. A skilled carpenter, Bob remodeled the old house and tended to beehives and his since-sold Red Angus cows. He also visited with a psychologist 20 times before a post-traumatic stress diagnosis.
“That helped me realize that some of my memories of the war will never be erased,” he said. “I think of those who are missing as we enjoy the peace and joy we have in America today.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at onminnesotahistory.com.