Ever since he was in the seventh grade, Dick Bergling of Anoka knew he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Navy after his 18th birthday. His father had served in the Navy during World War II and Bergling wanted to see the world.
In March 1965 he followed through on this childhood goal by filling out his enlistment papers. A couple months later, he fulfilled a promise he made to his father by earning his high school diploma from Anoka High School in the class of 1965.
Boot camp in San Diego, Calif., was a true melting pot of personalities and cultures, according to Bergling. The idea of boot camp was to break down the individuals and build everyone back up as one unit so nobody would think they are better than someone else and Bergling believes everyone should go through boot camp.
“There’s one thing the military does,” Bergling said. “You are put in a position where you have to perform. And the guy next to you relies on you doing your job and you rely on him to do his job. It’s not this narcissistic attitude of ‘what’s in it for me,’ because you’re all in it together.”
At the conclusion of boot camp, the military gives everyone a written test to determine how they could help. Bergling has an aptitude for fixing things, so he became a mechanical engineer aboard the USS Okinawa, which was a 600-foot-long helicopter carrier that could hold 500 crew and 1,500 Marines for transport.
After leaving the Norfolk, Va., port, the USS Okinawa went south and crossed through the Panama Canal to get to the Pacific Ocean. He also saw Hawaii, the Philippines and Okinawa before arriving off the coast of Vietnam. Okinawa with its lush landscape is probably the most beautiful spot in the world that Bergling saw. This is where the Navy picked up the 1st Marine Division for transport to Vietnam.
The USS Okinawa stopped just off the coast of South Vietnam in an area not far south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) line between North and South Vietnam. Bergling could not see the war from this vantage point.
Bergling boarded the USS Okinawa in November 1965. By August 1967 he felt he had been on that ship long enough and volunteered for shore duty when the Navy asked for volunteers. He could have remained on the USS Okinawa for the remaining two years of his active duty. Then he would have only had two years of reserve duty back in the U.S. until his military service concluded in March 1971.
When asked why he did not remain aboard the USS Okinawa, Bergling thought long and hard about the right words to use. He did not want to use the word “experience.” He ultimately said he wanted a change and he just decided he was going to do it.
Bergling was on a river boat in the Mekong Delta between My Tho and Dong Tam for two years ferrying reconnaissance patrols with the Army 9th Infantry Division. The Navy’s job was to get these troops to where they needed to go and give them fire support. Although Bergling’s main job was making sure the boat’s engines kept running, he did need to fire a 50-caliber gun. There would usually be missions every three to five days.
His time in Vietnam was not restricted to transporting soldiers and firing at the enemy. They went to orphanages to give children vaccinations. At Christmas, they would bring treats to the kids. The media was never around to cover these positive stories, Bergling said. He now sees stories about how troops are helping kids in Afghanistan. These things happened in Vietnam, but Bergling said the media was very anti-war and did not do enough to cover these stories.
Bergling is not saying that bad things did not happen in Vietnam, but positive things happened as well. If the Americans had treated the Vietnamese so badly, there would not have been so many immigrating to the U.S. after the war, he said.
“It grates against me and it has bothered me ever since I got home that the media has the power to slant public opinion by what they write and how they write it,” Bergling said.
Starting Vietnam vets chapter
Bergling said you hear story after story about veterans who do not want to talk about the things that happened while they were in the service, and he understands that. If you talk about it, some may feel you are being grandiose. If you keep it in your mind, you can become vulnerable because you are showing your emotion. Some guys who break that barrier cannot stop and they change, he said.
“It was probably the greatest experience I ever had,” Bergling said when asked how the war impacted him. “I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I’m glad I did. It made a lot of things in my life a lot clearer. It didn’t so much change my political views, but it changed how I approached things in my life.
“Things are more black and white for me. There are very few if any gray areas, which frustrates my wife to no end and my kids, too. But I found out over the years that I have to be true to myself. I can’t let things go by that irritate me and let me stew in the soup.”
This is why Bergling wanted to start a local chapter for Vietnam veterans in 1989, which became known as the Anoka County Chapter 470 of the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans of America. He wanted an outlet for members to not only talk about the war, but talk about other day-to-day issues with people with whom they have something in common.
Bergling credits the members for making the chapter what it has become. There are currently 93 members, which includes some family members and others who did not serve in the military during the Vietnam era but support the cause. They have gone to hundreds of military funerals and attended Memorial Day services. They worked with Anoka County Historical Society staff to create a Vietnam War era exhibit that won an award from the American Association for State and Local History. On its own dime, Chapter 470 flew staff from the historical society to Atlanta, Ga., to accept this award in 2007.
For many years, Chapter 470 members walked on the side of the road from the Coon Rapids VFW to the Anoka County History Center to give the public a visible reminder of Vietnam veterans and to encourage the public to treat current service members better than the older vets were treated when they came home from Vietnam.
Members have also walked to the Wetterling home in St. Joseph every five years in December from 1989 to 2009 to bring awareness to Jacob Wetterling and other missing children.
“I just wanted to project a positive image of Vietnam veterans in the northern metro area,” Bergling said. “I wanted these guys to get together and feel good about themselves, feel good about their service and that they had a group of guys that they could sit down with and had a camaraderie that we had in the military.”
Upcoming ceremonies to honor vets:
Saturday, May 26
10 a.m.: Morningside Memorial Gardens, 11800 University Ave. N.W., Coon Rapids
11:30 a.m.: Veterans Memorial in Bunker Hills Regional Park. Enter from Foley Boulevard because Main Street is closed near the south park entrance. A family picnic provided by the Anoka County Veterans Council will follow the service.
Monday, May 28 (Memorial Day)
10 a.m.: Forest Hill Cemetery Veterans Memorial, 2400 Forest Ave., in Anoka. Featuring guest speaker Brig. Gen. Kevin S. Gerdes, assistant division commander for the 34th Infantry Division for the Minnesota Army National Guard.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]