CHESTERTON | Bob Bergren saw some horrific things during his tour in the Korean War, but the sight of a Chinese soldier aflame as Marines filed past on the road from the Chosin Reservoir siege haunts him most.
"I can see him yet to this day," Bergren recalled. "He wasn't moving or saying anything."
The Chesterton native had marveled before at how relatively lightly garbed Chinese troops would be pulled out of man-size holes (some alive) as if they were just as oblivious to the cold freezing them as their comrade was to flames burning him.
They were neither supermen nor fanatics, he concluded.
They were, in the vernacular of the times, "dope fiends."
"He (the burning man) was all doped up," Bergren believes. He and his fellow Leathernecks frequently would find packets of what appeared to be a powdery opiate on bodies and Chinese prisoners.
"I don't know what kind of dope it was," he said. "None of us tried it."
It was as close to living communist forces as Bergren typically got. His 1st Marine Regiment was in reserve during the famed Frozen Chosin campaign in which the 7th Marines repelled wave after wave of Chinese attacks, enabling Marine units which had been surrounded to escape.
Additionally, since Bergren was in the 4.2 mortar unit, he usually was no closer than 100 yards from the fighting. The Four Deuces were “infantry, but not infantry” serving under Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Bergren said.
They landed in the third wave of the amphibious assault on Inchon when much of the fighting in September 1950 was a mopping-up operation and saw light resistance at Wonsan, but they endured all of the dangers and hardships the conflict could provide.
Sniper fire on a five-day walk, day and night, to the Hagaru-ri airfield during the Chosin evacuation claimed more than half dozen of their number.
“If Army engineers hadn't replaced a bridge the Koreans had blown out, we would never have gotten down (from the mountainous terrain),” he said, referring to a remarkable engineering feat.
The U.S. Army 58th Engineer Treadway Bridge Company, with help from Marine engineers, was credited with assembling eight bridge sections dropped by parachute from C-119 Flying Boxcars to span the Funchillin Pass.
Bergren, who had been hospitalized nearly six weeks with cuts and bruises earlier when a truck he was in struck a landmine near Tegu, had another close call somewhere between Seoul and Kimpo airfield.
Bergren was sitting no farther than 12 to 15 feet from the squad’s leader when a stray artillery round landed virtually in the officer’s lap. Bergren saw him blown to pieces.
Looking back, combat put much of the Marines' harassing style, rigorous training in perspective for what had been a 17-year-old “rebel” who needed his mother’s signature to join the Corps.
“They taught us discipline and respect,” said Bergren, who was inspired to join the Marines after hearing a fellow church member talk of his experiences on Iwo Jima in World War II. “You understood (after being in battle) why, like in close-order drill, you have to do something without thinking.”
The time they spent letting sand fleas bite them on Parris Island was a test of endurance drill instructors put boots through so they wouldn't tip off enemy forces with movement on a battlefield.
“I learned to do things only when I was told to,” said Bergren. “You only smoked when the smoking lamp was lit.”
By the time Bergren left the Corps in November 1953, Korean War hostilities had ceased for five months.
Raised by his mother and grandparents during the Depression -- his father died when he was 18 months old -- Bergren says he was a changed man from the former runaway who had first joined the Corps, and he still wasn't yet 21.