Sunday, July 6, 2008

Remembering Earle Bergeron

If you have worked on your family history for any length of time and have/are subscribed to any genealogy discussion lists, you've probably been asked the question, "If you could spend the day/invite to dinner, anyone from history, who would you invite?" While I might be tempted to ask Amelia Earhart where she and Fred Noonan set down the Lockheed Electra, without hesitation, I would want to spend the day with my Uncle Earle.

Earle Clare Bergeron was born in Wausau, Marathon Co., WI, on 25 June 1922, the eldest son of Charles Edward Bergeron (1887-1969) and Mildred Eileen Little (1899-1968). The marriage of my grandparents on 1 June 1921 was the second for my grandfather; he and his first wife, Ida Servant, had a son, Melvin Charles Bergeron. When they divorced, I'm told it touched off quite the firestorm in our devoutely French Candian Catholic family. At the time of their marriage, my grandfather was 33-years old and my grandmother was 21 and only ten years older than her step-son. I can imagine that made for some interesting family dynamics. Earle Clare was named for my grandfather's brother, Earl Stanley Bergeron; my research leads me to believe that Clare is from my grandmother's father's side of the family as there are a number of children who carried the name Clare, who died during the diptheria epidemic in the mid to late 1800s.

My grandfather worked for a hardware company in Aniwa, Shawano, Co, WI, all though Earle and his brother, Leland Keith (1924-1966), were both born in Wausau, WI, their sister, Carol Arleen (1927-1992), was born in Aniwa. My father, John, born in nearby Mattoon, WI, in 1929. The family briefly left central Wisconsin when my grandfather was employed by a company in Rush City, Chisago Co., MN; during this period of time my aunt, Marian Jean (1931- 2004) was born. Within a few years time, the family returned to northeastern Wisconsin and settled into life in Antigo, Langlade County.
Earle graduated from Antigo High School, Class of 1940, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps on 7 July 1940. He was sent to Chanute Air Base near Rantoul, IL, where he is listed as a mechanic then shipped to Kelly Air Base in Texas. The opportunity for an enlisted man to be accepted into pilot training was non-existant. It was the belief of military 'brass' that a pilot needed to possess a college education; something my grandparents could not afford. Yet, the military promised a better life once the war came to an end and most young men wanted to go off to war. In 1941 a window of opportunity opened for Earle. Due to a drastic shortage of qualified pilot candidates during WWII, the Army reduced the education requirement allowing enlisted airmen to earn their wings as pilots. Earle applied and was accepted into this program. Known as Flying Sergeants the men endured harsh treatment and prejudice. The cadets trained six days a week in the classroom and in the air. The competition among the cadets was fiercely competitive and the atrition rate was incrediably high. As if the classes weren't difficult enough, the instructors did their best to 'wash out' the Enlisted Pilots. My dad recalls that Earle, who was an average student, struggled with his meterology class but finally, in August 1942, he received his wings at Ellington Air Base in Texas, the class of 42-G.
You get a sense of the sentiment within the military for the Enlisted Pilots looking at this photograph, taken shortly before earning their wings. On the left, the cadets jumpsuits in stark contrast to the enlisted officers uniform.
Earle's first assignment was to fly C-47 for paratrooper training at Fort Bragg, NC. Finding the assignment far too mundane, he volunteered for duty overseas. He was assigned to Sixth Ferry Group, First Ferrying Command; in early February 1943 he arrived at Mohanbari Air Base, India. The China Burma India theater during WWII is one that has been overshadowed and yet, played an important role not only because it helped insure a victory for the Allies, but laid the foundation for transporting and evacuations in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
While piloting a food dropping mission on 23 April 1943, the C-47, with Flight Officer Earle C. Bergeron at the controls, crashed on take-off. At a critical point during take-off, the right engine failed, immediately causing the right wing to drop, hitting another C-47. Earle did not have sufficient flying speed or altitude to allow him to get the required air speed for 'single engine performance'. The plane turned up vertical and the right wing cut through the fuselage of a B-24 parked near the runway. The C-47 struck the ground, nose first, and within 20 seconds began to burn. Co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Alfred R. Rossman, perished in the fire; Uncle Earle was pulled from the plane but died in route to the hospital. Listed as having sustained "major injuries" was radio operator Pvt. Robert W. Bowles. The three remaining crew members, Pvt. John Street, Pvt. Scicolone and Pvt. Tanner all were reported no injuries.
As a child, I never understood the sadness that was part of my Grandma Bergeron. I can't imagine the grief she experienced and how her life changed from the moment the Western Union telegram was delivered announcing the death of her eldest son. On her dressing table, next to a glass trinket box, my grandmother kept a photo of Uncle Earle. He's wearing a leather flight jacket and helmet with the coveted white, silk scarf, signifying he was a pilot, casually draped around his neck. The trinket box and photo now sit on my dresser to carry on the tribute to this mother and son.
I wish I could explain why I feel so close to this man who died ten years before I was born. When our youngest son was born we gave him the middle name, Earle. It seemed fitting to carry on the name I'm sure my parents would have given to one of their children had they had a son.
This past June 25th would have been Earle's 89th birthday. My children have all lived longer than Earle and with the death of my Aunt Marian, my father is the remaining children of Charles and Mildred.
But that does not mean that Earle's spirit, his life and legacy will be forgotten.
Copyright © 2008 by Cindy Scherwinski

1 comment:

Becky said...

this is so sweet.
and wasnt that grandpa's brother?
i miss and love u lots.
if u get a chance to send me those pics from 4-wheeling and the ball thing that would be great.

but back to what u wrote it was def. said well(:
i miss u all and love u all!


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