Professor of Political Science and former member of the First Calvary Division (airmobile) Fred Bergerson was told that he would never go to Vietnam; however, as he stepped out of the helicopter at Camp Evans in Vietnam a few months later with darkness surrounding him and rain slapping his face, he realized his new reality.
It would be moments later that he would be told that in two hours the enemy would attack and that it was his job to figure out what the enemy situation was, determining where the enemy was, a job he never had before. Walking into a big tent with maps and other soldiers, he attempted to understand the situation.
Two hours later, the mortar rounds hit and the lights went ou; Bergerson, stumbling, did not know were he was but he somehow found the bunker, in the process almost being killed by the rocket fire. Bergerson would never have guessed that this would be his new reality.
At 16 years old and a first-year at Johns Hopkins University, Bergerson had a strong motivation to serve and volunteered for ROTC. It was part patriotism and part obligation. He wanted to serve in the army that had “defeated the Nazis and the country’s Japanese enemies.” Upon his graduation in 1962, he was commissioned to Second Lieutenant in military intelligence but took a delay in the call to active duty to go to graduate school. However, Bergerson was unable to finish graduate school when he was called to active duty in 1966.
For over a year, the majority of his two-year obligation, Bergerson lived in New York City, acting as a counterintelligence agent and administrator dealing mostly with background investigations and clearances.
He wore suits and took the subway to his office near Union Square every day. However, this job did not always feel like office work; at times he had to guard officials, such as kings or presidents, who were coming to a United Nations summit and pursue a man who had threatened to kill President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Although he was told he was not going to Vietnam, having less then a year left on his obligation and the fact that he had failed the map reading tests, Bergerson was called to active duty in November 1967. They were asked if they would like to change jobs, go to Saigon and continue doing office work or combat; however, he decided right their on the spot to stay in the First Calvary. “If I was going to leave my wife and child, I was going to try to get as close as I got to action and try to make a difference,” Bergerson said.
Initially Bergerson was in An Khe, Vietnam where he was the head of the Counter Intelligence Operations in the rear. However on the day the Tet Offensive began, Jan. 30, 1968, Bergerson was called up north to Da Nang. For the next 12 days he was trapped in a Marine motor pool as the Viet Kong attacked the road every night. On the 13th day he received a message from the colonel telling him he was needed up north immediately
It was then he was given the position of Head of the Battle Section and was told to figure out the enemy situation for the imminent attack. After that day and the mortar attack at the camp, he was able to read a map like an old pro. “It has affected my thinking about learning,” Bergerson said. “Sometimes it takes incoming rounds to get a student to focus.”
For a long time after the Vietnam War, Bergerson did not want to think about his experiences there. “It was a long time in my life for me to figure out how the war affected me,” Bergerson said. “It certainly was not my expectation when I left home in late July that I would become a Professor of Political Science teaching civil military relations and using my experiences in Vietnam.”
When he first returned to graduate school, he changed his focus away from South East Asian politics to Public Administration and Public Policy. He would claim that he knew nothing about the war, he was just there. It was not until Sept. 11, 2001 that he began embracing being a veteran.
When the First Calvary entered Iraq he began wearing his baseball hat with the First Calvary logo on it. Bergerson even returned to Vietnam in January 2011, surrounded by alumni of Whittier College, friends and family members.
Vietnam and the military is now part of Bergerson’s daily life. In his office are pictures of himself and other students who have been in the armed forces.
Behind his desk is a framed etching of four names. These names, Row “Robbie” Robertson, Richie Frasca, Robert Wiedermann and Ross Applegate, are the names of four of Bergerson’s men who were lost during the war.
When he returned to Vietnam, Bergerson was able to go to spot where two of the men had been killed. He was also able to memorialize them.
Bergerson is proud to have been an American soldier. “The war is still part of my life, but I am proud to be a member of the First Calvary,” Bergerson said.
“I am grateful to anyone who has enabled me to have a rich, full life and I am proud of my friends and the sacrifices they have made.”