Max Bergen served as a B-17 tail gunner during World War II. While flying over Germany on his
22nd bombing mission, his plane was shot down. He and his crew were captured and held as prisoners of war until liberated by Patton's Third Army in 1945.
His experiences - growing up in poverty without his murdered father, fighting in WWII, spending 14 months as a POW - could have made him bitter but didn't, his sons said.
"It was important for him to give back as he felt blessed in so many ways," Rick Bergen said.
In tribute to their father, Mark Bergen of Holcombe, Robb Bergen of Cameron and Rick of Chetek, established the Bergen Family Fund. The endowed fund supports health and human service projects.
"When we explained the fund, he thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread," Mark said. "Even in his final days, he asked about it."
"I hope that it will inspire other people as an example to give back unselfishly," Robb said.
Max, who grew up in Cameron, died at age 96 in April. His wife of 70 years, Florence, passed in 2017. They spent their last years in the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls, where Max would talk and pray with residents afraid of dying.
The couple formerly owned the White Horse Inn supper club in Neillsville. Max later became a counselor at L.E. Phillips Treatment Center in Chippewa Falls. Former clients wrote a poem praising him as a good listener who cared about them.
"He treated everybody with respect, everybody, regardless of who they were," Mark said.
Mark credited a strong faith for Max surviving in a prison camp, where he contracted diphtheria and lost 100 pounds. A lack of documentation meant Max couldn't prove he was injured in combat. With the help of Wisconsin Veterans Home Commandant Mark Wilson, he received a Purple Heart for his service 72 years after the war.
"Dad's generation has been the greatest generation so far. So many ordinary people were thrown into extraordinary situations. Dad really rose to the occasion," Robb said.
"It's hard to live up to, in a way. We try," Mark said.
Funds will support grants in the area of Health and Human Services within Chippewa County.