Obituary: Joe Bergstein – Feb. 5, 1923 – Dec. 10, 2020

Joe Bergstein died December 10, 2020 at the age of 97.  Joe was born in McKeesport, Penn., on February 5, 1923, the seventh of nine children by his mother Teresa (Kestenbaum) Bergstein and twelfth of fourteen by his father Sigmond Bergstein.  His timing was poor. The Great Depression arrived when he was six years old and was still around when he turned eighteen.  His mother died of cancer shortly before he turned seventeen.  He worked at whatever odd jobs he could find to help put food on the table.  He graduated from McKeesport High School in 1940. 

In February 1941, after trying unsuccessfully to find a job that paid a living wage, he enlisted in the
Army.  He was assigned to the signal corps and shipped to the Philippines in July 1941. On December 8, (7 U.S. Calendar) 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and airfields in Hawaii and the Philippines.  Under the command of Douglas MacArthur, in Joe’s opinion the worst general in the Army during World War II, most of the U.S. planes were destroyed on the ground.  The men suffered humiliating defeats and retreated to the Bataan Peninsula.  There they were starved and endured malaria and dysentery until April 9, 1942 when they were overrun by the Japanese and forced to surrender.  MacArthur had neglected to supply Bataan with anything approaching sufficient food.  Joe endured the Death March out of Bataan (seven days with no food and very little water) to Camp O’Donnell. Six hundred Americans of the total 9,000 lost their lives on the March. Six weeks at Camp O’Donnell killed 1,500 more.  The men were moved to another camp at Cabanatuan where another 1,500 died in the first three months. Starting in January 1943, Joe was sent to a succession of labor camps in the Philippines, Formosa, and Japan all of which featured hard labor, starvation rations, beatings, and vermin (bed bugs, body lice, and fleas in various combinations).  A “hell ship” (38 days to journey 600 miles) was the worst experience of all. 

After 40 months as a POW and after the A-bombs brought about the Japanese surrender, Joe was flown back to the Philippines to be fattened up and shipped home. With the help of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill), Joe entered Washington and Lee University in 1947, majored in physics and mathematics and graduated summa in 1951.  He received an M.S. in physics from Vanderbilt University and accepted a position at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1953.  He worked in the weapons division (GMX-5) for seven years and the nuclear reactor division (K division) for ten years.  He worked in the Meson Physics division for 18 years and was group leader of the LAMF operations group (MP2) for 13 years and retired in 1987.

Joe married Frances Safford, the love of his life, in 1967 and they have two children, Dan (Christine) and Julie Gable (Dieter).  They have four beloved grandchildren; Sydney and Skyler Gable and Ethan and Ava Bergstein.  Joe also has two children from a previous marriage to Hazel Kennedy; David and Jody Jones (Dan Cather).

In his retirement, he enjoyed many years of playing golf and duplicate bridge.  He was a Life Master of the American Contract Bridge League. He is survived by his wife Fran, children, grandchildren, his nephew, Sid Mishkin and his family, and bridge partner and good friend Ann Marie Graves.  He was preceded in death by all of his siblings including his special brother Chick.

Due to COVID restrictions, a Military Funeral Honors ceremony will be delayed until next summer. The family of Joe Bergstein has entrusted their loved one to DeVargas Funeral Home & Crematory of the Española Valley. (505) 747-7477 –