A Mailbox Suprise for Memorial Day

Updated: Jun 1

By Emily Thabes


#FriendsofBCHSHistory, do you ever have a moment so serendipitous that the little hairs on your arm stand up? I had such an experience today while picking up the mail from our PO Box. I was not expecting any kind of package, and there was no letter included in the mailer, only a box. But wow, what a box!


Photo: Purple Heart collection of PFC Alvin M. Berge


Only then did I remember a phone call from the fabulous organization Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit dedicated to returning lost, stolen, and misplaced military medals of valor to veterans or their families, in order to honor their sacrifice to the nation. In instances when neither the veteran nor a member of the veteran's family can be located, the medal is donated to a museum or similar organization that agrees to care for the medal. And here it is! Our volunteers and I stared in awe for some time at this vestige of valor and patriotism.


Photo: Purple Heart of PFC Alvin M. Berge (reverse).


Thanks to the work of historians and caretakers across the world, we were able to learn that the recipient of this medal, Private First Class Alvin M. Berge of Bemidji, MN, was a member of the 185th Regiment, 40th Infantry Division. PFC Berge is buried at Manila American Cemetery, which has the largest number of graves of any cemetery for U.S. personnel killed during World War II (over 17,000 graves).


Photo: Manila American Cemetery (Abilene Reporter-News)


More than 100,000 U.S. military personnel were killed or went missing in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Philippines on December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. air and ground troops were dispatched to the Philippines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, but they were severely outmanned and undersupplied, leading to MacArthur's withdrawal and Japanese occupation in 1942 and the subsequent capture, torture, and deaths of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war.


Photo: Talisay Beach Landing (Wikipedia)


MacArthur returned to the Philippines with Allied Forces on August 1, 1944. The mission to retake the Philippines was divided into two regional campaigns named Victor I and Victor II. On March 25, Victor II was launched via Naval bombardment and Army infantry landing of Talisay Beach, Cebu City. While many of the defending Japanese moved away from the beach and up into the hillsides, the town of Tilisay remained heavily defended. According to the 40th Infantry Division Unit History Book, "The practically isolated garrison defended bitterly against our attacks from the south and east, and put up heavy fire from all types of weapons up to and including 90mm mortars."


It was on Talisay Beach that Alvin M. Berge perished on April 8, 1945.


Photo: 185th Infantry Regiment (The American Warrior)


Unfortunately, I was unable to find information about Georgia James (to whom the Purple Heart was mailed posthumously). The Bemidji City Directory for 1942 (the closest year I could find quickly) lists a William James, dentist, and no Berge at all, despite the Berge name being prevalent today in the area.


I am grateful to Purple Hearts Reunited for trusting us with the stewardship of PFC Berge's Purple Heart, a symbol of his greatest sacrifice in enemy action. To be able to open this package on Memorial Day weekend is all the more fitting and special.


Photo: Purple Heart collection of PFC Alvin M. Berge


We look forward to sharing PFC Berge's Purple Heart with the community in our exhibit "The Brave Die Never: Honor Beltrami County Veterans", opening September 16, 2022.


To learn more about what happened in the Philippines during World War II, please check out Lakeland PBS's recent Common Ground episode on another Minnesota native, Captain John Wheeler, who was a Prisoner of War killed in action in the Philippines.


To support the work of Beltrami County Historical Society in preserving artifacts and history like PFC Berge's Purple Heart, please donate or volunteer. We appreciate your support.


Happy Memorial Day,


Emily











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