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Obituaries

Philip Bergen, 97; Guard Helped End Alcatraz Siege

July 05, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Philip Bergen was paying for a prescription in a San Francisco drugstore when a radio flashed the news of what would later be regarded as one of the most notorious and deadly escape attempts in the 28-year history of Alcatraz.

The date was May 2, 1946, the 14th anniversary of Lt. Bergen's induction as a federal prison guard and seven years after he had begun duty on "the Rock" in San Francisco Bay.

Bergen quickly called the warden's office and made arrangements to return as six inmates took nine guards hostage at the beginning of what would be a bloody three-day battle that would leave three inmates and two guards dead.

But Bergen, who led the assault to retake occupied cellblocks, was credited with saving many more lives of penal officers, the U.S. Marines assisting them, and the 250 or so inmates then housed at the storied prison. For his calm, courageous leadership, he was promoted to captain of the guards, third in command of Alcatraz, which he later described as "the most interesting place I ever lived."

Bergen, whose recorded voice now informs tourists who flock to the Rock with anecdotes from its years as a prison, died June 14 in a hospice in Sun City, Ariz. He was 97 and died of natural causes.

Born to an Irish American family in Chicago, Bergen wanted to be a policeman but chose the security of a federal job when he came of age in the Depression, joining the Bureau of Prisons. His first assignment in 1932 was the Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, but in 1939 he was transferred to Alcatraz, his favorite post, where he remained for 16 years.

From the outset, Bergen lived with the constant rumors that the Rock would be closed within a month. He was promoted to assistant warden at La Tuna Penitentiary in Texas and moved on in 1955, long before Alcatraz actually was shut down in 1963.

During his tenure, Bergen helped foil several of Alcatraz's 14 escape attempts, which involved 39 inmates. None was believed to be successful. He could reel off statistics showing that 26 would-be escapees were quickly recaptured, seven were shot to death by guards and six presumably drowned in the turbulent bay waters.

Bergen worked throughout his adult life to dispel reports--often fanned by Hollywood interpretations such as the 1995 Kevin Bacon film "Murder in the First" that inmates were brutally tortured and starved on the Rock. Until his death, he advocated society's need for such a maximum-security prison.

At his retirement in 1967, Bergen said in the book "Alcatraz '46," which he helped Donald P. Denevi write in 1974:

"No prison system, state or federal, which seriously proposes to rehabilitate any sizable percentage of its inmates, can hope to do so unless it has an Alcatraz--a penal institution of maximum security and minimum privilege dedicated to the effective segregation of convicted criminals who cannot be rehabilitated. Alcatraz Island Prison is gone, but the Alcatraz concept lingers on, and rightly so, because it is a valid concept."

In the book and in comments over the years, Bergen said incorrigible prisoners housed on Alcatraz were controlled through isolation, loss of privileges and a restrictive diet limited to 1,200 calories a day.

But, he said, they were never beaten or physically abused.

"We got the people who couldn't be controlled. We did something no other institution--state or federal--was able to do at that time," Bergen told The Times in 1987, when he returned to Alcatraz to record the visitors' audiotape for the National Park Service, which now operates the island. "We controlled these men, turned them around and returned them back to other institutions in three to five years," he said, "and we did it in a decent, humane way.

"Sure there was violence at times," Bergen admitted. "There were half a dozen murders while I was here. I was bruised and battered on many occasions.

"One time a con hit me in the mouth and all my expensive bridgework was all over the floor. But we reacted to violence," he said. "We didn't create it."

Bergen, who lived with his wife and two young daughters in the officers' five-acre enclave on Alcatraz during his 16 years there, regularly attended annual reunions of guards and inmates. He quipped in 2001 that he had finally discovered a common denominator between the two disparate groups--age.

Because he remembered so much of the prison history and told it so entertainingly, he was much in demand as a speaker.

The former prison guard, who in retirement served as police chief of Beverly Shores, Ind., population 300, knew many of Alcatraz's most famous guests.

Among them was Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz, who had maintained aviaries at other prisons and wrote books about the care of birds. Bergen was never thrilled by Burt Lancaster's sympathetic portrayal of Stroud in the 1962 film "The Birdman of Alcatraz."

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