To say that Tom Berg’s death at an age just shy of 98 years was unexpected is a testament to the man’s life and work ethic. In the few days preceding his passing April 24, he and his wife of 21 years, Lesa Barnes, hauled 1,600 pounds of yard waste to the county facility. He baked a chocolate cake and he and Lesa enjoyed every crumb. He unburied a cinder block retaining wall and moved the blocks away for another project. He axed apart two stumps. He downed two trees, then cut them up for splitting. On the day before his passing, he and Lesa were designing a new vegetable garden, and he created yet another gadget to make Lesa’s life better. Tom went to bed Thursday night fully expecting a good and productive Friday.
Thomas Berg was born to Norwegian immigrants Thor and Bergliot Berg on July 19, 1922, in Aberdeen, Washington. He was the first of four sons. Aberdeen was a booming logging and shipping town with more than two dozen lumber mills running full bore. Because Thor was gainfully employed as a ship’s officer for Schafer Bros., the Berg family did not feel the brunt of the Great Depression. In fact, in 1937 Tom spent the summer helping build his family’s spacious Dutch colonial house in Central Park, outside of Aberdeen. Lessons he learned that summer would help him build two houses of his own and remodel countless others in later years. Tom graduated in 1940 from Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen. Shortly after he turned 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Following boot camp in San Diego, he requested assignment to the USS Arizona to be with a high school buddy who had joined up a year earlier. His request was denied, and he was assigned to the USS Tennessee. (As things went, this was fortunate.)
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Tom saw the first Japanese Zeros flying over Pearl Harbor. He spent that day of the Pearl Harbor attack at his battle station in boiler room No. 7. That night, he was able to sneak up to the main deck to look around at the damage. Honolulu was in complete blackout. The only light he saw was from the fires on the various other battleships and on Ford Island. This was a seminal event in his young life.
When the USS Tennessee was drydocked for an overhaul in September 1942, Tom was transferred to submarine duty in New London, Connecticut. After earning his dolphins, he was assigned to the USS O-4, a World War I submarine. From April 1943 to June 1944 he helped train future submariners. He was then accepted into the V-12 officer training program, and he began his studies at the University of Washington. After he was honorably discharged from the Navy in September 1946, Tom returned to the UW on the GI Bill and earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. He immediately went to work for Boeing as a draftsman, working in the Red Barn (now a part of the Museum of Flight). He married Beverly Clarke in 1949. In 1950 he began working at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the design division. For 16 years, he designed heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for new construction and overhauls. In 1966 he moved to Naval Torpedo Station-Keyport, where for the next 11 years he served as lead test engineer for the Mark 45 torpedo. Tom retired in July 1977, the month he turned 55.
During his career, he was a busy man. In addition to frequent mandatory 50- and 60-hour work weeks, he built a home on Bainbridge Island, built a 26-foot cabin cruiser, then constructed another home on the Bainbridge Island waterfront. He also built a bulkhead, dock, boathouse, trailer and marine railway for his boat. He played violin in the Bremerton Symphony for 22 years and raised a family. He and his family took annual boat trips to the San Juan and Gulf Islands and explored Princess Louisa Inlet and Desolation Sound. Tom deliberately and lovingly chronicled his family’s life and adventures with film, slides and photographs — which are now invaluable treasures for his family.
Following retirement, he bought a 65-foot yacht, to which he made significant modifications. He took extended trips to Canada each summer.
Shortly before he retired, Tom discovered chamber music: For more than 30 years he played in quartets and attended scores of music camps throughout the western states. Tom began playing the violin at age 8, and after retirement taught himself to play the viola. He moved to Gardiner, Jefferson County, in 1987. He played viola for 12 years in the Port Angeles Symphony, and for 25 years he played violin in the Port Townsend Symphony Orchestra. His last concert was in February of this year. Tom was proud that the violin he played all those years had also survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
He joined the Jefferson County Planning Commission in 1990. In 1993, he met newly hired Lesa Barnes and was immediately impressed. After Tom left the planning commission in 1994, he and Lesa stayed in touch. When they saw each other at the 1997 Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, something deep inside them clicked.
Tom and Lesa were married in Kauai, Hawai’i, on February 12, 1999. Tom was 76 years old. Lesa was 39. For them, love was ageless. And for Tom and Lesa, love was also boundless. “This time I got it right!” he would say. He loved and cherished Lesa and together they had a remarkably wonderful life.
Taking car trips lasting up to two months, Tom and Lesa traveled to all 50 states and most of the Canadian provinces, including the lower Maritimes. They visited Norway and Sweden, visited Alaska three times including an excursion to Denali National Park for his 95th birthday, and took a cruise through the Panama Canal. (It was his second time through the canal; when Tom’s parents sailed through it in 1921, his mother was pregnant. He would joke that he did not have a particularly good view that first time, so he had to go do it again.)
Tom began researching his family history in the 1980s, and with Lesa’s encouragement he became a serious researcher of his Norwegian roots. This line of inquiry took them to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City more than 30 times. Tom’s resulting magnum opus was a 600-page family history going back to the 1600s in Norway. It was a gift he lovingly and proudly gave to his family.
Tom and Lesa returned to Pearl Harbor each year for the December 7 commemoration. Since 2011, they participated in the official annual Pearl Harbor Parade. This past December, Tom was the Grand Marshal of the Parade. He was recognized as being the only Survivor who had been in every parade since the parades began in 2011 — an achievement in which he took great pride. At the time of his death, Tom was one of only four survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack still living in Washington state.
In addition to his wife, Tom is survived by his three children from his first marriage: Bart (Sheri), Janet (Randy) and TR (Kimberly), all of Bainbridge Island; seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren in Washington, Oregon and South Dakota.
Tom would have appreciated any monetary remembrances being sent to the Port Townsend Symphony Orchestra, P.O. Box 1703, Port Townsend, Washington 98368.