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Robert L. Bergstrom

Bock, Minnesota -
Korean War Veteran of the United States Air Force

"To be truthful, it is not easy for me to relive that day, especially these last few years.  Maybe I should have told my story over and over again.  Some say it is good therapy to tell it and write about it.  Maybe it is.  There were times I didn't even want to look at a B-29.  Even if a picture was put before me, it brought back too many memories."

- Bob Bergstrom

 


[Robert Bergstrom participated in Black Tuesday, the largest single air battle of the Korean War.  The B-29s involved in this famous air battle that occurred on October 23, 1951, were up against some 150 enemy MiGs.  The catalyst for bringing Robert's story to the KWE is Mary Martin, Robert's neighbor.  She found his story fascinating and one worth sharing.]

Memoir Contents:


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Foreword

I finally sat down and made an effort to write my story as I remember it over "Namsi."  As I have been reading Black Tuesday Over Namsi, I realize the many years of trying to gather information and putting it all together.  I have come to understand why it was not possible for the Korean War Educator to find Captain Lewis' crew--or any of us.  It wasn't many days before we were flying missions again.

We made ten missions after "Black Tuesday Over Namsi."  They were night missions by "Shoran."  They finally told us that replacements were coming and we would be going home.  We were slated to go by commercial air.  (No parachutes, of course--I didn't care for that!  I am sure I had the stewardess flustered and was glad when we landed in San Francisco.  At the airport they told us they would fly us anywhere we wanted--just come up and sign the manifest.  I called home and told them I was taking the train.  I didn't want to fly.

After a couple weeks at home, the Air Force was training me in B-29's at Barksdale Air Force Base, and I was slated to go to Morraco, Africa.  The General called me in and said I was up for getting my Captaincy and they wanted me to stay in he Air Force.  I had made up my mind to be discharged, so I made my salute and about-face and left for home.  I often thought over the years that if I had had more R&R and had stayed in the Air Force, where I would be today.  "No Regrets."  I met my spouse, had four children, and made our future going to Africa (the "Congo") as missionaries for twenty years before retiring in 1991.

In my retiring years I now realize some of the mistakes I have made.  Looking back a few months at my health issues, I needed some help with dental work.  I went to the VA thinking I would get some help.  They immediately said, looking at my records and seeing that I only had 70 percent service connected, "They couldn't help."  I needed 100 percent.  I was really disappointed.  Thinking about it, my "mistake" was not going to the dispensary for my arm wound upon returning from the Namsi mission.  Even the next day others told me that I would have received a Purple Heart.  I have heard that all who were given Purple Hearts got 100 percent service connected when discharged.  I wonder?

Also, over the years I cannot believe that the Air Force never gave our crew (Captain Lewis' crew) any recognition with either a Distinguished Flying Cross or an Air Medal.  I realize we were never interviewed, but maybe in all that was going on at the time it just got overlooked.  I wouldn't now know who to turn to, if anyone.  Actually, I don't know why I am telling you all this--maybe I just needed to get it off my chest.  Many have told me that I am entitled to full benefits at the V.A.  One thing is fore sure.  If it wasn't for my "Faith in God," and my wife helping me through some rough times with my "invisible wounds," I don't think I would have made it.


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Too Many Memories

I have had a hard time writing about what happened to me and the crew on the 23rd of October 1951, known as "Black Tuesday Over Namsi." 

Listening to the Far East Radio the night before and hearing what happened to the 19th Bombardment Wing didn't help our getting ready to make the same type mission the next day on Namsi.  Nevertheless, we got up early for the briefing, loaded on the 6x6 army truck, saying very little, if anything, to each other out to our plane.

To be truthful, it is not easy for me to relive that day, especially these last few years.  Maybe I should have told my story over and over again.  Some say it is good therapy to tell it and write about it.  Maybe it is.  There were times I didn't even want to look at a B-29.  Even if a picture was put before me, it brought back too many memories.

I seem to be better since I have been interviewed and written up in the local newspaper.  After my neighbor read the story, she came and asked me if I've ever contacted any of my crew members.  I had to say I hadn't.  It got me to looking up my Air Force records I've kept for years in a trunk in our attic.

Before this time, I was having trouble sleeping nights because I was reliving my combat missions.  Under the advice of a veteran friend, I contacted the Veterans Administration.  On my first visit, as I began to tell my store, the psychologist said, "We want to help you."  I was diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was recommended to have some 20 sessions.  It did help to a degree, but I was told that, in the end, my invisible wounds will be with me the rest of my life.  They did say that I can always call back because new things come out that maybe could help.


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Joining Up

I reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, the 5th of January 1944 for active duty.  My brother had already volunteered and was serving in the Navy Air Corps flight training at Purdue University Air Field in Indiana.  I decided to go down and ask him what I should do.  I was 17 years old at the time.

Talking it over with my folks, I took a bus down to see him.  Arriving at the airport, I went up to the guard.  "What can I do for you?" he asked.  I said, "I am here to see my brother.  He is here in flight training.  I am from Bock, Minnesota.  Can I see him?"  He turned and after a moment said, "You go into those doors and wait there.  He will come out in that room."  I did, and sure enough, it wasn't long before he showed up.

It was good to see him.  We talked a while and, of course, he had classes and went flying.  I took some pictures out on the flight line.  I finally asked him what he thought I should do.  His advice to me was, "The Navy is really hard.  Why not try the Army Air Corps?"  At the same time, he asked me, "How is it you are able to get in here, for NOBODY is allowed in this airport other than Navy personnel."  I told him, "I just told them that I'm from Bock, Minnesota and I came to see my brother, and they let me in.  I must have looked okay."

After returning home to our farm, I right away went down to the barn where my dad was finishing up milking the cows.  I told him that I had decided to join the Army Air Corps.  My dad thought a little and then he said, "I guess the way things are going with the country, if I was your age I would join too.  I told my mother and she said, "One in the service is enough."  I was able to overcome that with a little convincing.


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One Hurdle After Another

Now it was off to take tests in St. Paul, Minnesota to see if I would qualify for cadet training.  I remember there were 270 questions on the test and I got 247 correct.  The one giving the test said, "That was really good."  That was my first hurtle. 

After some basic training I had to take more tests for a week.  I found out later that it had nothing to do with flying, but was given to see if I was able to be taught in future training and to determine what would be best for me in the different areas available in the Air Corps.

Then I was told that I needed some college education to allow me to go into cadet training.  They sent me to Oklahoma A & M in Stillwater, Oklahoma for about a three-month crash course.  It was hard, but I passed and was on my way.


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Diary of a Navigator-in-Training

Before entering college training I was sent to Garden City, Kansas for my first flights in the air.  The following is from a few pages of the diary that I kept at that time.

5/23/44 - Third Flight - Wind: southeast - Time: 1 hour

We took off due south.  Had to hold left rudder to account for the wind coming from the southeast.  Left the pattern and I did a few left and right turns.  We then did some climbing turns until we reached 4000 feet.  At that altitude my instructor went through the series of turns which I observed as I was to try them after he was through.  I remembered the procedure quite well, but I lost quite a lot of altitude in my 360 degree turns.  I also forgot to increase my throttle in making my 260 degree turns and to decrease my speed on recovering.  I went through the series of turns twice after that.  I made gliding turns to 500' when my instructor demonstrated the rectangular course and I then tried it.  My greatest trouble was crabbing into the wind and holding the nose straight and level.  We then went back to the home airport after one hour of flying.

Series of Turns

5/24/44 - Fourth Flight - Wind: southeast - Time: 1 hour

We took off south.  Held left rudder to account for the southeast wind and leveled off at 400', made a 90 degree level turn to the left.  Climbed to 500' and made a 45 degree level turn to the right and left the traffic pattern.  Made climbing turns to 1500' when I tried the series of turns.  It was a quite stiff wind and my greatest trouble was remembering to make a shallow bank when going into the wind.  I also looked at the wing when making my 260 degree turns.  I also forgot to turn into the wind before making my 360 degree turn.  We then went down to 500' and made the rectangular course.  Here I also forgot to make a shallow bank when turning into the wind.  I then followed my instructor in on a landing.  I then took off and flew around out of the pattern and back into the pattern and landed.  In my instruction today I was also shown the "S" turn following through with the instructor.

5/27/44 - Sixth Flight - Wind: south - Time: 1 hour

We left traffic pattern, went out to the practice area.  I then flew the rectangular course twice and made some "S" turns and elementary eights and parachute eights.  I did a little better in accounting for the wind, but I still have the tendency of holding a back pressure on the stick and I gain some altitude.  We then went and made climbing turns to 3600' and my instructor showed me the three types of stalls and then we went into a spin.

5/29/44  - Seventh Flight - Check ride - Wind: west - Time: 1 hour

Today was my check flight after 5 1/2 hours in the air.  I taxied and on the runway and took off due west.  Left the traffic pattern and flew straight and level to the practice area.  I started my rectangle and flew that and went right into "S's", elementary eights, and then did climbing turns to 1500 degrees.  At 1500' I did my series of turn and then made gliding turns and landed.  I did pretty good as I am getting more of the feel of the airplane and I am concentrating more on the wind drift and bank to be made in my sequence.

5/31/44 - Eighth Flight - Wind: south - Time: 1 hour

Today I took off and flew out of the traffic pattern and flew at 500' to the practice area.  I then flew the rectangular course and then went into the elementary eights , "S's" and parachute eights.  Then did climbing turns to 3500' and my instructor showed me the three series of stalls.  I then did them.  Had a little trouble in keeping the wings level, but I got on to it pretty good.  My instructor then took me into a spin and I did five more Two-turn spins after that.  I began to like them quite well toward the last.  We then glided to the airport and landed.

6/1/44 - Ninth Flight - Wind: south - Time - 1 hour

It is a brisk wind today and I took off and flew the traffic pattern.  I tried to fly straight and level out to our practice area, but the winds, updrafts and downdrafts were awful.  I did pretty good at my rectangle and eights and "S's" and then I climbed to 3500' and did the three series of stalls and then I went into spins.  I liked the spins swell today.  I went into three spins one right after another.  I pulled out of the spins pretty close to exactly two turns.  Can improve on my spins if I didn't push the stick forward too fast.  We then returned to the home airport.

6/2/44 - Tenth Flight - Wind: south - Time - 1 1/2 hour

Today's flight consisted of taxing out on the runway and taking off for a check flight.  I left the traffic pattern and headed north to the practice area.  I then went into my rectangular course and then my "S's", eights, and parachute eights.  I then did climbing turns to 1500 feet and did my series of turns.  After completing the series of turns I made climbing turns to 2500' and did the three series of stalls.  Did climbing turn to 3000' and did spins to the right and left.  The wind today was very brisk about 30 miles per hour and at the lower altitude the air was quite rough.  I did comparatively good and then I had completed my spins.  I did gliding turns and returned to the home airport.


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Black Tuesday

Planning the Mission

A lot of planning went into getting ready for this mission.  As I remember, the weather was not the greatest.  That meant we had to be ready to drop our bombs electronically by what was known as SHORAN.  SHORAN is an acronym for SHOrt RAnge Navigation, a type of electronic navigation and bombing system with a precision radar beacon.  I was the radar operator and I was checked out in this type of operation.  Under daylight or visual conditions, flying SHORAN, using only an arc on the screen for guidance, with a slightly level formation for some 60 miles to the target didn't appeal to me.  Really, we were sitting ducks.

The trip was uneventful up the initial point (I.P.), but, as suspected, weather conditions were such that we were forced to go electronic SHORAN on the bomb run.  In the beginning all three flights seemed to be in formation.  This changed when we started on the bomb run.  Able and Baker flights stayed together.  We were in Able flight Number 2--Captain Lewis' right wing, with Captain Kruman on the left.  There was some disagreement, so we heard Charlie's flight dropped behind a couple miles.

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On to the Target

We were now decompressurized, so we had our oxygen masks on.  I always set my regulator to 100%.  I felt better with that setting.  On the run to the target, Namsi Air Field, we encountered the most flak I have ever experienced.  On other missions I heard flak bounce off the plane, but never like this.  It seemed to be bigger stuff and more accurate.

Right at this time a cloud of insulation was spread all over the rear of the plane and over all of my radar equipment.  Where it came from, I couldn't tell.  We found out later that it came from the tunnel that is connected over the bomb bay.

It seemed like everything was happening at the same time with flak penetrating under the floorboard by my feet.  I began to hear a crackling noise and smoke.  I knew immediately what it was because it had happened to me on another mission.  I pulled the board loose and could see that the wires that came from my radar equipment had been hit.  With my gloves on my hands I quickly spread the wires to stop it from smoking and catching on fire.  I left the board off to see if there would be any more smoke.  I looked at my radar screen and SHORAN.  They weren't functioning.  I got on the intercom to let the bombardier know what happened.  Right after that I felt a little something in my left arm.  On examination I found out that it was some blood, but I didn't think it was too bad.  I wrapped it up with my hanky as tight as I could and forgot about it.  Then more flak--big stuff--hit.  The gunner's right side blister was gone.  Later he told me he raised up when it was shot off and he hit his head on something.  It drew a little blood, but he felt okay too.

Time was passing.  I knew that it was getting close to "bombs away".  It seemed that the flak had stopped.  We knew MiGs were coming at us by the noise of the gunners shooting.

We then heard that Captain Krumon's aircraft was hit and its number two engine was on fire and the crew had to abort.  Over the intercom came, "Watch for any chutes."  We saw two chutes before they went into the clouds.  I kept watching the gunners I could see from my position, continually glancing to make sure that no fire or smoke was coming from my radar equipment.  All this time the gunners were calling over the intercom.  I heard the tail gunner, Webb, say he got one MiG.  I think other gunners were getting hits also.  During this time I heard, "Bombs away!"

I thought that now Captain Lewis would be doing what we called "evasive action", but we were still flying straight and level.  It seemed like an eternity to me before making a left-hand turn to head south to the 38th parallel.  We were still under fighter attacks.  Captain Lewis knew what needed to be done--stay in formation--watching Able Lead (Captain Fogler's plane) before making our move to descend.  The actual battle lasted about fifteen minutes.  I thought it was much longer than that.  We found later that three of the nine B-29s went down in flames.

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Brave MiG Pilot

Finally in our descent and out of harm's way, I remember standing up, saying, "Thank you, God."  Tears shot out of my eyes.  That never had happened to me before or since.  It just seemed like the MiGs were never going to stop coming at us.

Right then the right-side gunner, Brugeman, waved to me to see what he was looking at.  I went over and saw a MiG-15 flying just to our right.  I was so surprised.  I wish that one of us had had a camera.  He flew alongside of us for about a minute.  Finally we both waved to each other and he peeled off.  Over the years I have wondered how brave he was to take a chance to do that.

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Assessing Damage

Getting to a lower altitude, we took off our oxygen masks and began to assess our damage.  The flight engineer said we still had all four engines functioning, but our hydraulic system was out.  We had to think about winding down our landing gears.  At this time Captain Lewis decided to call the Air-Sea Rescue to follow us back to Okinawa in case of any more trouble.

We made sure that we had a crank to wind down the gear.  We knew it was in the forward bomb bay on the right side.  We heard later that it took 741 turns.  The gunner, Brugeman, volunteered to do the job.  I went along to help and change off.  Captain Lewis said we will wait to wind down the gear about an hour before landing.  He also decided to give each of the crew the option to bail out when we got over the airfield, not knowing if the gear would hold.  We all decided to stay with the plane.  The Air-Sea Rescue plane flew under us and checked the gear the best its pilot could.  He thought it looked okay.

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Too Many Holes to Count

Captain Lewis did a great job landing.  We all sweated it out with him.  A photographer was there to take a picture of the crew and plane.  Others came to check us out too.  I heard the next day that there were too many holes to count, along with a cannon hole below the vertical stabilizer between me and ahead of the tail gunner.  A person could have squeezed through that big hole.  They said this plane would just be used for parts.  I never counted the holes either.  We naturally had our debriefing.  It took a couple of hours to tell them all the information we could.

After debriefing we were ready to hit the sack.  The log book showed 10 hours and 45 minutes flying time.  I'm amazed that we made it with the flak holes and the cannon hole in the rear, not hitting a more fatal part of the plane or crew.  There were no gas leaks.  I guess the self-sealing fuel tanks really worked.

After looking around the next morning, I realized that some of my buddies were not coming back.  That was not easy to erase from my mind.  Now when I'm asked to tell my story I try to let people know and never forget the ultimate sacrifice that many have given--their lives--so that we can enjoy the freedom we have here in America.


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Other Missions

You might ask, "What about your arm?"  I didn't mention it during the debriefing.  Why?  I thought about it, but I didn't want to be taken off flying status.  If we had to do more missions, I wanted to go with the crew.  We had a good crew that worked well together.  It meant a lot to me.

I made five more missions in November and five in December.  They were all night missions by SHORAN.  During one mission we had to land at Itazuke, Japan, to get something repaired before returning back to Okinawa.  I remember that another mission was all the way up to Antung, an airfield in Manchuria.  They used searchlights at our altitude.  I had to steer out of the searchlights and then get back to the SHORAN again before "bombs away."  We think we made a good hit and then Captain Lewis did evasive action and hooked onto the jet stream to get a faster run home.  It took a lot of working together to accomplish the mission.  I made a total of 39 combat missions.


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About the Author

Robert Bergstrom was born in Karlstad, Minnesota on November 2, 1925, a son of Oscar and Julia Jensen Bergstrom.  He moved with his family to Bock, Minnesota, in 1930 and resides there in 2018.  After graduating from Milaca High School, Bergstrom made a trip to Purdue, Indiana, to ask his brother Maurice Emanuel Bergstrom (1924-2009)for advice.  Maurice served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps from 1943 to 1946.  His brother advised him to join the Army Air Corps.  He began his cadet training corps at age 18, and was commissioned and earned his wings at the age of 19.

After his initial radar operator training he was sent to California where he studied bombers and radar before being shipped to Okinawa as a pilot near the end of World War II.  Among his early experiences as a radar operator was flying his plane over the bomb sites of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan.  The plane had a special filter attached so he could check the radiation levels while flying over the two cities.  After the mission the filter was sent to the Pentagon.  His next assignment was a top secret project mapping by radar all of North Korea and the northern-most island off of Japan.  According to Bergstrom, this project led him to believe that there was another war coming just around the corner.  (He was right.)

He was allowed to go home, but was soon called back to duty in a telegram from President Truman.  He reported for duty at an Air Force base in Illinois, and was then sent to Shreveport, Louisiana, for a six-week refresher course.  After that he was sent to Okinawa. 

When the Korean War broke out, Bergstrom was sent on some 39 missions in B-29s.  These planes had four motors, 144 bombs weighing 100 pounds each, 6,000 gallons of fuel, two pilots, and a crew of ten assigned to various duties.

Robert received his honorable discharge in 1952 with two oak leaf clusters in air medals and became a carpenter.  He married nurse Erma Johnson, a Foley High School graduate, on October 23, 1965.  The couple had four children, and traveled as missionaries to the Congo.  Besides carpentry and ministry, Robert has been a bee-keeper, tended to Red Angus cows, and operated a sawmill. His children are all college graduates.


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The Lewis Crew (B-29 tail #44-87760)

  • Capt. James R. Lewis (aircraft commander) - b. October 18, 1916/died April 14, 1995.  He is buried in Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas.
     
  • 2Lt. Robert Dale Myles (pilot) - b. July 19, 1928 in California/died December 26, 1987 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  He is buried in Mission City Memorial Park, Santa Clara, California.
     
  • 1Lt Jerry L. Pennington (navigator) - b. September 21, 1924/died March 14, 1989/buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma
     
  • 1Lt Charles J. Thevenet Jr. (bombardier) - b. November 27, 1920/died May 26, 1999/buried in Seminole Cemetery, Seminole, Florida
     
  • 1Lt. Robert L. Bergstrom (radar operator) - living in Bock, Minnesota in 2018
     
  • TSgt. Joseph Elbert Puett Sr. (flight engineer) - b. 1923/died October 25, 1983 in California/ashes scattered over the South Pacific
     
  • Sgt. Charles C. Carpenter (radio operator) - b. January 4, 1931/died April 6, 2002.  Buried in Salisbury National Cemetery, North Carolina.
     
  • T/Sgt. Malcolm L. Fairchild (central fire controller) - b. December 30, 1922/died May 4, 1994/buried in Greenoaks Memorial Park, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
     
  • T/Sgt. Frank B. "Pappy" Bata (right gunner) - b. February 17, 1920/died May 22, 1998/buried in Arlington National Cemetery
     
  • T/Sgt. Donald Arthur Bruegeman (left gunner) - Born in 1925 in Idaho, Donald Bruegeman was captured by German forces during his service in WWII after his plane (44-6659) was shot down over Hungary on February 14, 1945.  He was held POW for 210 days until September 12, 1945.  He died April 23, 1979 and is buried in North Highlands, California.
     
  • S/Sgt. Jerry M. Webb (tail gunner) - born October 21, 1924; died January 29, 2001; buried in Mound City National Cemetery, Pulaski County, Illinois

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The Plane

This B-29 (tail number 44-87760) was one of nine B-29s dispatched to attack Namsi Airfield at Sinuiju, North Korea on October 23, 1951.  Three of the nine planes were shot down, with 44-87760 being the only one that made it back to base at Kadena Air Field, Okinawa. The remaining planes landed in Seoul, Korea and returned to Kadena AFB later.  All eleven crew members of Lewis' plane survived and were assigned to 371st Bomb Squadron, 307th Bomb Group, MacDill AFB, Florida.  After that the plane was re-assigned to 343rd Bomb Squadron, 98th Bomb Group, Spokane AFB, Washington. It was reclaimed as scrap and components at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, 8 August 1954.

 

 

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Photo Gallery

(Click a picture for a larger view)



Photo of Robert Bergstrom


An Associated Press newspaper photo of Capt. George Henthorn of Texas and 1st Lt. Bob Bergstrom of Minnesota as they examined a piece of flak when lodged above Bergstrom's head during one of Bergstrom's 39 mission in the Korean War


Captain Lewis' crew - pictured is the B-29 peppered with bullet holes, including the one large enough for a person to go through, that made it back to base on Okinawa during the last daylight mission in the Korean War. Bob Bergstrom is in the front row, far right. The airmen holding their fingers up were the gunners who shot down Russian Mig's.


Cadet Robert Bergstrom


Robert Bergstrom standing beside his plane


Bergstrom Document (air medal)


Bergstrom Document (extract)


Bergstrom Document (flight record 1)


Bergstrom Document (flight record 2)




Nena from Kadena Nose Art


Robert Bergstrom standing far right

Robert Bergstrom


7th Division Cemetery, Okinawa


B-29 with tail number 427276


Robert Bergstrom


Robert Bergstrom


Robert Bergstrom


Nose Art - the Flying Lemon B-29


Robert Bergstrom


B-29 over Korea


Picture of B-29 crew (Bob Bergstrom 2nd on left) just before take-off from Toyko to Okinawa


Robert Bergstrom between the huts they used to live in


Robert Bergstrom
 

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