Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius Peter (Pete) Berbec, a distinguished career officer in the United States Air Force who served as President Richard Nixon's official interpreter during his 1969 state visit to Romania, died on December 30, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. He was 90 years old. Kidney failure was the cause of death.
Colonel Berbec was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 24, 1918. His parents, Peter and Margareta, were both emigrants from Romania. His father had arrived in the United States in 1907, his mother in 1913.
Colonel Berbec's military career began in 1942 when, on the day following his graduation from Hillsdale College in Michigan, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. He received his commission as a Second Lieutenant on December 26, 1942 from the Air Corps Communication Cadet School at Scott Field, Illinois. He was then assigned to the Air Corps School of Applied Tactics in Orlando, Florida, where he met and married Lieutenant Polly Virginia Ryan.
Colonel Berbec served overseas as Communications Officer for the 1st Tactical Support Wing in England, France, and Germany. He returned to the United States in December, 1945 and was honorably discharged February 1, 1946.
He was recalled to active duty on August 20, 1950. At the time he was the assistant manager for J. C. Penney in Gallup, New Mexico. During his active duty he served on seven air force bases in the United States. He also served on overseas bases for eight years in Canada (Goose Bay AFB, Labrador), Germany (Ramstein AFB), and Spain (Torrejon AFB). His last assignment was at the Pentagon.
While stationed in Spain in 1966 Colonel Berbec set up military communications for the politically sensitive effort to locate a hydrogen bomb which fell from the sky after a mid-air collision between a B52 bomber and a KC-135 refueling tanker.
Colonel Berbec was fluent in Romanian. When President Nixon made his historic 1969 trip to Bucharest to meet with Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, Colonel Berbec was selected as President Nixon's official Romanian interpreter. He flew with the presidential party to Romania aboard Air Force One and attended two meetings in the President's Cabin. At one meeting, Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor, later Secretary of State, was present. At the other, Colonel Berbec was alone with the President and Mrs. Nixon. During the Romanian state visit, Colonel Berbec was present at both meetings between President Nixon and President Ceausescu.
Colonel Berbec retired from the Air Force on February 1, 1970. After retirement he and Polly lived in California and San Antonio, Texas. After 51 years of marriage, Polly died in 1995. Colonel Berbec is survived by his son Robert Ryan Berbec in New York City, and his grandson Peter Ryan Berbec in Highland, New York.
Services for Colonel Berbec will take place at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery at 2 PM on January 13, 2009. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions to a favorite charity.