Alcide “Bull” Benini survived the Bataan Death March.

It was an approximately 65-mile forcible transfer of Filipino and American prisoners of war – orchestrated by the Imperial Japanese Army – known for being so brutal that it was classified as a war crime. Prisoners were starved and beaten as they trudged through the oppressive heat.

But, there, amid the horrors he was experiencing in the Philippines, Benini, then in the Army, displayed the character and grit he developed when living in the little town of Acosta, Somerset County, during the Great Depression.

His father died when Benini was young, which brought hardship upon his siblings and their mother, an Italian immigrant.

In all, Benini, who was born on Oct. 15, 1921, in Cologna, Italy, survived three years and four months as a POW during World War II, even though he was forced to perform rigorous labor in the Japanese zinc and lead mines.

“He attributes all that to the way we were raised,” said his sister, Anna Thomas, who lives in Ligonier Township. “We had a hard life, and that gave him perseverance and ability to withstand a lot of things. He credits a lot of that to the life we had as children.”

“Back then, nothing was easy,” added his daughter, Jane Ables.

Benini, who died in April 2015 at age 93, was recently posthumously honored for his contributions to the nation.

On May 20, the 844-foot flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan was named the Bull Benini field during a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia.

“It was fantastic, really a great honor for us,” Thomas said.

“I went to the dedication. I was overwhelmed with the whole thing. It was out of this world.”

When asked what her brother would have thought, Thomas said, “I think he would have been mighty proud, but he would not have talked much about it. He was never one to fly his colors.”

Navy officials named the deck for Benini after getting to know him when he lived in Virginia during the later years of his life.

“They didn’t have to do this, but they were just amazed by my dad,” Ables said. “They met him at the veteran breakfast that I used to take him to once a month.”

Thomas and others commemorated the event with grappa, a brandy, that she brought back from Italy for her brother – at his request – shortly before he died in a hospice.

“The thing was, soon as I went in his room, he said to me, ‘Anna, did you bring my grappa?’ ” Thomas said. “I said, ‘I sure did.’ So the aide went and got us some cups and we had a drink with him.

“Next day he was totally out of it, and within another day and a half he passed on. But the priest that did his service – the first funeral – said to everyone, ‘I have been a chaplain for the military for 22 years.’ And he said, ‘I have never experienced this. This man was supposed to die in 10 days and he lived five weeks.’

“And he said, ‘Could you imagine why he would live five weeks longer?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you why. He was waiting on his sister to bring him a bottle of grappa.’ ”

After the war, Benini served with the 82nd Airborne Division, Pathfinder Platoon, becoming a fully-trained master parachutist. Then, in 1953, he joined the Air Force and established the Air Force Pathfinders, which was later renamed the Air Force Combat Control Teams. He achieved the rank of chief master sergeant.

The Benini Heritage Center and Museum, located at the Combat Control School at Pope Field, North Carolina, is named in his honor.

Benini was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“He was a hero, even though he never thought of himself as one,” Ables said.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

Recommended for you