Luck of the draw

Most stories of U.S. World War II veterans focus on France, Italy, Germany, North Africa, the North Atlantic or on the South Pacific and its islands.

Not for Frank Benfatta of Altoona, however.

Benfatta was drafted in 1943 and never made it to the combat zones overseas.

He was asked recently how he feels about that after a pair of friends, fellow World War II vets, shared their combat-zone stories for a preview of this year’s Memorial Day parade in Altoona.

Benfatta, president of parade sponsor Blair County War Veterans Council, didn’t hesitate:

He blessed himself in the way all Catholics know from childhood – as if to say, “thank God.”

“It was the luck of the draw,” he said.

For a while back then, it looked like Benfatta would end up in the fight.

After two years’ training, he was stationed in Shenango, nearly ready to ship out.

But on Aug. 6, while home in Altoona on a three-day pass, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Everything came to “a standstill,” Benfatta said.

A few days later, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb, this time on Nagasaki.

In less than a week, it was all over.

Though he never came near a combat zone, Benfatta was injured twice in training.

Few people realize how often it happens, he said.

It happened to him the first time when a soldier accidentally set himself on fire, probably from gasoline spilled on his pants.

The soldier started running, and Benfatta, a medic, chased him down, knocked him over, tried to roll him on the ground to extinguish the fire and ended up slapping it with his left hand.

The burns sent him to the hospital.

He’s not sure what became of the soldier.

Benfatta also got a hernia helping to load a vehicle.

“Ruptured,” he called it.

Those problems may have helped delay deployment, he said.

  • ??

Vic Raia of Altoona became a Navy rescue swimmer, part of a group that was a predecessor of the SEALs, he said.

“It was rough, but I enjoyed it,” said Raia, who served on the destroyer USS Janssen.

“When you’re 17 or 18, you can conquer the world,” Benfatta said.

He got the opportunity after acing a water test shortly after his enlistment.

Someone ordered him and other recruits into a pool, saying “show me you can swim.”

“I went down deep,” Raia said.

Swimming underwater had never been a problem for him.

He stayed under on purpose, lasting about 3 1/2 minutes

“They thought I was never coming up,” he said. “I held my breath real good.”

It impressed everyone.

The Janssen was part of a carrier group, and when planes were operating, Raia and three other rescue swimmers donned rubber wetsuits in case a plane went down nearby.

They only went in once after a pilot, and it turned out he didn’t need their help, because he got into a life raft and the crew of a ship pulled him up, Raia said.

Raia, a gunner’s mate, liked the duty because the rescue swimmers didn’t need to stand watch.

He enlisted in the Navy because in the movies “they had the best time with the girls,” he said.

It turned out to be true.

“I’ll tell you, they [the girls] did come out to the sailors,” he said.

Raia’s “scariest moment” happened when all the lights on the ship went on one night, after the ship had made contact with what officers thought was a surfaced German U-boat nearby. “I thought, ‘holy hell, what are they doing,'” Raia said. It turned out to be nothing.

The most unnerving moment came just before the Janssen sank a U-boat, which had just sunk a U.S. destroyer. Raia saw one of the that destroyer’s crew, “a young kid, one arm in his Mae West,” floating by – dead.

“It could have been us,” he said.

“The luck of the draw,” Benfatta said.

  • ??

Gabe Bruno was gunner’s mate on a Navy landing ship tank in the South Pacific.

“I didn’t want to go into the Army,” Bruno said.

He asked to go to radio school at Blue Knob.

“They turned me down,” he said.

It was gunnery school for Bruno.

LSTs carried about 120 men.

“Flat-bottom mothers,” Bruno called them.

The waves would slam the bottom, making it hard to sleep.

The ships would take their cargo of tanks and men to the islands and drop them off.

It happened 10 times for Bruno.

They never came under fire.

It doesn’t seem he would have minded if he had.

“At 17 years old, you don’t care if you live or die,” he said. “You’re happy-go-lucky.”

He left the service in 1947.

  • ??

A couple years after the war, Benfatta facilitated the reunion of a former prisoner of war from Altoona with a famous general.

It was in the evening after a workday, and Benfatta was at a downtown “watering hole” – the United Veterans or the Rowan Post of the American Legion.

There were few cars in those days, because companies hadn’t been able to ramp up production enough, after transferring from the wartime manufacture of tanks, Benfatta said.

But Benfatta had an “in” with a Chevy dealer at Margaret Avenue and 19th Street and had gotten a new coupe for $849.

Louie Marchetti, who had survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, didn’t have a car.

So when he heard that his former commander in the islands, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, was in Johnstown, he searched for Benfatta “all over town,” found him and begged a ride to the Fort Stanwix Hotel.

When Wainwright – a tall man – saw the 5-foot-6 Marchetti, he exclaimed, “Louie Marchetti, my sergeant!”

They hugged.

“I’ll never forget,” Benfatta said.

He remembers them talking about eating tree bark.

The Japanese thought Wainwright had dishonored himself by surrendering, Benfatta said.

During three years of captivity, Marchetti saw fellow captives bayoneted and shot, worked as a slave in a steel mill, nearly starved, contracted dysentery, malaria and scurvy and weighed just 96 pounds when liberated. Afterward, he dealt with nightmares and migraines. But he never spoke ill of the Japanese, his daughter has said.

  • ??

Benfatta worked 42 years for A&P, the grocery chain, becoming produce manager, then regional produce supervisor.

“I liked the produce game,” he said.

He left A&P at 59, after a German firm bought the company.

“All they [the buyer] wanted was money,” Benfatta said. He took two years’ unemployment, then coasted six months and retired.

After the war, Raia went to work as a welder for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

He did little or no welding, instead becoming a steward for the Transport Workers of America Union local.

In 1951, he was elected president.

“I had it good,” Raia said.

Bruno went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, too, but got tired of the furloughs and went to the U.S. Postal Service, remaining 36 years.

He was in mailbox maintenance.

“Most of the World War II guys went back to work,” Raia said. “We didn’t fool around with any honors or anything like that.”

They were the last of the modern service members who fought in a major war to get a Washington, D.C., monument.

“We never worried about a statue,” Raia said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.