Another of the Unbroken

Published 10:26 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Alcide S. “Bull” Benini, who survived over three years in captivity at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, was an honored guest Wednesday at Bunny’s Restaurant, where a group meets regularly to honor men just like him.

Alcide S. “Bull” Benini, who survived over three years in captivity at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, was an honored guest Wednesday at Bunny’s Restaurant, where a group meets regularly to honor men just like him.

A movie currently showing in cinemas suggests home-cooked gnocchi assumed mythical qualities for imprisoned American servicemen of Italian heritage during World War II.

Based on a nonfiction book, “Unbroken” charts U.S. airman and Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s survival of 47 days on a raft after his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean and his subsequent time spent in prisoner of war camps.

Zamperini, perhaps as envisioned by director Angelina Jolie, waxes lyrical to comrades about his mama’s mouthwateringly light potato dumplings.

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At Suffolk’s Bunny’s Restaurant on Wednesday, an Italian-born 93-year-old U.S. Army and Air Force veteran, who also survived harrowing World War II experiences, attested to the sustaining power of good food — or at least fond memories of it.

“The only thing you thought about as a POW was food,” said Alcide S. “Bull” Benini, special guest at the regular breakfast, sponsored by Suffolk businessman William Blair, to honor former prisoners of war.

The last of the former POWs that were central to the group, Marion “Turk” Turner, died in 2011 at 92. But the breakfasts the first Wednesday of each month have continued, occasionally with a prison-camp survivor as a special guest.

Breakfast regulars were especially honored by Benini’s presence, not least because he endured the infamous Bataan Death March.

As often is the case, a contingent of sailors from the USS Bataan, a Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship with close ties to surviving Bataan POWs, came to Suffolk for Wednesday’s breakfast, including Capt. Eric Pfister, the executive officer.

“This is a chance to tie our service to the legacy of service provided throughout the ages,” Pfister said. “It helps give them a sense of purpose.”

Jane Ables, Benini’s daughter who accompanied him Wednesday, said necessity drove her father to enlist in the Army in May 1940.

Born in Cologna, Italy, before the family immigrated to America in 1929, Benini was the first of five children.

He became the provider at 13 when his father died of black lung disease, Ables said.

“They either grew, shot or trapped to survive,” the daughter added. “That’s what helped him survive what he went through.”

After classification as a rifleman and radio operator, Benini fought in the Luzon, Bataan and Defense of the Philippines campaigns between Dec. 7, 1941 and April 7, 1942.

When he and his comrades were captured, “we were told by our officers in charge it was over, we were surrounded,” Benini reflected.

He would spend the next 3-½ years in captivity, first in the Bataan Death March, during which 5,200 of 12,000 POWs would die, with a further estimated 2,800 perishing in captivity later.

When the march reached its destination more than 85 miles up the east coast of Bataan, Benini was forced aboard the “hell ship” where he would spend the next two months and 20 days.

Like sardines in a can, he was one of about 600 POWS crammed into a hold, he said.

“We would drop a rope down there, tie bodies to the end of it and haul them up onto the deck,” Benini said.

Those sea burials of their buddies were the only times they ever emerged into daylight.

Benini soon learned not to try to drink seawater, no matter how fierce his thirst. Once, he said, he was able to collect half a cup of water that beaded on a winch.

On Wednesday, he recounted many such tales of privation, unimaginable horror, close escapes and — like the time he consumed about four pounds of charcoal to self-medicate when he was suffering from beriberi, malaria and dysentery — pure survival.

Before reaching their destination of Moji, Japan, prisoners on Benini’s ship were temporarily held in camps in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

He describes working in a lead and zinc mine where conditions were so bad prisoners would cut toes off by letting a mine car run over them, “so they didn’t have to work for a while.”

“I could have run away a thousand times, no problem,” Benini said. “But one guy runs away, the other nine get their heads cut off.”

Liberation came on Oct. 15, 1945. Benini began his journey back to home soil. Then, months of recovery between facilities in San Francisco and Staunton.

In December 1945, he was temporarily released from the hospital to see his family for the first time in five years, spending Christmas with them.

They would have enjoyed some good gnocci, which Benini admits is his favorite food — alongside a few other Italian delicacies.

“Anything that you seen on the road that was edible, you picked it up and you ate it,” Benini said of the Bataan Death March.

“When we were on slave labor, you got half a canteen of boiled rice soup for breakfast, then you went to work. You got a rice ball for lunch, sometimes a little bit of greens, and a rice ball for supper.

“You start all over again the next day with the same stuff.”

Following a minor stroke that has left him in a wheelchair, his daughter said, Benini has been hospitalized in Hampton since May.