(Left) Bartholomeo Ficeto, 1943, age 22.(Right) Bartholomeo Ficeto, 2017, age 96. //photo courtesy of Clipping from an unknown newspaper.

By: Mark Gucia, Contributing Writer.

Customers not only go to the Bloomfield, New Jersey Stop and Shop to shop, but also to chat with the nice elderly man who bags their groceries and leaves them with a smile on their face. This elderly man is former Staff Sergeant Bartholomeo Ficeto, or as he is locally known, Benny, 96, of Belleville, N.J.

Benny recalls his life during WW2 as if it were yesterday what he experienced and felt during the war never left him.  

“I was scared, I’ll tell you the truth; I was deathly scared of every single thing I did in the army, but the lord took me back,” said Benny.   

Benny graduated Bellville High School in 1938 and went on to a barber school in Newark. He was drafted in 1942.

Benny was part of the United States Air Force 310th Bomb Group’s 428th Bomb Squadron.  He was a radio operator, radio gunner and a belly gunner for B-25 bombers. The 310th Bomb Group was established right after Pearl Harbor by President Roosevelt. The 428th  bomb squadron flew missions over North Africa, Italy, Southern France, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, the Adriatic and Mediterranean.

Benny was a part of countless missions, including one that he recalls with extreme detail. The mission was to bomb a tanker with 1 million gallons of gas that was headed for Erwin Rommel to support German troops, however it was destroyed by the 310th Bomb Group.  

This earned Benny an Oak Leaf Cluster Medal, which is a miniature bronze or silver twig of four oak leaves with three acorns on the stem that is authorized by the United States Armed Forces as a ribbon device for a specific set of decorations and awards in the United States Army. The mission also earned him a picture in a newspaper along with a story.

This was a must target, a thousand, a million gallons of gas for Rommel. You gotta sink that, come hell or high water, or else you bail out, and the pilot will have to take the plane into the ship. What was that a million gallons? That tanker was a big son-of-a-bitch, you know it? I don’t know if they put the gas in the bedrooms or... Well, how would you feel? You know what was protecting that ship? A cruiser, destroyers, (and) flak barges have big guns on the sides. I have a good memory, boy; it seems like yesterday,” Benny said

One of the other moments ingrained in his memory was when his squadron flew along a beach as they were returning to base from a mission.

One day, I’ll never forget that day, we’re along the beach right, and we’re coming home from a mission, and we’re still not flying high (be)cause the fighters were after us. They had these 20 millimeters shooting, and I was looking on the beach, and I saw the shells. I was looking up, and I was like Holy Christ.I told the pilot put more gas into it(chuckles),”said Benny.  

While reading over the death statistics of the 310th Bomb Group, which lost 439 personnel, Benny comes to terms with his own brush with death and how fate had another idea.

The Dainty Baby, Bartholomeo Ficeto’s B-25 bomber, coming in for a landing // photo courtesy of Original photographer unknown.

May their souls rest in peace. That’s a lot of planes we lost, a lot of buddies went down. That’s a lot of men we lost. Can you imagine that? A lot of people, a lot of people. I’m a lucky guy,” Benny recollected.

Then, Benny reflected on a somber moment from April, 1942. His plane, the Dainty Baby and the crew, consisting of Benny’s two good friends that he remembers, Lieutenants Middleton and Frost, was shot down; the entire crew was lost. Benny was not on that fateful flight because of an injury he received days earlier.

I cut my finger open really badly while cleaning plexiglass. My finger was flapping. Later, it had swelled up, and the doctor was like, you can’t fly like that. Middleton was a great guy; (Benny looks down) he used to let me get away with anything (a smile came back to his face as he remembers his friend),” Benny said.

It is believed that war changes people in a way that they are not quite the same when they get back from combat. According to Benny, that is not the case.

It didn’t change me in anyway physically (or) mentally. Believe me when I tell you.You see how I talk now? But I was deathly scared when I was flying, that I admit. And anybody say that they weren’t scared; once you start taking off, you don’t know if your engines are gonna cut off. You were gonna have to bail out (and) fuel in the engine, you don’t know if they gassed it up right,” said Benny.

Now, in his late 90s, Benny shares how he feels about that.

You (would) be surprised how I’ve aged. Well, I’m over 90, anyway, and I have all my senses. People in their 70s, 80s; they just conked out,” said Benny.

So, why does Benny decide to keep working?

He said,”It keeps your mind going, your personality, you don’t fall over.”

Benny is happy to share his story with those who will listen. His cheerful, comical personality is infectious. There is not one person that doesn’t gain from knowing Benny. His secret to longevity is kindness and laughter, something that he is in no shortage of.

Staff Sergeant Bartholomeo Ficeto’s original 428th Bomb Squadron emblem that he wore on his jacket.