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A Trip to Remember

May 25, 2018 Digital Media Exclusive

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At left earlier this month, Chookie Bennetti, 86, traveled to Epinal Cemetery in France to visit the grave of his brother, William, who died in fighting in December 1944. Making the journey, from left, were, his niece, Lucille Savelli of Erire; Bennetti; his wife, Shari; and family friend Arda McAndrew. Bennetti said a cemetery official rubbed sand from Normandy into the engraving so the name and date stood out for photographs. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

BUTLER TWP — Chookie Bennetti will turn 87 on Thursday. But this Memorial Day, he's already received his birthday present courtesy of strangers and friends.

Earlier this month, 74 years after his brother's combat death, Bennetti visited the French cemetery where William Bennetti was laid to rest.

It is a trip the retired ironworker and former Butler business owner never expected to make, but a chance encounter with a veteran led to his May 1 trip to France with his wife, Shari; niece. Lucille Seavelli of Erie; and family friend, Arda McAndrew.

Bennetti was 13 years old when his brother William, 19 a member of the 141st Infantry Regiment, died on Dec. 11, 1944, in combat in what was called the Colmar Pocket, a section of central France where the German Nineteenth Army attacked the U.S. Army Sixth Group in December 1944.

“He was listed as missing in action at first, but his remains were found later,” he said.

He knew his brother was buried in a cemetery in France, but that was all he knew until a chance encounter with a man set Chookie Bennetti on the course leading to him standing at his brother's grave earlier this month.

Dave Jackson, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was jogging past Bennetti's house on Whitestown Road in September 2015, when Bennetti asked him in for a glass of wine.

“The only reason he stopped me is that I jog with an American flag,” said Jackson.

When he heard about William Bennetti's combat death, Jackson said, “I researched it and came back to tell Chookie about it.”

Jackson said, “I got this idea. 'Let's send Chookie to France.' I made it a mission, and strangers made it a mission, too.”

Jackson said, starting last fall, he began to tell Bennetti's story to passengers he was ferrying in his job as an Uber driver and to anyone who would lend a sympathetic ear.

By spring, there was enough money to pay for Benetti's plane ticket to Paris.

Read more about Bennetti's visit to his brother's grave in Sunday's Butler Eagle.

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Eric Freehling

Eric Freehling

Eric was born in Butler and grew up in Winfield Township. He graduated from Knoch High School and later Indiana University of Pa. with a degree in Journalism. After working as a reporter and editor with the Kittanning Leader-Times, he moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where he worked at The Pantagraph newspaper as a copy editor, page designer, reporter and business editor. Freehling later worked at the Houston Chronicle as senior copy editor and the Chicago Tribune as a copy editor on the business desk. He moved back to Pennsylvania in 2010 and joined the Butler Eagle as Community Editor in January 2011.