Bennie Gatto wanted to be a lifer.
He had enlisted just a few years after the allied victory in World War II, and served through the war on the Korean peninsula – taking various Naval posts in the South Pacific during his first leg and after his reenlistment.
The Philippines. Thailand. Hong Kong. Taiwan.
But when he met a young woman and married her on the beach in Hawaii in 1953 all of that seafaring started to become tiresome – it’s tough to spend months out on a ship when you have a young wife and child back at home.
So when he pushed the recruiter for a shore duty position and learned that there weren’t enough to go around, he said goodbye to the United States Navy – the sea-going rates and the personnel carriers he was stationed on that carried troops into battle in Korea – and headed back home to make a life for himself and his new young family.
“My first tour was for three and then I reenlisted for six. I would have gone another four and then six and then retired but I ended up at home with my family. In the other branches of the military – the Army, the Air Force – your family usually gets to go with you when you’re deployed, but it’s not like that in the Navy. My wife sacrificed for us and I applaud her for that.
“I signed up and that was my duty and I served my time. I enjoyed it – I enlisted – because I felt that it was duty to go and serve my country just like the fellows are doing today.”
The man you can’t miss
Even if you don’t know Bennie Gatto, you probably know Bennie Gatto.
He’s at nearly every public meeting that Lathrop has, and he’s probably wearing a ballcap advertising the United States Navy. He’s affable but bold – the kind of person that comes off as both soft-spoken but willing to tell you exactly how things are and how they need to be done. The friend of everybody. The man you can’t miss.
And with his history in the community – Gatto was one of the town’s founders – he stays active just about any way that he can.
A big part of that is working with veterans.
He was part of the group that helped make the Lathrop Veterans Wall – a monument to all those that have served and all of those that paid the ultimate sacrifice – that provides a telling and appropriate backdrop for events like Memorial and Veterans Days.
He has an uncle’s name up there – killed in France in World War I. It wasn’t until many years later that he found that he had properly laid to rest in some of the beautiful cemeteries built overtop the horrific battlefields of the day. He has a nephew up on that wall as well – Brock Elliott, the first local kid killed during Vietnam. So he looks at these things through a different lens – a personal lens. And he leans on his fellow veterans and does what he can to make sure that there is somebody there for them to lean on when they need it.
“We pushed for that for many years to get a memorial erected – to honor the veterans of the past and honor the ones that are serving and to honor the ones that will be serving in the future,” Gatto said. “It’s all about veterans. I have family up there on that wall, and it’s just a good feeling to know that we keep the honor alive for all of our veterans.”
His involvement doesn’t stop there. As a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Gatto will be part of history when Jimmy Connors Post 6311 finally has a permanent home – a joint effort between the VFW and the City of Manteca that started when former mayor and VFW Commander Carlon Perry began talking with outgoing Mayor Willie Weatherford about leaving a legacy.
That legacy, Gatto says, is crucial for the young men returning and those who feel they need a place to go in order to be around other veterans that understand what it’s like to live with the service that they performed for their country.
“We’re stepping up and keeping this tradition going. Our new home there on Moffat will allow us to put on some programs that veterans really need,” Gatto said. “We’ve never had a permanent home. Some guys just don’t talk about what happened over there to anybody. But sometimes when they’re around friends and people that understand they’ll open up. That’s what supporting the veterans is all about – helping the guys that need it when they need it.”