WWII vet recalls serving for a saint
by Joe Bollig
The fighting had moved north, so there wasn’t much happening around Foggia, where Private First Class Ray Bunten was stationed.
It was 1944, and Bunten was at a B-24 bomber base about eight miles south of Foggia, in southern Italy. He was a truck driver, a cog in the war machine that supported the bombers flying north to pound Nazi Germany.
The temporary base was literally in the middle of nowhere. Bunten had to drive through farm fields to get to the airfield, which had a runway consisting of linked steel mats.
One day an Italian-American buddy, Joe Peluso, implored Bunten to use his connections to get transportation for a little joy ride up in the mountains. Peluso wanted to go to an obscure village where some kind of gee-whiz holy man lived, a priest named Padre Pio.
Bunten had never heard of the village — San Giovanni Rotondo — or this Padre Pio.
But there was nothing else to do, so he was game.
Today, the 86-year-old Bunten lives in Vintage Park care facility in Gardner. The last thing he sees before he falls sleep, and the first thing he sees when he awakes, is a photograph of St. Padre Pio on his wall. On his bedside table is a rosary containing a bandage from Padre Pio’s hands, given to him in 1945.
Bunten and his precious relic will be at a 7 p.m. Mass on Sept. 23 — the feast day of St. Padre Pio, and Bunten’s birthday — at Sacred Heart Parish in Gardner. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann will be the main celebrant, and pastor Father Joe Cramer will concelebrate. All are welcome to attend. There will be an opportunity to venerate the second-class relic.
Bunten is a lifelong Catholic, born and raised in Carsonville, now Bel-Ridge, in St. Louis County, Mo. He didn’t even finish trade school when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force and shipped to Italy.
“When I landed in Italy, [the battle of] Anzio-Cassino was still going on, and at nighttime you could see the flares of the shells,” he said.
The Germans retreated, however, and the war moved north.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “I never shot anyone, and no one shot me.”
Bunten belonged to the 345th Signal Wing Company, attached to the 49th Bomber Group. His rank was Pfc. — or “praying for corporal,” as he said with a laugh.
By the time Bunten was arranging his little joy ride up the mountain, most Italians around Foggia were very friendly to Americans and rather pleased to be rid of the Germans. His commanding officer approved the day trip in response to Bunten’s request, but stipulated that he’d only allow it if a group wanted to go. So Peluso and Bunten rounded up a few buddies and headed off.
The soldiers only had a vague idea as to the location of San Giovanni Rotondo, but they eventually found help in a nearby town in the form of an Italian count, who Bunten remembers as “always wearing knickers.”
“He knew almost anything you’d want to know about San Giovanni, and he directed us around like a guide,” said Bunten. “He showed us where the church was, and we got to meet different people. We met this lady, Mary Pyle, who worked at the church.”
Pyle was an expatriate American who had become such a devoted follower of Padre Pio that she had moved to San Giovanni Rotondo.
The American soldiers, all Catholic, went to Mass and later met Padre Pio himself. He looked fairly ordinary, recalls Bunten, except for his hands, which were bandaged. The 57-year-old priest, who was born Francesco Forgione and then given the name Pio when he became a member of the Capuchins, was one of several friars who ministered there.
“He was just like any priest as far as I could tell, but you could [also] tell there was something special about him,” said Bunten.
In the days that followed, Bunten and his buddies made several trips up the harrowing mountain roads to see Padre Pio. They’d go to Mass, and then sometimes stay for a visit.
Although the priest couldn’t speak English, some of the Italian-American soldiers could converse with him in his native tongue. Bunten attempted little more than a “hi” to Padre Pio, who would graciously acknowledge him, give him a smile, or pat him on the head. Padre Pio never ate much at meals and usually just drank a lemon drink.
Padre Pio enjoyed joking with the Italian-Americans, however, and once teased Peluso about failing to get the food in his mouth when a spaghetti noodle clung to Peluso’s cheek.
Padre Pio usually celebrated what was known in those days as a “low” Mass, which was usually comparatively short. But Padre Pio’s would last for two hours, said Bunten. Despite being in obvious pain, with tears, Padre Pio seemed to be totally absorbed in the Mass.
“When he said the consecration, it was like he was in another world, living the whole thing,” said Bunten.
Even then, there were stories of unusual things associated with Padre Pio, but Bunten didn’t witness anything out of the ordinary, except for the ever-present wounds on his hands, which had a lovely odor that he couldn’t quite define.
Bunten would learn later that these marks — which a number of saints over the centuries have experienced — were called “stigmata,” and were wounds that replicated those of the crucified Christ.
Bunten and the others continued to make trips back to see Padre Pio, including a very moving visit in which he and fellow American Art Lucchesi served Mass for him, until their unit was transferred to southern France. But before they left, Pyle gave Bunten and some others bandages that had wrapped Padre Pio’s wounds. The last time Bunten talked to Padre Pio, he asked him to watch over his family, and the priest said he would.
Over the years, Bunten gave small pieces of his bandage to family members until only a very small piece remains. He developed a strong devotion to Padre Pio and never tired of sharing his story.
Recently, Bunten moved to Gardner to be closer to his daughter, Barbara Hermansen, a member of St. Paul Parish in Olathe. One day he talked about his relic with a member of the Knights of Columbus who also belonged to Sacred Heart Parish in Gardner. The Knight told Father Cramer about it, who, in turn, asked Bunten if he was willing to permit the display of the relic at Mass.
Bunten was happy to give his permission.
Bunten was only 20 years old when he met the priest, but he never forgot Padre Pio, who died on Sept. 23, 1968. When he was canonized on June 16, 2002, Bunten wasn’t surprised.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to meet a man like him,” said Bunten. “I think he kept me on the straight and narrow.”