Family finds Lower Burrell Marine veteran's records after long search
John Bennis' legacy was lost in flames. His family rediscovered it more than 50 years later.
“We've been on a quest for the last two years,” said Cyndie Massarelli after filing military discharge records for her father, John Bennis, with the Westmoreland County Recorder of Deeds on Tuesday.
Bennis, of Lower Burrell, served as a military firefighter in the Marines during World War II.
Lower Burrell honors its veterans with large banners featuring their names and pictures, displayed between Memorial Day and Veterans Day every year.
More than 50 years after Bennis died, his children wanted to honor him with a banner. There was just one catch — the application required a copy of his military discharge papers as proof he served.
Bennis died at age 42 when he was electrocuted in a workplace accident at a Lower Burrell school in 1962, leaving behind a wife and five young children.
The following year, the family's coal furnace overheated, starting a fire that left them homeless. Bennis' records were destroyed.
“All his discharge papers, certificates, everything burned,” Massarelli said. “We had to start from the very beginning.”
His son John Bennis Jr. of Hollidaysburg was 7 when his father died. He remembers accompanying his father on errands in the family truck.
“At that time, you're just getting to know your dad,” he said.
With Bennis' records lost in the fire, finding his military discharge papers took some detective work. Thankfully, they had an expert on their side.
Mary Ann Bennis, John Bennis Jr.'s wife, is the Blair County Recorder of Deeds. She knows how records are kept.
With her help, the investigation began. The family members combed the internet, and compared notes at holidays and family gatherings.
“You just go from one website to another to another,” John Bennis Jr. said.
Eventually, Mary Ann Bennis was able to track down a copy of John Bennis' death certificate online. It included his Social Security number — the jackpot.
Using his Social Security number and other information gleaned from the death certificate, the family was able to request his military records from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The paperwork arrived about 90 days later.
They filed the papers at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, where they will be preserved.
At the Recorder of Deeds office, the family studied the records they'd gathered during their search — the death certificate, the honorable discharge papers, a newspaper article about the house fire and a framed photo of Bennis in uniform.
Seeing the handwriting of the father-in-law she never knew brought the last two years into focus, Mary Ann Bennis said.
“That's what really gets you. When you see their actual signature,” she said.
She encouraged all veterans to file their military records with their local Recorder of Deeds office.
Massarelli said the records act as a testament to a father lost too soon.
“It kind of validates him now,” she said.
Bennis will be featured on a banner in Lower Burrell soon, the family said.