Enso V. Bighinatti, 82, who died of prostate cancer June 14 at his home in Washington, became a ranking Red Cross official with a wide-ranging portfolio in disaster relief. During his 43-year career, he brought aid to flood and volcano victims, helped spirit Bay of Pigs prisoners out of Cuba and tried to deliver humanitarian packages to Americans captured during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Bighinatti -- Bighi, as he was called -- joined the American Red Cross at a desperate juncture in his life. Having left college in Massachusetts because of polio, he was impaired in his right arm and left leg. No one would hire the decorated World War II veteran.
His wife suggested he call the American Red Cross. After all, she said, the relief packages had meant so much to him as a POW in Germany.
He became an American Red Cross liaison to the U.S. military and soon was given oversight of entire regions. From 1970 to 1975, he was national director of disaster services, overseeing planning and implementing disaster preparedness and relief programs in the United States.
Stationed in Geneva from 1975 to 1981, he broadened his role to include international relief projects. As undersecretary general for disasters with the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, he helped coordinate relief for the torrent of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. He also helped victims of earthquakes in Guatemala, Turkey and Italy, droughts in Africa, civil wars in Biafra and Jordan and forest fires in Brazil.
The son of Italian immigrants, Enso Victor Bighinatti was born in East Berlin, Conn., where his father was a brick maker.
During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces in Europe as a radio gunner on a B-24 bomber. After more than 30 missions, he was shot down over Germany and imprisoned for almost a year. As the Russian army advanced toward Germany, the prisoners were moved, and on one of those journeys, on a snowy day in March 1945, he and a friend jumped into a hedge and escaped.
His military decorations included the Purple Heart and six awards of the Air Medal.
After the war, Mr. Bighinatti attended Springfield College in Massachusetts before being stricken with polio in his final semester. He left school to seek treatment. Not long after, he settled in Washington and worked his way up in the American Red Cross.
He soon embarked on one of his defining moments in humanitarian work.
After the failed U.S. invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, officials with the American Red Cross played a major role in the freeing of 1,100 American-trained Cubans held by the Castro regime in exchange for $53 million of food and medical supplies.
When the Cuban leader also announced he was allowing thousands of others to leave the country, the operation took on enormous proportions. Mr. Bighinatti helped lead the evacuation.
The same large planes used to transport supplies to Cuba also were used to shuttle Cubans out of the country.
For an American Red Cross oral history project, Mr. Bighinatti described sitting in the bulkhead, next to the captain and using the intercom to say, "Attention, we have now entered American waters. You are free!"
"And it was hard to keep that plane in the air the way those people reacted to that," he said. "You can imagine that. It always gave me a big thrill."
During the Vietnam War, he accompanied the Texas billionaire Ross Perot on failed attempts to fly food and gift packages to U.S. prisoners held in North Vietnam.
He retired from full-time work in 1984 as assistant to the president of the American Red Cross. He remained a paid volunteer for another decade, until post-polio syndrome forced him to quit.
His wife of 47 years, Mildred Genovese Bighinatti, died in 1994.
Survivors include two sisters.