One hundred years ago Nov. 11 Lt. Joe Just, a man who left Penn Yan as a frightened teen just a few years before, found himself in Europe, celebrating the end of World War I with the people of Lyon, France.
At the same time, Corp.Victor Swanson was among the other soldiers in the 77th Division that had advanced the farthest of all the Allied forces against the Germans in the Argonne forest. “We had gone so far that it took us 14 days steady hiking to get back to a rest area,” he wrote to his sister Lillian four months later.
The stories of both of these men who spent much of their post-war lives in Penn Yan are the center of two books — The Immigrante, which has been on sale since early summer, and Going Home, being printed now.
The remarkable story of Lt. Just, who eventually returned to Penn Yan later in life, is told in a book that takes the reader on a journey through local and world history, beginning in a small town in Italy, where a young mother, Rose, decided to save her two little boys from a vendetta, after their father was murdered, by bringing them to America.
Those two Italian boys, who later became known in Penn Yan as Joe and Frank Just, eventually found themselves joining the military in the early days of America’s involvement in the ‘war to end all wars.’ They had both heard that joining the military was a certain path to U.S. citizenship.
The Immigrante tells the story of Rose Diusto Giovanni, and her sons, Joe (Giuseppe), and Frank (Francisco) as they travel from Macchia-Valfortore, Italy to Ellis Island and eventually to Penn Yan, where they settled into a new home on Benham Street. But life here was difficult.
“Most of the story is fact, taken from a long series of audio tapes that were made before my father’s death. Along with those tapes and numerous stories I heard from WWI vets that lived in and around Penn Yan as I grew up, the story was built as closely to facts as I could make them,” says the author, Joe Just, who graduated from Penn Yan Academy in 1955, and now lives in Washington.
Giuseppe (Joe) runs away from Penn Yan and finds himself alone in Rochester, where he is taken in by a kind family. The other son, Francisco (Frank), grows up in Penn Yan, but then lies about his age to join the Army as a way to achieve his dream of becoming a citizen. Joe leaves Rochester and travels to Detroit, where he too joins the Army with dreams of becoming an Air Corps pilot and eventually a U.S. citizen as well.
Only one of Rose Diusto Giovanni’s sons returns to Penn Yan. Joe lived out his life here, joining the American Legion, raising a family, and dying in 1977.
Joe, the author, says, “For over 60 years, the story has never been far from my mind, and with that, the writing has been a real joy, as I have tried to give the flavor of what it was like to be an immigrant to this nation at a time of collapsing ideas and dreams.”
The WWI veteran Joe, who battled what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after some horrific experiences as a pilot of a DH-4 bomber, eventually became a respected machinist, first traveling around North and South America. He returned to Penn Yan and opened a store and later worked at American Can until 1968.
To answer questions about Rose’s life story, the author Joe, and his son, James, traveled to Europe, where they visited the tiny town in Italy where Guiseppe and Francisco were born. They met some people who could speak English, and who were well aware of the family history. “They thought my son and I were there to finish the vendetta,” he said, but once they explained that they didn’t want to know who committed the murder that sparked the saga, that they simply wanted information about their family history, they learned much of the story.
While they were in Europe, they also spent three days near Belleau Wood, in France, where Frank was killed June 6, 1918, and where he is buried. The gripping scene of Frank’s death in the book is based on details the author was able to pull from Frank’s field officer and from his autopsy report.
The house where the boys grew up is still standing on Benham Street, where Rose continued to live into the 1950s. A faithful Catholic, Rose is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Her son, Guiseppe, the WWI pilot, and finally a citizen of the United States, is buried next to her.
The Immigrante was published by Page Publishing, and is available at Longs’ Cards and Books, 115 Main St., Penn Yan.
Going Home is a story based on letters written by Corp. Victor Swanson to family back home in Cattaraugus. After the war and the death of his wife, Victor brought his three young children to Penn Yan, where he got a job at Keuka Lumber and later bought the business. His daughter, Helen Lou Barden, was given permission to use her father’s letters for a book for other veterans returning from war.
She never finished the book, but she had written detailed notes about how she wanted to complete the book. Now 92-years-old, she lives in a nursing home. Her grandson, Thomas Barden, a Marcus Whitman teacher, has put the finishing touches on the book, which is now being printed by Tillman Press.
Helen Lou Barden’s book focuses primarily on her father’s journey home, beginning with letters to his mother once the Armistice is signed. The letters reveal a man who was immensely proud of his service and especially that of his division: the 77th Division and the 302nd Corps of Engineers.
“One can imagine him standing in the fields of Eastern France and gazing up to the sky through the clouds of smoke and ash and wondering when it would all cease, and for a moment wishing he was standing in the fields on a warm summer day in upstate New York with the afternoon sun shining down,” writes Thomas Barden.
Barden observes: “These men were the first to leave their homes to travel to an unknown ‘world’ to fight on behalf of those they had never met, with no previous military experience, witnessing the worst horrors of war ever seen by man, and then be expected to naturally return to civilian life with little to no help from the American government. The hollowed promise of a bonus check was all that awaited them following their victory parades. From this learning curve would spring the future G.I. Bill of WWII, veterans hospitals, and other supportive organizations.
“For Corporal Victor Swanson and his fellow veterans, they only received one thing from the American government following the war and they longed for it more than anything: going home,” he concludes in the book’s introduction.
An excerpt from one of the letters to Swanson’s sister, Lillian follows:
“The Argonne was what it has been described as but it was a summer resort compared to the region around Bazoches and Fismes last August. We were shelled and gassed and lived in holes amid flies and dead horses. Every night we crept up to the Vesle to try to build foot bridges over that little river. It was little all right but it was deep and swift as blazes and we lost men nearly every night. The same moon was there giving us away to the Germans. The same moon that I used to like to go strolling under with something in crepe-de-chine tucked under my arm.”
Look for information about when and where Helen Lou Barden’s book will be on sale locally after it is printed.