High school senior John Justi would work weekends at J&L Steel along the riverbank and watch newly built ships head for the Mississippi River, and ultimately the Atlantic or Pacific theaters. The ships were warships, and just like Justi, they would eventually find themselves in the midst of World War II.
As one of the oldest in his class, Justi was drafted at the beginning of his senior year along with five of his classmates. Wartime rules permitted him to receive his diploma at the end of his first semester. After saying goodbye to his family and friends, and much to his mother’s dismay, Justi followed the path of the warships he watched each weekend and entered the service in 1944.
“All we had was a good rifle,” Justi recalls. Although he fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge, Justi states that his most dangerous enemies were the German short-range mortars. Justi recalls that he would listen for the sounds of mortar shells as German soldiers dropped them into the mortar barrel. “One… two… three…,” he demonstrates. The men would count the number of shells they heard, then duck for cover. Once they heard the same number of explosions as they heard shells dropped into barrels, they would retreat from their hiding spots and continue with their task. One time, Justi miscounted. He stood up from his foxhole too early, just as the last bomb crashed to the ground only a few feet away. The bomb was a dud.
As the war went on, the weather became colder and the conditions more treacherous. The winter of 1944 – 1945 was unusually frigid and snowy. The men slept on the ground and had a poor food supply. Justi notes that more soldiers were dying from the weather than from enemy fire. He heroically carried frostbitten men through snow embankments and across icy fields. “I had the muscles and the get-go,” Justi explains.
Eventually, his frostbitten feet were too painful to bear, and he was sent for medical treatment in France. He recalls seeing the Eiffel Tower through the ambulance window as he rolled toward the hospital, a beautiful sight in stark contrast to his failing health and his mother’s heartache when she learned that her son’s life was in jeopardy. Luckily, Justi’s feet did not require amputation, a rare but welcome outcome for wartime frostbite, and he was awarded a Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal and combat infantry badge.
The war drew to a close, and Justi was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for several months before being discharged as a Private First Class in February 1946. He had completed 26 months of military service before his 21st birthday, and he was anxious to return home to his loved ones. Justi laughs as he describes his homecoming to the Beaver County community where his first glimpse of the war occurred on the riverbank. Upon entering his family’s home, and before saying hello, his mother demanded that he remove his shoes so she could inspect his feet.