Remembered as a true American hero and an honorary citizen of Chiasso, Switzerland, Joseph Benjamin McDivitt died Jan. 20, at 101 years old.
“A man of many blessings,” said Lucas McDivitt, one of the many kids Joseph brought to the United States after Lucas’ parents died in the Vietnam War.
His presence and stories of saving many lives made those around him proud to be Americans, his friends and family said.
“Always ready to help anyone in need, always had a smile on his face and had a patience of a saint,” said his nephew Jimmy McDivitt.
Joseph was born July 23, 1917, in New Jersey, during World War I.
He grew up during the Great Depression, fought in World War II and spent time in the American Embassy in Korea. He was drafted before the war started, and helped set up camp in New York.
Shortly after, he moved to Maine to a division built up for the war, the Fourth Armored Division.
He attended basic training to be an officer, and was sent to Kentucky to join the first armored division and go to officer school.
In 1942, McDivitt was a second lieutenant, and was quickly promoted to captain in less than a year. On March 31, 1945, he was promoted to major. In 1953, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and colonel in June 1963.
“He said he fought the enemy fiercely, but he always has respect for them,” Lucas McDivitt said.
“He was doing what he did for our country,” said his son David McDivitt.
World War II
In April 1945, toward the end of World War II, McDivitt was stationed in Como, a town in northern Italy.
He was approached by Swiss Col. Mario Martinoni, who was in charge of protecting the city of Chiasso. Chiasso sits near Switzerland’s southern point, and is surrounded on three sides by Italy.
Martinoni crossed the Swiss border in search of McDivitt once he heard the German forces were closing in and attempting to retreat to Germany through Switzerland.
McDivitt took three Jeeps, two men in each, to approach the German soldiers.
He discussed his meeting with the German command as somber in a 2011 Signal story. “We weren’t giving bad eyes at each other or anything. It was a very serious discussion, and lives were at stake.”
McDivitt and the German leader came to an agreement — the Germans would surrender.
Lining up one by one, more than 300 German soldiers dropped their weapons into a pile in the town square of a village in northern Italy.
“I really didn’t do much,” Joseph McDivitt told the Signal in 2011. “But it was the right time and the right place.”
He credited Martinoni for his action in seeking American help.
“If he hadn’t been there and interceded, there would have been blood,” he recalled. “Civilians would have been killed and injured.”
Due to Martinoni crossing the Switzerland border without permission, he was discharged from the Swiss Army.
McDivitt later led a successful campaign to restore Martinoni’s rank and title.
In 2011, McDivitt became an honorary citizen of Chiasso, Switzerland, due to his key role in protecting the city from the Germans.
After World War II, McDivitt returned to the states and continued his armed forces career into the mid-1960s.
He served a stint as military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in South Korea and later worked in military intelligence after retiring from the military. McDivitt married his wife, Myly, a retired lieutenant colonel Army nurse in Vietnam.
He also brought many kids back to the U.S. after the war.
“I am just one of the many kids whose parents were killed in the war,” Lucas McDivitt said.
Life after Army
After being honorably discharged, McDivitt moved to Canyon Country and resided here for the rest of his life.
He and his wife also had a son, David.
“He was dedicated, stubborn, devoted and strict,” David said. “It was all from the military.”
His father made him the man he is, he said.
With a caring soul, Joseph took care of his family, driving his wife back and forth to work every day, so she wouldn’t have to ride alone.
He also helped his son deliver The Signal in 1987-88.
David was a paper boy who rode his bike around the neighborhood delivering papers before school every day, he said. “One day, he realized how tired I was.”
Joseph pulled out his brown Cadillac Silverado with leather interior, that he loved, his son said. “He told me to load up all the paper in the back of his car. He drove with me to deliver the newspapers every day after that.”
Celebration of Life
At age 101, Joseph McDivitt died on Jan. 20, 2019.
A 21-gun salute and folding of Old Glory at Eternal Valley Memorial Park commemorated his accomplishments in the U.S. Army.
“God gave him a gift, letting him live to 101 years old,” David McDivitt said.
The Swiss government is thankful for all McDivitt did for their citizens, and a representative, Urs Wüest, consulate general of Switzerland in San Francisco, spoke at McDivitt’s funeral. In fact, representatives from Switzerland and Chiasso attended his funerals in California and Pennsylvania.
Joseph McDivitt was buried in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on Monday.
“My mom and I watched them lower the casket,” David McDivitt said. “At that time, three eagles came out of nowhere and circled his grave, calling out.”