You may know him as “Mr. Ambulance”, a co-founder of the Middle Village Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but the story of Joe Magnus’ life before he came to America is one worthy of the silver screen.
When Joseph was a 13-year old boy in Czechoslovakia during World War II, his life was a living hell. In 1944, the Russians had beaten the Germans back to the small Czech town of Roztoky where Magnus and his mother lived. They were forced to flee with other townspeople into the surrounding woods where they dug themselves bunkers and huddled down, trying to evade capture and death.
One night, the Germans invaded and herded people, including the Magnuses, onto trains and locked them inside. Some of the older men had avoided being captured, killed the guards and then freed everyone. Joe and his mother immediately found themselves hiding in the woods again. They dodged many a bullet while scrounging for potatoes at nearby farms that had been abandoned.
“One night we were running from a German soldier on a horse and I tripped and fell into a puddle,” Magnus recalled. “Thank God the horse just jumped right over me and kept going.” Joe also remembers a shell exploding five feet from where he had been sitting with some other boys. This left him with a deep gash on his leg.
“I was bleeding terribly, and one of my friends took his shirt and tied it on (the wound). If not for that, I might be dead,” Magnus said. A few months later, he was shot through his arm, the bullet barely missing the bone.
Unfortunately, calling a doctor was out of the question. All of the doctors had been called to serve the Allied troops on the front lines. Emergencies had to be taken care of by people with little to no training in medicine.
After living through the nightmare that was World War II in Czechoslovakia, Joe wanted to use his keen survival skills to help others.
Middle Village Volunteer Ambulance Corps
In 1952, Magnus immigrated to America. In 1973, he was working on computer mainframes for a government agency full time, but spent his free time learning first aid and soliciting donations so the original group of 12 Middle Village Volunteer Ambulance Corps volunteers could buy an ambulance. Within a short time, they had a $500 vehicle and were ready to roll. Magnus said he was grateful for the opportunity because he found great reward in helping others.
While responding to emergencies, Magnus found himself most personally touched by situations that involved kids. As a father to a daughter, Tanya, he empathized greatly with the parents of sick and hurt children.
Today, MVVAC has dozens of volunteers and its service area is home to more than 70,000 people. The corps’ services are 100% free of charge and they do not take insurance. “That’s what volunteer means,” said Magnus. Now retired, Joe is able to spend much of his day at the corps office on 70th Street in Middle Village, mainly taking care of paperwork. He also trains new recruits and sometimes goes out on calls. One particular call is one that he will never forget.
September 11, 2001
Shortly after the first strike on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Magnus and members of MVVAC dropped what they were doing and rushed downtown. Arriving before the Trade Center collapsed, Magnus and his men were ready to head into the unknown, but just as they thought things couldn’t get worse they did. With the collapse of both towers, Magnus and his crew tried to save as many lives as possible. “We were putting as many people as we could on the ambulance, just so we could get them out of there.” Magnus gets emotional every time he tells the story.
For the heroism displayed by MVVAC on that day, they received $5,000 from Emigrant Savings Bank. Standing at a podium inside City Hall, Magnus thanked his crew, his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Tanya. He also thanked Emigrant Savings Bank whom he says gave him his first bank account when he came to the U.S. when other banks were turning him down.
“I’ll never forget what they did for me, and I know that I’m not winning an award for having an account, but for the service I have provided for my community.” As he left the podium Magnus raised his clenched fist and bellowed, “God Bless America.”
The $5,000 helped out MVVAC a great deal. After September 11th, MVVAC lost a lot of equipment and materials.
Magnus has always remained modest, even with the honor. For him, being a member of MVVAC is an honor in itself. He has shaped the Volunteer service into what it is today and maintained the identity of MVVAC. When you think of the Middle Village Volunteer Ambulance Corps, you think of Joseph Magnus. When you think of Magnus you remember his nickname, “Mr. Ambulance.” He is proud of the label put on him, but even more so he recognizes that it represents his service to a community he has been a part of for most of his life.
For someone who has come from another country and still bears a heavy accent, Magnus always claims that he is an American first.