For many, when thinking about the history of our community, the same names come up over and over again. It’s the unfamiliar names that seem to fall through the cracks. Yet, they, the unfamiliar, are also equally important when recalling our past.
History requires records or artifacts or memories to be left behind and without those the history falls away or disappears and we are left with an incomplete story of the past. Those lost memories may, or may not, remain fresh within the memories of the surviving family members. But how does the general public learn about the contributions of the departed.
Today’s name may be remembered by many families who originally settled in the Millville neighborhood, but to many others it is not commonly known - Bussanich. Luckily for us, Martin Bussanich left an oral history recorded in February, 1990 with the Harbor History Museum. It is from that document that this blog was made possible.
Martin Bussanich was born on September 22, 1910 in Susak, Yugoslavia. He died on March 13, 1998 at age 87 in Gig Harbor, Washington. As we know from previous HHM blogs and history, Yugoslavia had a varied history starting with the Greeks and Romans, then Croats, then Venice, then Napoleon who ceded the actual governing to Austria. Then after WWI and the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Italy adopted the island and controlled it until 1943. While under control of Italy, Susak Island was known as “Sansego”. This name comes from the Greek word meaning ‘oregano’ and as nature would have it, oregano grows in abundance on the island.
In the early 1940s the Nazis assumed control which lasted until 1945. The Paris Peace Treaty added the island to that portion of land that became the newly formed country of Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito. It wasn’t until 1991 that Croatia declared independence, and following the war in 1995, was and still remains part of Croatia.
But Europe had been engaged in civil unrest and military crisis from the early to mid thirties, and many people were leaving Europe and finding their way to the United States. Some were lucky, such as Martin, to have family members already living in the States. Now, remember Martin turns 18 in September 1928. Europe is still suffering from the first World War, and feeling the effects of economic depression which will eventually become, the the US, the 1929 collapse of the stock market and the “Great Depression”.
And when you read Martin’s account of arriving at Ellis Island, his total lack of English, and his physical condition, you may start wondering that if faced with the same difficulties, how would you handle it. If you could!
Let’s have Martin tell us in his own words. “Yeah there was a war and I tell you it was very tough. You used to - I was just watching a lot of the time the woman go to put some - excuse me how I say - pick to give it to eat - some stuff. She go away. I used to pick up that stuff and eat it. It was very tough, very tough. It was really hard. So then my dad send me a letter to do I want to come over to this country. I say “Gee, I sure will. I sure like to come. Then when he send me that paper from the counsel, never was . . . .Five times I got to go to . . .? Five times. . . . . to see if everything was ok. They always find something wrong. . . . . Something wrong all the time. So once they - maybe I got it right and by God I got in. So it was . . . March - 19. . . That ship is no more. 1928 I come over - yeah - 1928.”
So, let’s hear Martin’s recollection. “When I come over, I was in third class. So I come over and - you got to go through examination. . . . Ellis Island - yes. Geez what a tough time I had. So I went over there. You know, it was so rough, I was weak. I eat nothing. I was so weak. Then they stopped me there - right there. That’s what I said, “Look they bring blind guys and everything, but what a tough time I got.’ So they stopped me for one month. They figured they going to send me back to Europe. So what did they do? My dad - he got a lawyer. Sure. So lawyer went to see you know this bad guys and talked to them. They said ‘Yeah, we can leave him three months. Three months. After they going to give me an examination again. So I went, three months come and my dad say ‘How about I go see them again and maybe they can give you another three months.’ So he went to see the lawyer and by gosh and he said ‘Yes, we can do it.’ So the lawyer went to see the big guys and asked for me if they’d let me stay another three months. The lawyer then - then the big shots say ‘Yes, he can stay another three months, but after three months got to go another examination. If they find something wrong, he’s got to go back.’ So then another three months come and I go to see the island - what do you call it? . . .Ellis Island. See three doctors - not one - three. They took you know like your mother got - all clothes out - and they poke me here and they poke me all over. The blood that fall down on the floor - I took my handkerchief and wiped it up. I said “I wish you could say that I’d like to stay here.’ I couldn’t talk - nothing. They was talking but I couldn’t understand it. So when they was talking, they tell me to put my clothes on and go. My dad was outside. He couldn’t come in. So I put my clothes on. My dad asked and they said nothing. He said ‘We find out later.’ We took the ferry and went home. I was living in . . . house. Then I was waiting, waiting, waiting. So I figured for sure they got something wrong. . . . . between that time - before they got lawyered me up - you know what they did?
They brought me on the ship. Yeah, I forgot that. They brought me on the ship and they locked me up and they locked me up with another three or four guys. They locked me up. The ship was supposed to leave in another half hour. It was supposed to leave to go to Europe again. I was crying. Oh you can’t believe it. So the other guys - I had my little suitcase. I never seen no other people on dock. The ship was blowing the whistle to go soon. Oh I was so - boy, I’m telling you. I went through lots o . . . before I stopped in this country. They brought blind and all kinds of people - you know. So, one guy - the detective brought me right on that ship . . . they brought me right on the ship and locked me up. Not like this - put me on the roof. I stood there. The whistle blow three times on that ship. So once - I was crying. So I see somebody - we asked somebody to open that jail that I was. They brought somebody else to open up. And it was the lawyer. I was sitting down on the suitcase and cry you know. He said ‘Martin Bussanich.’ I jumped so much. That suitcase - you can’t believe how I jumped so much. They took me out. So I figure I’m going to go home to my dad. So I went out and the ship - gee, I was so mad. So I can’t understand how he’s talking. He said ‘Was I hungry?’ I said ‘Yeah.”
“Yeah. So we went in a restaurant. So what am I going to order? I can’t order much because I don’t understand. I don’t know nothing about this country - nothing. So I look at the one guy. He was eating. I said ‘I want that.’ The guy was looking at me. So I eat. I take the eggs and pancakes and toast and potatoes - scrambled - what you call it. Yeah. After that I figure he’d take me home. So I look for my dad and I don’t see nobody. Mt daddy was working. So we went back on the ferry but on the island again. Geez - what is wrong with me? Back there. I want to see what is going on. How are you going to know? You can’t understand. So I think finally one guy on the ferry - he was Slavonian guy. Then I talk to him Slavonian and said ‘Ask this guy why he’s going to put me on the island again.’ Well he said ‘You’re going on the island to - ‘ That time I got examination - that time. I made a mistake. That time I got examination and I don’t know nothing. So he said ‘They going to find out how you’re doing.
“ . . (the first words were garbled/can’t hear) My dad come. Now he said “You got to stay another two or three days till you get examination.’ I said ‘OK’ So I got examination. Like I said I got examination. When they got through, I went out. So when I went out, we went home - me and dad. He don’t know nothing. He asked me if I know anything. I didn’t. . . . examination - three doctors, not one - three. I’ll never forget that. I went out and we went home. So we wait and wait and wait. We got letter. We got letter from the big shots and I’m allowed to stay here. Yeah, forever.So, geez, I was so glad. Then I started work.”
The interviewer asks Martin when he started to learn English and Martin replies “Well I still don’t know too much. And the school you know - Pick it up very slow.”
Martin worked with his father on the Lackawanna Railroad and in a factory on the East Coast before he came to Gig Harbor in 1940. It was here that he started fishing with Tony Skrivanich, his brother-in-law, and his cousin, Martin Morin, and his brother, Tony Bussanich.
To read the complete oral history, please make an appointment with the Harbor History Museum, and spend a little time in the beautiful Research Room reading.