First in a series by William Cellini Jr.
One hundred years ago this June, the United States sent its first soldiers to fight on the bloody battlefields of France and instituted its first nationwide military draft. Among the several thousand Central Illinois men who served in the World War I American Expeditionary Force, I have identified some 40 Lithuanian-born (and Lithuanian-American) soldiers, five of whom lost their lives.
The war had already been going on for three years by April 1917, when the U.S. joined the battle in Europe on the side of the U.K. and Ireland, France and Imperial Russia (the Triple Entente) against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria (the Central Powers).
At the time President Woodrow Wilson asked the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war, the nation’s military preparedness was low. The U.S. government had downsized the military after the Spanish-American War, public anti-war sentiment was strong, and the nation had a political mindset of isolationism.
To get around public resistance to the war and to raise the necessary manpower to fight on a global scale, Wilson initiated the nation’s first Selective Service System, whereby males of a certain age—both immigrants and native-born– were universally required to register for a military draft.
Non-Citizen Immigrants & Selective Service
There were three (plus one extra) national registrations during the war: June 5, 1917 for men ages 21 to 31; then, June 5, 1918 for men who had reached age 21 after June 5, 1917. Next came a supplemental registration in August 1918 for men reaching 21 after June 5, 1918 (due to Congressional adjustment of the draft age).
A third and final national registration was held September 12, 1918 for men ages 18 to 45. This final registration took in all men born between 1872 and September 1900 who’d not been in active military service as of June 1917. (Most Lithuanian-American soldiers mentioned in this blog series were already in service by mid-1918.)
Due to a massive wave of European immigration that had started around 1890, the immigrant population of the U.S. in 1917 stood at 14,500,000. This meant large numbers of “aliens” –immigrants who were not yet citizens–were nevertheless required to register for the draft. Local Lithuanian aliens fell into one of two government classifications: alien “declarant” or alien “non-declarant.”
Alien declarants had filed their declaration of intent to become citizens and thus had “first papers” prior to registering for selective service. These men were categorized as “draft eligible.” Non-declarants not in the citizenship process were aliens with “no papers” and were classified as “exempt from the draft.” (Lithuanian aliens never fell into the draft-exempt category of “enemy alien” because they had been born in an allied state, the Russian Empire, which included Lithuania at the time.)
Going from Draft-Exempt to Draft-Eligible
Those men who were non-declarant could remain exempt from the draft as long as they did not file for their first papers, and many did remain on the sidelines for the course of the war. This became a cause of public resentment as non-declarants with close family living in danger in Europe remained in safety in the U.S. while millions of American-born boys were sent off to fight. Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder of the Office of Selective Service noted that this was “the one notable cause of dissatisfaction with the scheme of military service…in the Selective Service Act.”
Yet in the midst of war, several in this series of bios deliberately and patriotically entered the citizenship process knowing it would cancel their military exemption and permit them to be called up. To reward the patriotism of immigrants who filed their intent to become citizens to make themselves eligible for military service—as well as aliens already in service when the U.S. declared war–in May 1918, the U.S. opened an expedited path to citizenship for all its non-citizen soldiers.
Expedited Citizenship for ‘Alien’ Soldiers
The U.S. citizenship process typically involved a five-year U.S. residency requirement and then a two-year waiting period between the declaration of intent and the petition for citizenship. In its May 1918 Act, Congress allowed immigrant soldiers without “first papers” to skip the residency requirement and be naturalized at U.S. military camps or in courts near the camps. For those with first papers, the waiting period between their declaration of intent and petition for citizenship was abolished, as were the fees for their citizenship processing. All of these perks were offered only if the soldier remained in service and if he swore a loyalty oath. Conversely, by 1918, declarant aliens who requested conscription exemption or discharge from the army were disqualified from the citizenship process.
The timing of the 1918 Act caught many immigrant soldiers already in the trenches overseas. These were men who’d registered for the draft in June 1917 and who subsequently had been called up and shipped to France by mid-1918. Taking advantage of their new expedited path to U.S. citizenship required them to obtain battlefield signatures from their commanders and comrades-in-arms acting as witnesses.
Out of all Lithuanian immigrant soldiers from Central Illinois who served during WWI, research indicates five died during their service to the country: Stephen Shvagzdis [Švagždys]; Walter A. Rauktis [Raukitas]; Tony Pranchewicz [Pranckevičius], Joseph Kowlowsky, and John Kedis.
One may see a tragic irony in their deaths as these young Lithuanians were shipped off to fight in Europe, only to perish overseas so soon after they had emigrated to the U.S. Their deaths, and the deaths of all WWI soldiers, carry a special poignancy on this 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the “War to End all Wars.”
The following are the first seven thumbnail biographies of local Lithuanian-American doughboys. There will be more to follow as our WWI centennial continues. Special thanks to Tom Mann and Tim Race for their initial research on many of these soldiers:
Mike Bubnis—Great Uncle of Diane Rutledge, former Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools
Born in 1879 in Suvalkai Region, Lithuania, the son of Josef and Rosalia Schercnik [Szerkus] Bubnis. Along with his brother, Augustus, Bubnis worked as a coal miner for a time at the “Old West mine” in Springfield. He married a woman named Anna whose maiden name is unknown, and they lived at 1007 North Osborn Street in Springfield during WWI. Bubnis was called-up for the draft after he’d become a naturalized citizen, according to his application. Instead of being sent overseas, Bubnis is listed as a “Private in the 6th Company, 22d “Development Battalion.”
In Bubnis’ case, being sent to a development battalion could have meant he either was not fluent in English or needed instruction, or that he may have been previously injured but did not qualify for immediate discharge. Further research indicates Bubnis was discharged at Camp Taylor, Kentucky, on December 20, 1918.
He and his wife left Springfield in the 1920s and he died January 7, 1956 at the Danville Illinois Veterans Hospital. The burial card for his cemetery plot lists him having served in the “14th Company, 4 Tribn. [sic], 159th Development Battalion,” contradictory to his published service record. The whereabouts of his wife as well as her death date are unknown. Bubnis’ brother, Augustus “Gus” died in Springfield in 1941 and his sister, Mrs. Frances Jurkins [Jurkonis] died in Springfield in August 1974. (Mrs. Jurkins was the paternal grandmother of former District 186 Superintendent Diane (Jurkins) Rutledge, making WWI veteran Mike Bubnis Diane’s great uncle.)
John F. Casper—Received WWI Victory Medal in 1921
Born August 24, 1893 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he was the son of James [Džeimsas] Kasper [Kasparaitis or Kaspariūnas] and Marcella Tonila of Springfield. He served as a member of Company K in the 21st Infantry Regiment. According to a regimental history published on an infantry website, in March 1916, the 21st served on the border of Arizona and California countering Mexican insurgency. In April 1917, the regiment was transferred to Camp Kearny in California, where it was assigned to the 16th Division. Its mission was to train U.S. Army units for deployment to France.
While it is not known if John Casper went overseas, he was issued a WWI Victory Medal in March 1921 for his time in the service. The Illinois State Register noted that medals were being awarded to men who had “any service with the U.S. Army with honorable discharge between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918.” John married Celia Patterson in 1919. He died November 24, 1963 in Springfield, and his obituary confirms that he was a “WWI veteran.” Celia passed away in 1974 in Menard County.
John [Jonas] Levonas Gabalis
Born April 1, 1896 in “Sedix, Russian Empire.” He listed himself as a coal miner at the Tuxhorn Coal Company in Springfield at the time of registering for the draft in on June 5, 1917. He was a declarant U.S. citizen at the time of registration, and so he was in the process of being naturalized. Although he listed a dependent (his mother) at the time he registered, he was sent to training on April 29, 1918 at Camp Dix, New Jersey, and was assigned to the 78th Infantry Division.
According to U.S. Army transport lists, Gabalis departed for Europe in May 1918 on the HMS Kashmir from Brooklyn, New York. He sailed as part of Company E in the 303rd Engineer Battalion, 78th Division and served in France. He returned to the U.S. from Bordeaux on May 24, 1919. Gabalis eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked as a machinist. He married Stephanie Paleckis, but was a widower by 1929. John Levonas Gabalis died on February 15, 1974 in Detroit.
Tony C. Gaygus—Shipped Out from C&A Depot with Other Lithuanians
Born in Illinois c. 1892 to Lithuanian-born parents, Anton and Anna Gaygus of Virden. Tony registered for the draft in Sangamon County in June 1917 and left for Camp Zachary Taylor, Kentucky, on February 24, 1918 with a group of recruits from Springfield. Among them were Lithuanians Joseph Petrushunas, Frank Petrowich and Charles Raczaitis.
According to news accounts from the period in Springfield newspapers, “…the C. & A. Depot was literally packed with parents, relatives and friends of the 149 departing men. Tears filled the eyes of some of the mothers, sisters and sweethearts of the boys, and even a few of the men present had a hazy look.”
Gaygus was subsequently sent overseas (with a stop in Quebec, Canada) and he returned from Saint-Nazaire, France, on the transport ship USS Edward Luckenbach on April 3, 1919. At the time of his return home he was a Corporal in the 362nd Infantry.
William [Viljamas] Gibas
Born March 15, 1887 in Lazdijai, Alytus County, Lithuania. He emigrated to the U.S. via Bremen, Germany, in 1902 and worked as a coal miner at the Peabody Mine in Sherman, Illinois. Gibas made his declaration of intent to become a U.S. citizen in 1910 and by 1915, he had been naturalized. At the time he registered for the draft in June 1917, he was listed as single. In January 1918, his name and address (North Fifteenth Street) were among those listed for men called-up by the Sangamon County Draft Board.
He subsequently entered into service on April 28, 1918 as a Private in Company B, 14th Battalion, United States Guards. He was trained at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with at least two other Lithuanian-born local soldiers. It is not known whether he was subsequently sent overseas, since no return passage for him from France could be found. Gibas was discharged January 31, 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford and went back into coal mining. For a time, he was living with other Lithuanian boarders on the North End of Springfield. William Gibas died on December 13, 1954 in Springfield with no apparent heirs, per the information supplied in his obituary.
Anthony [Antanas] Glemza [Glemža]—Church Organist, Political Activist
Born October 10, 1889 in Viešintos in the Anykščiai district, Utena County (named for the Viešinta river). Glemza emigrated to the U.S. in 1912, arriving in Philadelphia. He quickly became active in St. Vincent De Paul Church by organizing the choir and serving as the full-time organist and church maintenance man. Glemza was also very active in supporting international recognition of Lithuania prior to the U.S. entry into WWI, and is mentioned in an October 1916 Springfield newspaper article as serving on a committee at St. Vincent de Paul Church organized at the time U.S. President Woodrow Wilson publicly recognized the plight of the Lithuanian people as war refugees.
As quoted in the Illinois State Register at the time, “…divided between Germany and Russia, the Lithuanians serving in two opposing armies are compelled to slay each other. Since the very start of the war, Lithuania became the scene of the most horrible struggle ever enacted on the face of the earth.” In March 1918, only a month after Lithuania’s formal declaration of independent statehood, Glemza was a delegate to the New York Lithuanian General Assembly formed on behalf of a free Lithuania.
He had registered for the draft in June 1917 in Springfield, and May 1918, amid his pro-Lithuania political activism, he was called to U.S. military service. He had first applied for citizenship in 1913 and he re-applied on July 17th while in training at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky. After training he was sent to France with Company B, 5th Battalion, 22nd Engineers.
In a November 6, 1918 news article in the Register, Glemza wrote from France saying, “Everyone here thinks the war will be over soon…The four friends of mine who I left with are still with me, and I am mighty glad, for it would be pretty lonesome without them.” Glemza returned to the U.S. as a Private First Class in Company P, 22nd Engineers, via Saint-Nazaire, France, on June 12, 1919 aboard the USS Princess Matoika.
Also on board were Stanley Petrokas and Joseph Muchakites [Marciukaitis]. On the ship manifest, he lists his closest contact in the U.S. as “friend, John Czuberkis,” then-pastor of St. Vincent de Paul’s. In 1922, Glemza left Springfield to take a position as an organist at a church in Rochester, New York, and in 1938, he was affiliated with St. Francis Lithuanian Catholic Church in East Chicago, according to newspaper archives.
Charles J. Grigas—Saved from the Battlefield by his Trombone?
Born March 4, 1896 in Pennsylvania to Mr. and Mrs. George and Petronele “Petrol” Grigas, both born in Lithuania. In addition to Charles they had a son, Stanley (b. 1898, Penn.) and a daughter, Helen (b. 1901). The family is recorded on the 1910 U.S. Census as living in Fancy Creek, Sangamon County. Charles is listed as a “street newsboy” and his father as a coal miner. In their home were three Lithuanian-born boarders, each listed as working coal miners. Then just prior to WWI, the family moved to Springfield, with Charles entering military service on June 25, 1918.
He trained at Camp Taylor and Camp Knox (both in Kentucky) and served as a Private in the Headquarters Company of the 69th Field Artillery, 170th Field Artillery Brigade. The 69th Field Artillery was assigned to the 95th Infantry Division during the war. Although both Charles and his brother Stanley both had registered for the draft, it appears only Charles was called up. The brothers were also musicians—and that seems to have saved Charles from being sent to fight overseas. He is listed as a bandsman in the Army playing “slide trombone,” per information in the Sangamon County Honor Book of WWI. He was discharged in December 1919 at Camp Knox.
In 1920, the Grigas family was living on North 15th Street in a predominately Lithuanian- section of town. In 1921, Grigas married Della Pelton at St. Vincent de Paul Church and they made their home in Springfield. They had one daughter. Well-known in local Lithuanian social circles for their “Grigas Orchestra,” Charles and his brother performed at weddings and accompanied the Knights of Lithuania’s renowned choir at St. Vincent de Paul Church and other venues throughout the 1920s, according to newspaper reports. The Grigas brothers also ran a grocery store and were members of the Springfield Musicians Union Local. Later in life, Charles worked for the State of Illinois. He died in May 1973 in Springfield and his siblings, Stanley and Helen, both passed away in 1986.
Bob & Nancy Colantino said:
I have very much enjoy reading Bill’s current and past articles regarding the history of Lithuanians from central Illinois. He obviously has spent much time, effort and personal expense in his research. I am sure others join me in expressing our appreciation for his interest in the Lithuanians of central Illinois. Kudos.
P. Lozosky said:
Thanks Sandy, very interesting article.
Thanks for reading, Patsy. Bill worked hard on the research and writing and I worked hard on the final edits/formatting. Pls. share where you can.
Sharon and Bud Darran said:
Thanks for letting us know the history of our forefathers. I know much time and effort have been put forth to do this. It is greatly appreciated, I love passing it on to my children. I always remember the blue star that hung in my grandmother’s window for her son that served. Bud and I thank you both.
Sharon, what was the name of your uncle who served–which war? Was the blue star hung during service, only? Thanks for reading and sharing! Sandy
Bryan Crowe said:
I am Charles Grigas’ grandson, Bryan Crowe. My mother was Helen (Grigas) Crowe, his daughter. We lived with my grandpa, and he taught me how to fish. I was 14 when he died. He actually passed away, July 16, 1973.
Did we get his death date wrong? BTW, do you know Janice Tellier–she is also a Grigas descendant. Great follower of our Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois Facebook page.
Bryan Crowe said:
Helen Grigas married John Crowe. They had 5 children. Carole, Mick, James (died at birth), Janice and myself, Bryan.