Pilgrimage for an Uncle Lost in World War II


The World War II sacrifice of 20-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant George Sneckus of Springfield was honored earlier this month with a visit by his niece Teresa (Sneckus) Gregoire to young George’s grave in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium.

Son of Lithuanian-born immigrants George and Petronnella (Nellie) Sneckus, George was shot down and killed on his first mission over Germany as a waist gunner on a 10-man B-17 bomber on May 24, 1944.  Fifty-seven years after George’s death, his niece Teresa, also of Springfield, made the first and only visit by a relative to the grave of the uncle who had died before Teresa was born. That was back in 2001.

Upon leaving her uncle’s grave, Teresa had mentally promised someday to return. And then earlier this May, all the pieces fell into place for her to do just that–this time, with her husband Ron and their sons Ryan, 35, and Nathan, 28.

“My sons are starting their own families, and so things were only going to get more complicated in terms of making this trip,” Teresa says of the trip’s timing. “I wanted my boys to have this experience when it would mean something to them—as opposed to when they were too young to remember–but while we could still honor George as a family,” she explains.

From May 9-19, the Gregoires visited a dozen military cemeteries in France and Belgium, as well as several war museums, Dunkirk, and Omaha and Utah Beaches in Normandy– as well as the nearby Saint-Lo Cemetery which was filmed in the movie, Saving Private Ryan.



Mother’s Day, Sunday May 13, was particularly poignant for Teresa as she walked among the thousands of white crosses at Saint-Lo. “I was walking among the graves with my boys, and then taps started to play on the hour, and I felt so happy, so grateful that my boys were here, above ground–unlike all the mothers who had to lose their sons.”

Yet as moving as that was, the highlight of Teresa’s family tour was their May 17 visit to the grave of Teresa’s uncle George. “We were all taken aback by the beauty of that particular cemetery, the rows of white crosses and the beautiful green grass,” Teresa recalls. “You can’t believe how beautiful it is–it gives you a sense of peace to see how beautiful everything is kept for all the boys who lost their lives, how well maintained those cemeteries are.”

Uncle George's Headstone

On her first visit to George’s Belgian grave, Teresa had brought and left soil from the backyard of his Springfield boyhood home.  On this visit, she says, “We brought and left behind, near George’s headstone, one of the shells from my dad’s 21-gun salute at his funeral at Camp Butler.

“We also brought dried roses from the spray on my dad’s casket and rubbed what oil was left in those into the letters on George’s cross,” Teresa explains. “Last, we brought a piece of my grandmother’s china and buried a small plate George use to eat from at the head of his grave. My boys kind of pushed it into the ground, and then we took the soil from where the plate had gone in to spread on my dad (George’s brother)’s grave back home.

“In a little ceremony, we said The Lord’s Prayer and sang ‘God Bless America.’ About that same time, the cemetery’s carillon played ‘God Bless America,'” and ‘America the “Beautiful,'” Teresa recalls.  (You can read more about Teresa’s quest to learn the true circumstances of George’s death in “Honoring an Uncle Lost in World War II,” Chapter 25 of my book, A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois.)


2018 Ardennes Cemetary Uncle George's Grave

From left: Nathan and Ryan Gregoire pressing the plate into the ground near George’s headstone, May 17, 2018, Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupre, Belgium.

“George closely resembled my father Julius, who served as a staff sergeant in the Marines, fighting in the Pacific,” Teresa also wrote in Chapter 25. “I sometimes wondered if George had lived and grown older with my father, they would have shared their war stories with us.”

Remembering how much her grandmother Nellie suffered George’s loss, Teresa says she thinks of George’s sacrifice whenever she looks at an American flag. “To me, his sacrifice defines the meaning of patriotism. The memory of George and how he died is something my family will carry with us and honor for the rest of our lives.”

By bringing her sons on pilgrimage to George’s grave this month, Teresa also did the best she could to formally pass his memory down to the next generation for their safe-keeping.  “As we were leaving George’s grave, my son Ryan kind of leaned over and kissed the top of his cross, and then Nathan did the same thing, and we all did the same, kind of to say ‘Good-bye, George, and we’ll be back.’ ”

Uncle George's Grave - Saying good-bye

Saying “good-bye, until next time.”

All photos courtesy of Teresa Gregoire.

A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois, can be purchased at Noonan’s Hardware store at 8th and North Grand Ave. in Springfield–or on Amazon.com







Part III: Lithuania’s Greatest Generation

The book “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” contains 18 oral histories of Lithuanians who became war refugees between 1940 and 1944. Next month, my review of “We Thought…” will be published in the English-language monthly, Draugas News. Please read below for the third and last in my series on this wonderful book.

Chori. Wehnen, Germany camp. Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

Lithuanian choir, Wehnen ‘DP’ Camp, Germany. Courtesy of Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

‘Little Lithuania’ in the Displaced Persons Camps

Almost every refugee in this book recounts the sudden and remarkable flowering of Lithuanian culture and education–including schools, drama troupes and choirs–as soon as war refugees sorted themselves into their own national groups within the system of post-war “displaced persons” camps.  What is truly remarkable is that these feats of national and cultural assertiveness occurred literally as soon as the camps were organized.

Lithuanian elementary and high schools and Lithuanian Scouts with hand-sewn uniforms were already appearing the same month that the war ended, in barracks where food was still scarce and shelter primitive.  What could this be except Lithuania re-created by refugees with nothing left but their passionate desire to return home soon?

Certainly Germany was not home, but its postwar camps were an immediate collection point for those only recently exiled: the closest spot in time and space to home, where atomized individuals could reunite in their major expression of communal desire.

Of course, it helped that so many of the exiles were leading Lithuanian academics, educators, and cultural figures. One can imagine them living and organizing by their wits in a place where they are not entitled to anything but the most basic sustenance–and almost everything has been consumed by war.

UNRRA TEAM 569, 1 dollar Lithuanian camp currency, SCHEINFELD, Germany. Source icollector

One dollar, Lithuanian camp currency, Scheinfeld, Germany camp administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).  Courtesy of icollector.com

Yet educator Jonas Kavaliunas tells us that a Lithuanian school already had been organized by May 10, 1945, in the Freibug camp(s), and the same month, in Tubingen. He details the printing of one of the first Lithuanian grammar texts in Stuttgart in December 1945—as well as the difficulty of obtaining paper, ink, and a functional printing press for the job. “The idea (of organizing schools in the camps, where hunger was a daily experience), was that returning to Lithuania in a short time, our children wouldn’t have lost a year (of schooling).”

Joana Krutuliene recalls, “All of that activity was so vibrant, people were exceptionally creative.  Having nothing, really, they were capable of doing, working, acting in concert…establishing schools…The artistic ensembles (choirs and drama groups) made us feel alive, united us in some way…Such a vital life, such a desire to survive, to be active.”

Conflicting Views of the First Wave

It is also in the camps that many “DP”s have their first encounters with Lithuanian-Americans of, or descended from, ‘first wave’ immigrants (who had arrived 1880-1914). Usually these are only passing mentions of help from Lithuanian-American priests, Army translators or common soldiers.

rockinghorse.Lithuanian Research and Studies Center Inc archives Hanau 1947 publication unknown

Lithuanian ‘DP’ child on wooden rocking-horse in Hanau, Germany camp, 1947. Clipping courtesy of Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, Chicago.

Once in the United States, many of the same “DP”s complain of  “first-wavers” from a more primitive Lithuania who don’t understand them or the more advanced Lithuania from which they have come. The farmer Taoras tells of “a good-hearted man of the old emigration” who helps him advance at work in Chicago–to the point where all the other “first-wavers” on the job burn with envy. (My father had a similar experience when he improved himself too fast for his American-born first cousins.)

Yet almost every refugee in this collection ultimately is sponsored by a member or descendant of the Lithuanian “first wave” under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948, from which the shorthand “DP” derives.  Krutuliene sums it up best when she says, “I appreciate (those) Lithuanians…so much because when we got here, there was already something here for us: there were parishes already, churches already. Their Lithuanian heritage had survived, and I regret that somehow we didn’t end up making very much of a connection with them.”

Whatever their differences, the “DP” (“second wave”) immigrants did build on the institutions of the first. Their tremendous post-settlement achievement in building dozens of “heritage” schools, choirs, dance ensembles and summer camps was based in already-established Lithuanian Catholic parishes. It was from this “first wave” base that the “DP”s preserved and passed on the great cultural revival of newly independent Lithuania (1918-1940) they were a part of before being displaced.

Starting Over in America

In many ways, we can think of the flowering of “DP” heritage institutions in resettlement as an echo of that passionate, first flowering of Lithuanian culture in the camps. By the late 1940s, the camps were being dismantled and it was time for those who had united in creative, communal striving to be dispersed around the world to re-start their lives from nothing but hard work.  Certainly this campaign of resettlement from post-war Germany  was preferable to any forcible return to the refugees’ Soviet-controlled homeland.

However, it dispersed people who had just reunited as a national community and who wanted more and more passionately to remain together, as a national group, the clearer it became that they could not “go back soon.” As a result, in the short term, resettlement seemed to me a second diaspora even sadder and more radical than the first, tearing apart friends and even families who had somehow managed to stay together while fleeing Lithuania or to reunite in tremendous cultural enterprise in the camps.

Many separations were due to the rules of immigration or refugee sponsorship in the host countries. For example, my father was separated from his brothers and sister to arrive alone to a sponsor in Springfield, Illinois. In the book, there is the story of a female Lithuanian doctor who has to leave her handicapped daughter in an institution in Italy in order to immigrate to the United States (after being able to keep her daughter with her through the entire flight from Lithuania and her time in the camps.)



Lithuanian ‘DP’s arriving in Australia. Copyright Western Australian Museum.jpeg

Furthermore, without anything like their first geographic “collection point” in Germany,  this second dispersal and permanent resettlement of refugees in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and South America required “DP”s to create their own new  “collection points.” Geographic dispersal as a result of host nations’ immigration and sponsorship rules–as well as more local work, career and housing conditions–was a  formidable centrifugal force.

Yet even without all or most of their peers from the camps–and with less time and energy due to the demands of constant work to support themselves and their families without even the primitive support once provided by the camps—the “DP” refugees still managed to build new “Little Lithuanias” all over the world.

Lithuania’s ‘Greatest Generation’

I don’t know if this makes the “DP”s Lithuania’s “Greatest Generation” alongside tens of thousands of their peers who stayed behind and died fighting the Soviets as partisans. But I fully understand the impulse to consider them such.  Even in their later years, after decades of work and struggle in the U.S., Lithuanian refugees in this collection—just like my retired factory worker father–are still thinking of how they can help their beloved native land and their relatives there.

Despite her personal losses and drastic uprooting as a young woman, Krutuliene muses, “It’s good that a part of us is here in immigration” because of the ability to financially support relatives back home–and from 1948-1991 to agitate for independence in ways impossible inside the U.S.S.R.

Petras Aleksa recalls, “My idea (after immigrating) wasn’t to have a job or money—it was important to make my own contribution to Lithuania.”

Damusis, a chemist on the verge of giving his homeland a cement industry at the time it lost independence, describes how advancing Lithuania through one’s highest educational and professional potential “was a rallying cry, and not just for me…Everyone (in the “DP” generation), no matter what they did, made something good of it (for Lithuania.) Twenty-two years of independence provided the impetus for this.”

Kavaliunas, the lifelong educator, concludes, “20 years of independence (1918-1940) imparted (so much) to Lithuanians, instilling in them the love of country—this was the huge capital that they brought with them from Lithuania.”

First published in Lithuanian in 2014, “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” became available in English in 2017–just in time for the 2018 centennial of the restoration of a modern and independent Lithuanian state. There could hardly be a better time to hear the voices of the generation forged in the heady patriotism, passion for education, and service to country that independence inspired—so many lives inspired by one great idea.


Thanks to William Cellini, Jr., for retrieving the images for these posts from various websites.

Please write to sandybaksys@gmail.com if you live in the Springfield area and would like a copy of the book for $15 plus shipping. “We Thought We Would Be Back Soon” can also be purchased on Amazon.com

Part II: ‘We Thought We’d Be Back Soon’

The book “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” contains 18 oral histories of Lithuanians who became war refugees between 1940 and 1944. Next month, my review of “We Thought…” will be published in the English-language monthly, Draugas News.

To celebrate this wonderful book and to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the law that permitted “displaced persons” or “DP”s like my father Vince to immigrate to the U.S., I’m publishing this second in a series of blog posts based on the book. Images for these post were contributed by William Cellini, Jr.

4 UNRRA Food Stores employees at the Lithuanian DP camp in Seedorf. Source albionmich.com

Lithuanian UNRRA food store employees, Seedorf  “DP” Camp, postwar Germany. Courtesy of Albionmich.com

History in the Human Voice

By its accumulation of  human detail,  “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” enhances anything the reader may already have believed or known about the flight of the Lithuanian “DP” generation during WW II. Almost without effort, the descendants of  “DP”s will find gaps in their own family stories filled.

It’s as if a veil between the generations has been lifted, and we can suddenly see our “DP” parents or grandparents as they were when they were young during a desperate time in a different world. We are there. And certain images and anecdotes, different for each reader, will linger long after the reading is over.

On the humorous side, we have an invading Nazi column that stops on the outskirts of a Lithuanian town in June 1941 so the soldiers can shine their shoes and shave before presenting themselves as occupiers.

And for the heart-wrenching, we have the story of the Lithuanian infant born into such want, with only a sheet to be swaddled in, that she dies on a train passing through Berlin in late  1944 and is buried by German strangers in between bombardments.

There is the Lithuanian railroad manager who refuses passage on one of Lithuania’s last departing, overcrowded trains to the wife and children of his Soviet-deported and executed co-worker–while filling two rail cars with his personal possessions.

There is hapless Juozas Taoras, the farmer, who in 1945 is forced to flee his first good job with servicemen in the American occupation zone to escape arrest as a Nazi sympathizer–simply because he has dared equate Stalin with Hitler.

Personally, I will never forget the brave grocery shop girl who’s exiled to Siberia in 1941 after she dares tell the wives of two occupying Russian officers not to butt in line because there was plenty of food in Lithuania before the Soviets emptied store shelves.

And, there is one unforgettable anecdote about the Red Army’s campaign of rape in conquered Germany. In it, a desperate Lithuanian “DP” mother protects herself and two young girls by screaming in broken Russian that she is not German but Lithuanian–and can’t wait to go home now that Lithuania is Soviet-“liberated.”

Falling Back with Germans—or Nazis?

As a fractal of the bigger “Why leave Lithuania” question, the modern American reader, perhaps attaching guilt-by-association to Lithuanians falling back on the same roads, trains, and ships as Nazi forces, might wonder, “Why flee into German lands?” The answers here are often not explicit because of the obvious duality of the dilemma of Lithuanians caught between Stalin and Hitler.

However, bookkeeper Brone Parbaciene, whose husband has been tortured and mutilated to death by the NKVD at Rainiai Forest, lays it out straight: “I had already suffered at the hands of the Russians, so I fled to the other side, which took us in.”

Valerija Sileikiene explains,  “We thought: two devils–one’s brown and the other’s red. Let’s choose the brown devil.” Nevertheless, as refugee families flee deeper into “German lands,” their life-and-death need for work-linked food ration cards and housing–as well as transit papers to reunite with their involuntary inducted husbands–makes it  impossible to see these refugee’s German hosts as uniformly evil.

A Range of German Experiences

We have callous Nazi-loving estate owners who force Lithuanians to work for insufficient food and sleep with their children in filthy pigsties. We have soldiers who shoot hungry refugees whose only crime was to enter abandoned Konigsberg / Karalauciaus homes from which German farmers have fled. But we also have small German farmers, soldiers, bureaucrats, and midwives who help to feed, clothe, and shelter a flood of anti-Soviet refugees amid the shared hardships of war.

One Lithuanian mother gratefully remembers how her toddler received an egg every day, despite German food shortages. Another mother is efficiently delivered of her placenta, post-childbirth on the open road, by a German Army doctor in retreat with his unit who refuses any payment. German police who initially insist penniless refugees pay their own train fares to an interrogation point proceed to lend them the cash to do so—which the refugees conscientiously repay.

The Survival Advantages of Language

Over and again, German culture and language proficiency permits Lithuanian professionals and intellectuals to bargain for what they need from harried authorities and locate and take refuge with friends and relatives already living in “German lands” (meaning Konigsberg and occupied Poland as well as Germany, itself).

However, the helpful German connections possessed by urban Lithuanians who have higher education or have worked in interwar German-owned businesses–or for example, under Lithuania’s German occupation railroad authority–are lacking among rural Lithuanian refugees—with negative results.  Not understanding or speaking German, perhaps my farm father and his brothers didn’t even know they were being inducted until they were spirited by train to Innsbruck, Austria, in December 1944 for basic training. (Christmas always seemed difficult for Dad because he I think he remembered doing push-ups interminably in the bitter cold on Christmas morning 1944 because several other inductees had disobeyed their German officers and refused to fall out.)

Even if Dad and his brothers had understood they were being inducted, perhaps it was no different from when they had all been taken against their wills in Lithuania to dig German trenches and foxholes, later escaping under fire. Once these young men had lost everything and become refugees, perhaps they felt they had to bow to the unknown purpose Germany had for them as the price for their escape from a known and far worse Soviet fate.

By no means could men who had been limited to their farm and village world have taken advantage of professional or extended family connections already living in Germany.  Nor did they have an alternative trade or profession in war-time short supply. (Lithuanian doctors like Juozas Meskauskas and Janina Jakseviciene were immediately put to work in understaffed civilian hospitals and clinics.)

A Farmer’s Unique Trauma

In fact, subsistence Lithuanian farmers like my father experienced unique trauma in their flight from homesteads whose improvement had been the work of their entire lives—the land and its cycles, their entire world. For these rural refugees, the reality of all they were leaving hit hardest at being relieved, as soon as they crossed Lithuania’s western border, of their wagons and horses. (Often, milk cows had already been left behind on the road because they couldn’t keep pace with horses).

Farmer Taoras tells how, before leaving for a point further from the front, he and his wife go to see the horses they were forced to sell the day before to the German Army:

“(At first) when we fled, we weren’t sorry for anything, just to get away faster,” he recalls. But as the couple approaches their horses, the animals see and recognize them. Having gone unfed and tied to a rail all day and night, the horses begin neighing and pawing expectantly, hoping that their longtime owners will feed them.

Helplessly, Taoras recalls, “We came up and stroked them…and both my wife and I began to cry because they had pulled so faithfully, they had pulled so much that they were now skin and bones…It was an abandonment. Our last asset was the horses.”

Coming Next:  Part III of “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon.”  Read how Lithuanian refugees established “Little Lithuanias” in their postwar “DP” Camps and then started all over again in America.



“We Thought We’d Be Back Soon”

The book “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon” contains 18 oral histories of Lithuanians who became war refugees between 1940 and 1944. Next month, my review of “We Thought…” will be published in the English-language monthly, Draugas News.

To celebrate this wonderful book and to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the law that permitted “displaced persons” or “DP”s like my father Vince to immigrate to the U.S., I’m publishing this first in a series of blog posts based on the book. Images for these post were contributed by William Cellini, Jr.

8 Soup Line Whenen Camp, Germany. Soruce Pijus Cepulis Collection, dpcamps.org

Lithuanian Scouts learning how to cook & eat “in the field.” Whenen DP Camp, post-war Germany. Pijus Cepulis Collection, DPcamps.org.

Part I:  From Allied POW to American ‘Home Guard’

As traumatized survivors of three invasions of their homeland (Soviets in 1940, Nazis in 1941, and Soviets, again, in 1944), members of Lithuania’s “DP” generation were famously tight-lipped about their World War II refugee experiences.

Until my father Vince was in his 70s and 80s, I learned few details of his flight from the family farm near Vidukle, Lithuania, in October 1944, at age 25, with two horses, a small carriage with a milk cow tied to the back–and only about half of his eight brothers and sisters.

Dad’s “oral history” was taken piecemeal by multiple daughters over many years and was never written down. As a result, we are probably lucky to have learned of Dad’s involuntary induction into a support unit of the German Army in December 1944, his winter 1945 capture by the U.S. Army, and his subsequent 16 months of starvation and hard labor as a POW under various Allied commands.

Dad’s fateful somersault, upon his release in June 1946, from starved and abused POW to service in the U.S. Army “Home Guard,” is reminiscent of the incredible refugee journey at the center of the book, “The 25th Hour.” But there are many similar twists of fate in the Lithuanian oral histories that comprise this collection selected and edited by Dalia Stake Anysas, Dalia Cidzikaite, and Laima Petrauskas Vanderstoep.

A Tapestry of Refugee Experience

Taken in the mid-to-late 1990s, some 50 years after the events being remembered, these personal histories provide a tapestry of war-time experiences disparate in their details. However, more than a few of the stories are so richly detailed that they stand as microcosms of the whole.

In features common to many, fleeing men are separated from their families and forced to dig foxholes under Soviet artillery fire, much as cars and farm animals have previously been requisitioned for the German war effort. (The struggle of Lithuanian civilians to remain non-combatants begins with Lithuanian resistance to the formation of a Lithuanian SS unit, to which the Nazi occupation authority responds by closing Lithuanian universities.)

Everywhere on the refugee road are Lithuanian women fleeing with small children, sometimes giving birth in open wagons in the cold and rain.  As well, there is the unique vulnerability of minors wandering World War II’s killing fields without parental guidance or protection.

More than anything, we experience the refugees’ constant struggle with hunger—and to a lesser degree, exposure to the elements, plus the difficulty of transit further and further west as the Soviet Army advances.

‘Why Did You Leave?’

To the big question, “Why did you leave?” the subjects’ answers are almost unanimous. Those who fled– everyone from intellectuals, teachers and other professionals to farmers–knew they had been slated for a second round of mass deportations to Siberia that the Soviets did not have time to implement before being driven out of Lithuania by the German Army in June 1941.

The atrocity-level treatment of deportees, combined with the brutal NKVD torture and murder of Lithuanian detainees in places like Rainiai Forest, sowed a lasting terror among tens of thousands more so-called “enemies of the state” who could expect similar treatment upon the Russians’ return in 1944.

Inextricably tied to this “why” is the question of how long the refugees expected to be gone. A few interviews are especially insightful in explaining why none of these young refugees who ended up exiled for the rest of their lives expected, when they fled, to be gone for more than a few months.

Over and over, the reader’s sense is that the decision to leave in its full scope and finality was never actually made. For many of the subjects, flight was a series of immediate survival steps without an overarching plan.

 ‘Who Could Have Known?’

At the same time, Russia’s military alliance with the Western powers, as well as the presence of U.S. troops in Germany, implied to the mass of Lithuanian refugees fleeing in summer and autumn 1944 a degree of Western influence over Russia sufficient to restore Lithuanian independence at war’s end and a quick return home.

To return, the refugees needed Lithuania’s borders to return, which unfortunately, didn’t happen for almost 50 years. Confidence in Western influence over the situation first began to erode as the “DP”s witnessed Russian soldiers crossing freely from the Russian zone into the British, French, and American occupation zones in post-war Germany.

New DP Camp Map

Post-war Allied Occupation Zones: graphic located and enhanced by William Cellini, Jr.


To the refugees’ chagrin, Soviet political commissars also were allowed freely to roam the displaced persons (“DP”) camps, arguing and cajoling for the frightened émigrés’ return. Initially, according to these witnesses, some Russians, Balts, and Belorussians were forcibly transported to the Russian zone before the other Allied powers were brought to their senses.

According to Adolfas Damusis, a lifesaving “no forced repatriation policy” was obtained with the help of Lithuanians—perhaps exiled officials of the VLIK–working within UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that operated the camps.

Brone Urboniene relates how some Yugoslav and Ukrainian “DP”s decided to fight back, attacking, overturning and burning the jeep of Russian political commissars entering their camp to “register” refugees for repatriation. “In the jeep’s trunk, they (the frightened and enraged “DP”s) found all kinds of photographs and lists of us all, the refugees there. And that happened…in the American zone in Munich…There (must have been) people among us who worked for them (the Soviets).

What They Left Behind, and Why

Within the context of the short-term absence the refugees anticipated, Jonas Kavaliunas explains that sick family members, parents—even minor children—were left behind on extended family members’ farms. In the short-term, it was assumed the physically weak would be better off with plenty to eat than on a trek into the unknown. Other evidence of the “DP” expectation of a quick return is found in the universal practice of quickly burying valuables on the homestead that were also assumed to be safer there: china dishes, store-bought Sunday clothes. (Partial impetus for this might been the ragged appearance and “beggarly” behavior of the Soviet Army during its initial occupation of Lithuania in 1940.)

The burial of one family’s supply of lard near Siauliai (flour, bacon and lard turn out to be life-saving supplies) is indicative of another phenomenon. For many refugees, far more than any global decision to abandon the homeland, retreat was a spontaneous series of stops and starts that reflected the advance of the Soviet Army and the hope that leaving Lithuania altogether could be avoided, or at least delayed. In more ways than one, falling back farther and farther meant leaving more and more behind.

In many cases, only that final spasm of retreat across Lithuania’s western border in horse-drawn wagon or on foot invokes the big-picture finality that spurs one refugee to scoop up a handful of soil to carry with her into exile. Others strain for that last glimpse of home through a train’s darkened windows.

Look for Part II of this blog series on, “We Thought We’d Be Back Soon.” Also, please contact sandybaksys@gmail.com or comment here if you live in the Springfield area and would like to purchase a soft-cover copy of the book for $15 plus bulk shipping.

Mystery Wedding Photo

My dear blog followers:  Do any of you know any of the people in this handsome wedding photo from the 1940s or 1950s?  The photo belongs to Donna Morris, and she would like some help naming these familiar faces.

Do you think the groom looks like the muscle man holding up Tony Witkins in this photo (see below right photo)  from Memorial Pool? Please let us know. To me, the groom looks a little like an Urbanckas.

Lith.wedding.DMorris 001



Memorial Pool or Muscle Beach? On left, young Teresa and Tony Witkins. On right, Tony atop unkown strong man.

Part III: 100th Anniversary Tribute to Local Lithuanian Soldiers of World War I

In Memoriam

Graphic by William Cellini, Jr.

End of War, New Beginning for Lithuania

By William Cellini, Jr.

(Editor’s note: Read below of three Lithuanian immigrant soldiers who gave their lives, how a Lithuanian miner wanted to be a war hero so badly he impersonated one, and most important, how the devastation of the Great War finally led to independence for Lithuania. What a great finish to this three-part series by William Cellini, Jr., with  research support from Tom Mann. Thank you! )

Seven months after Armistice Day, on June 25, 1919, thousands of Springfield citizens turned out for a spectacular “welcome home” parade for their World War I soldiers, who were just beginning to come home in large numbers. According to the Illinois State Journal of that date, the parade was “the most inspiring in local history.”

Hundred Days in ISJ, November 18, 1918, p. 1

One year earlier, the same young soldiers had been under fire on the Western Front, turning the tide in favor of the Allies in what was called the “Hundred Days” campaign (August 8 to November 11, 1918). Fighting alongside the French & British in a memorable set of victories, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) brought exhausted Europeans critical reinforcement in terms of both personnel and supplies, helping to bring the four-year war to a speedy victory.

The Opportunities & Perils of Armistice

Like previous events in Europe, World War I provided Lithuania an opportunity to try to free itself  from the czarist Russian Empire, after failed rebellions in 1830 and 1863. In fact, Lithuanian patriots began writing their “declaration of independence” a full year before the Great War’s Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice Agreement.

For the war’s combatants, Armistice was only a temporary measure to stop the fighting. U.S. forces, so integral to ending the war, were not even represented at the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne, in France. Expressing his displeasure over the situation, U.S. General John Pershing indicated to the press that the Armistice did not amount to a full surrender of the Central Powers and that it left too much ambiguity with respect to Germany’s military position.

Wilson to Paris, Peace Conf. ISJ Nov. 19, 1918, p.1

Six months of negotiations followed at the Peace Conference in Paris before a treaty to end the war was signed at the Palace of Versailles in June 1919.  While President Woodrow Wilson remained in the background during peace negotiations, he did take part in talks on the Versailles Treaty and was reportedly “dismayed” by its stipulations.

The treaty forced Germany to disarm, to surrender territories in its colonies and relinquish land ceded by Russia (including Lithuania)–as well as give-up Alsace and Lorraine, two French provinces taken by Germany before the war; pay reparations equaling 20 billion gold marks and in-kind items like coal and cattle, and admit guilt for starting the war. In the 1920s, these measures fanned the flames of German right-wing militarism, leading to the formation of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party–known as the Nazis—thus laying the groundwork for the Second World War in just 20 years.

On the other side of Lithuania, geographically, Imperial Russia had been consumed by a civil war spawned by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  That conflict led to a collapse of the czarist government and ultimately, victory by the Bolsheviks, a socialist revolutionary party that went on to establish the Soviet Union.

Out of the Ashes: Lithuanian Independence

Prior to 1918, Lithuania had been under Imperial Russia’s oppressive control for 123 years.  The modern nation-state of Lithuania, whose centenary will be celebrated in 2018, finally was established from the historical opportunities created by the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the Great War’s end on Nov. 11, 1918.

Local Lithuanian immigrants showed they were plugged into their homeland’s “awakening” when only 16 days after Armistice, they gathered at the Lincoln Library downtown to discuss restoration of Lithuania’s independence. Newspaper coverage of the event sponsored by the Women’s Council for Defense mentioned that Sangamon County had “about three thousand” Lithuanian immigrants with “fifteen hundred” living in Springfield.

Stuart Brown, a noted Springfield lawyer of the period and a Spanish-American War veteran, talked about the history of Lithuania and how the world war had devastated its terrain and population. “There are two (Lithuanian) provinces…which the armies of the Germans and Prussians have marched across nine times,” he said.

This devastation was to continue as Lithuania, after formally declaring independence on Feb 16, 1918, subsequently had to fight its so-called “Freedom Struggles” or Laisvės kovo that included three successive wars. The first was with Bolshevik forces (December 1918 – August 1919), the second with German-backed Russian soldiers (June 1919 – December 1919), and the last,  with Poland (August 1920 – November 1920). Lithuanian immigrants in America, including almost certainly, Springfield, committed men and resources to help free their homeland.

Fr. John Czuberkis of Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church also spoke at the Lincoln Library event. He talked about how he was born “during the worst period of Russian persecution, when the government suppressed the Lithuanian language.”  While discussing freedom for his homeland, he also appealed to local  Lithuanians to speak English so they’d “be more at home with the Americans” [while the] younger generation,  he said, “needs to learn the Lithuanian language, so that they can assist their parents to learn the American ways.”

1st Troops Arrive, ISJ, Dec. 2, 1918 p. 1

Spanish Flu Arrives Before Returning Soldiers

In December 1918, the first U.S. military forces began returning home. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1919 that U.S. forces began their full draw-down and sailed home from the same ports at Brest, St. Nazaire, and Bordeaux where they had landed in 1917 and 1918.  An occupying force of about 15 divisions remained in Europe for post-war demilitarization, and to aid in the medical supervision of people suffering from the Spanish Influenza that first reached pandemic proportions in 1918 and continued circling the globe, killing millions, through the winter of 1919-20.  In the United States alone, from only mid-September to mid-November 1918, approximately 370,000 cases of the flu were reported.

Shell Shock. ISR, March 25, 1918, p. 4

Returning combat soldiers affected by the horrors of the war found minimal opportunities for mental health treatment and support in this period. What today we call post-traumatic stress was then called “shell shock.”  In March 1918, the Illinois State Journal published an article on the topic via its “Ask Uncle Harry” series.

“‘What kind of treatment is given the shell shock victims?’ asked Helen. “Practically no medicine at all,” replied Uncle Harry, “because the doctors realize that the trouble is not physical. The men are removed far from the firing line and kept in quiet places, great care being taken to see that they are not troubled or worried about anything. The best nerve specialists in all the warring countries have been studying shell shock cases ever since the war started…helping thousands of the victims.”

Nevertheless, medical knowledge at the time was insufficient to cure most shell-shocked soldiers, the most afflicted of whom spent their days shaking, blinking, and twitching more violently than if they’d had Parkinson’s.

Lithuanian Miner Impersonates Shell-Shocked War Hero

One Lithuanian soldier from Sangamon County reportedly used the war to claim a glory not rightly his. And he created a false, non-Lithuanian identity to do it. In November 1918, just before the end of the war, “Captain John B. Northcott of the U.S. Coast artillery” was caught  hanging around Springfield’s Leland Hotel, telling “highly colored narratives as a hero of French battle fields, a graduate of several field hospitals and a victim of shell shock that made him forget all about his family,” according to news reports.

Northcott Stonkus, ISJ, Nov. 9, 1918, p. 2

Walking about the hotel with a “swagger stick, overseas cap and natty uniform,” Northcott was arrested by police and interrogated at the Sangamon County jail.  During questioning, the self-proclaimed captain admitted he was Joseph Stonkus, a Lithuanian-born coal miner from Divernon who had joined the army in 1915 but was mustered out of military service with “a bad eye condition” in September 1918 at Fort Worden, Wash. Stonkus was arrested that day on the misdemeanor charge of “unlawfully wearing an officer’s uniform.”  His mother bailed him out of jail with a bond in the amount of $300.

Northcott grave, photo by Jean Stroven, Findagrave.com

Findagrave.com photo by Jean Stroven

Per news reports, Johnny Connors, the famed prizefighter and owner of Springfield’s popular Empire Hotel, had tipped-off police to Stonkus’s identity due to the fact that Stonkus had tried to “pass a bad check in Connors’ tavern several years ago.” Other hotel guests at the Leland questioned the validity of the grandiose stories told by the self-proclaimed captain.

Despite such challenges to his constructed identity, there are signs that Stonkus stuck to his American-born, Northcott “war hero” impersonation long after his arrest.  Public records from Michigan indicate a John B. Northcott of Illinois (Private 1st Class in the Coastal Artillery) died in Muskegon County in 1939. He is listed as “born in New Mexico in 1893” and married to a woman named Marie Jensen. His headstone application, also from public records, indicates he joined the military in 1915 and was discharged in September 1918—two key details coinciding with Stonkus’ real life.

From Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day

On the first anniversary of Armistice, at eleven-o-clock on the morning of Tuesday, November 11, 1919, all activity in Springfield was ordered to cease for five minutes. Residents were asked to stand at attention, face east, and offer a silent prayer for U.S. soldiers “sleeping in France.”  That evening, a festive program was held at the state arsenal (the Armory) downtown with a program that featured dancing and music. That November, similar events were held across the United States and in Europe.

1st Armistice Day Spfld. ISJ, Nov. 11, 1919, p. 1

The Illinois State Register, in writing about soldiers fallen in the Great War, predicted:  “…[in] the future, appreciation of those acts of heroism will grow in the hearts of the people of this country.  Posterity will preach these acts of heroism. Schools will teach them.  The entire nation will honor them.” This ultimately came to pass with the creation of the national holiday of “Armistice Day” or “Veterans Day” on November 11.

According to Chris J. McDonald, Ph.D., of Lincoln Land Community College, Sangamon County lost 132 soldiers in World War I—11 percent of those inducted. Twenty-nine percent of those 132 casualties were from the Spanish flu—almost the same as the percentage of those killed in action or by wounds received in battle. (Professor McDonald is author of “Three Lying or Four Sitting – From the Front in a Ford: WWI Letters of Kent Dunlap Hagler,” available on amazon.com.)

Below are the final nine profiles in this series on local Lithuanian-American soldiers of World War I, including three who died. We remember them, and all our local soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War, on the war’s 100-year anniversary this year. May their sacrifices never be forgotten.


World War I monument, North Grand & 1st Street, Springfield, Ill.

Lithuanian Immigrants Who Served

Stanley Petrokas–Fought in Meuse-Argonne Offensive


Stanley Walter Petrokas was born in 1892 in Laukuva, Lithuania, to Ignatius Petrokas and Barbara Gestaut.  In 1910, at age 18, he fled Lithuania for the U.S., alone, to avoid being conscripted into the Russian army.  According to granddaughter Patricia (Chepulis) Wade, in his 87 years in this country, Stanley never returned to his birthplace or had any of his siblings emigrate or come to visit him from Lithuania. According to Trish, he did correspond with his family.

Stanley was a coal miner when he was inducted into service in Springfield on June 25, 1918 and sailed for Europe on Sept. 15.  He served in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from Sept. 26 to November 10, 1918 and was honorably discharged at Camp Grant, Rockford, on July 7, 1919. His enlistment record shows he was awarded a Bronze Service Button.


Petrokas with daughters Silvia (left) and Ruth (right).


Petrokas on left

Stanley married Catherine Rice (Rieskevicius) (1899-1924) in 1920 and had two daughters: Sylvia (Petrokas) Chepulis (1921-2004)  and Ruth Lustig, born in 1923. Years after his wife’s death in 1924,  he married Marcele Mileryte (1902-1982)  in 1950, but the couple had no children.  (Marcele was born in Lithuania and had immigrated to the U.S. as a “displaced person” or “DP” in 1949).

Stanley worked in Springfield-area coal mines for about 40 years. He was hired as a janitor for the Illinois Air National Guard at Capitol Airport in the early 1950’s and worked there for 14 years. This enabled him to acquire a small pension, according to granddaughter Trish. He lived at 917 E. Phillips Ave. from 1922 until his death in 1979.

Joseph [Juozapas] Plaskas [Pleskus]–‘Slightly Wounded’

Plaskas [Pleskus], Joseph [Juozapas]

Born March 10, 1896 in Suvalkai County, Lithuania, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1914, apparently just in time for the war.  He worked in Springfield as a coal miner and lived on the south side of town.  Plaskas registered for the draft in June 1917 and his physical description indicated he was of medium build with gray eyes and brown hair.  He was listed as single.  Called to military service at Springfield in March 1918, Plaskas went overseas on May 11, 1918 with a machine gun company of the 119th Infantry.

Reported as “slightly wounded” overseas in December 1918 by the State Register newspaper, he returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, in March 1919 on the USS Huron with a detachment from Camp Grant’s 30th Division. He listed his “brother, John” as his nearest contact in Springfield. He was discharged on April 14, 1919.  In 1920, he was working as a coal miner in Springfield and living with several boarders at 1803 South Renfro St. in the home of William and Martha Rutkens, a Lithuanian couple. Research indicates Plaskas likely left Springfield between 1920 and 1930.

Tony [Antanas] Pranchewicz [Pranckevičius] ∞ Killed by Spanish Flu

Pranchewicz [Pranckevičius], Tony [Antanas] Photo


Pranchewicz died in October 1918 from influenza-pneumonia while in training at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky. The flu became a pandemic in the final months of the war, striking troops in crowded training camps and on troop ships. Unlike with other flu outbreaks, the young and strong were particularly vulnerable. Researchers have since theorized that pneumonia quickly ensued due to “cytokine storms,” or over-reactions by healthy, young immune systems to the previously unknown swine flu virus, so that victims’ lungs quickly filled with fluid.

Tony was a member of Company C, 2nd Development Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade, and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Springfield.  Born c. 1894 in Lithuania, he was the son of Joseph and Rosa Pranchewicz who survived him, as did two sisters and an aunt, Mrs. Eva Linges. Tragically, two of Tony’s two sisters, Martha and Paulina, both died the same year as Tony. It seems likely that they were also killed by the flu pandemic that circled the globe through the winter of 1919-20, sparing no location, however remote.

Tony’s father passed away in 1945 and his mother died in 1957.

Charles Raczaitis—Gassed in Action, But Survived

Raczaitis photo

Born March 1, 1889 in Pakonys, Vilnius district, Lithuania, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1908.  Charles lived in Divernon and was a miner at the Madison Coal Company there.  He registered for the draft in June 1917 and moved to Springfield, where he entered military service and was sent overseas on May 26, 1918 as a Private with Company B, 105th Engineers, 30th Infantry Division.

Raczaitis is recorded as having participated in the battles for Bellicourt, Montbrehain, Brancourt-le-Grand, Prémont, Busigny, Vaux-Andigny, La Selle River (likely the Hundred Days Offensive of 1918) and Maungliur [Mazinghien?]. He suffered gas poisoning while in action and returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, as a Private First Class on April 1, 1919.  On the ship roster, he listed his “brother, Joe Raczaitis of Divernon” as his family contact in the U.S.

Charles was discharged in April 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. In a May 1919 State Journal article, he’s mentioned as receiving a $60 bonus for his service.  He divorced his first wife in 1954 and later married Martha (McClosky) Shimalis, widow of Anton Shimalis. After a period of working in the coal mines, Raczaitis went on to own a tavern (“The Round Up”) on East Washington Street. He died in 1959 at age 71.

Walter A. Rauktis [Raukitas] ∞ Killed in Aisne-Marne Offensive

Born September 25, 1891 in Veikanus [Viekšniai], Lithuania.  Prior to the war, Rauktis worked as a miner for the Jones & Adams coal mine on Springfield’s North End. When he registered for the draft in June 1917 he described himself as single, but with a mother and father who depended on him for support. He had blue eyes and light brown hair, per details from his draft registration card.  A State Journal newspaper report, naming area soldiers in September 1917, listed him as: “Walter Rauktis of 2518 Peoria Road.”  He trained at Camp Taylor, Ky.

Rauktis is in back row, right edge, in this photo from the Illinois State Journal-Register

Rauktis back row, right edge in this photo from the Illinois State Journal

Rauktis sailed from Hoboken, NJ, on May 10, 1918 with Company L in the 47th Infantry Regiment Regulars, 4th Division, and on July 29, 1918, he was killed in action in France.  He is buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, according to the website americanbattlegraves.com.

Having served in the 47th Infantry, it is likely that he participated in the Aisne-Marne Offensive (the Second Battle of the Marne) that took place from July 15 to August 6, 1918. Thus, his burial in the Aisne cemetery makes sense.  He was identified in a November 1917 photograph published in the Journal newspaper showing members in training with Battery A, 327th Field Artillery at Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville, Ky.

Stephen Shvagzdis [Švagždys] ∞ Killed on Armistice Day

Shvagzdis [Švagždys], Stephen Photo

Born c. 1888-90 most likely in Rozalimas, a village in Šiauliai County, Lithuania, Shvagzdis was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Shvagzdis. He lived as a single man on East Jefferson Street (according to his 1917 draft registration) and entered military service on April 29, 1918.

From Springfield, he was sent to Camp Dix, NJ [today, Fort Dix], along with the first “colored” contingents coming out of the capital city.  He sailed overseas on June 25, 1918 with Company K in the 148th Infantry Division, and was killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive right on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. According to the website Americanbattlegraves.com, his burial is in Plot D, Row 3, Grave 13 at the Somme American Cemetery in Bony, France.

While the date of death on his grave is November 1, Springfield newspaper accounts indicate he was one of three local soldiers killed on the 11th– the day of the Armistice. On Dec. 15, 1918, the Register asked readers to identify Shvagzdis and his family, as they were not listed in the city directory: “Neither the soldier nor his kin is listed…for the past five years.  Frank Mazrim [Marzin] resides at 2001 East Adams Street, the address given as Shwagzdis.”

Shwagzdis grave, France

Stephen Shvagzdis grave

While further research indicates no evidence of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Shwagzdis living in Sangamon County, there was a Joseph Shwagzdis (born 1889 in “Rozaliua, Šiauliai, Lithuania”) who died in Springfield in 1960, but his relationship to Stephen’s family is not known. One informant for this blog mentioned a brother of Stephen who lived on Peoria Road.

John Joseph Straukas—Offered Promotion in the Field

Born August 25, 1890 in Plungės District, Telšiai County, Lithuania. Straukas emigrated to the U. S. from Liverpool in 1909 on the SS Baltic and was reportedly stoking the ship’s engines to pay for his passage. He lived with his aunt Lula Straukas Grigiski in Riverton, Illinois, at the time of his induction.

According to Straukas family history, John Joseph and his brother emigrated from Lithuania to avoid military conscription by the Russian czarist government.  Ironically, nine years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War I.  Straukas entered service on June 25, 1918. He was trained at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky., and served as a Private in the 29th Company, 8th Development Battalion. At Camp Taylor, he was issued a certificate of naturalization on July 20, 1918.

Straukas. Photo from the Kaylor family collection.

According to military records, he also trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., and was sent overseas in September 1918 to take part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. While overseas he was placed into Company P, 5th Battalion, 22nd Engineers. According to family history, Straukas was offered, but rejected, a promotion to the rank of Corporal for valor in the field. After returning to the U.S., he was discharged in July 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. He married Esther Trow of Riverton and they had two daughters.  He died in Springfield in 1973.

John Walrs—War Ended While in Training

Born Dec. 8, 1884 in Laukwas [Laukuva, Šilalė district], Lithuania. He emigrated in 1906 and lived at 2011 N. Sixth St. in Springfield. Walrs trained at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri after the Armistice was signed.  He entered into official military service in July 1919 as a Private in the 7th Company, Second Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade. A newspaper description of his departure for training mentions he was placed in a motor transportation outfit. After basic training, he was stationed at Camp Normoyle, Texas.  The 1920 U.S. Census lists as a Lithuanian with “Polish” as his native language.  A bachelor all his life, he returned to Illinois and resided in Virden and died at 68 “at the Veteran’s Hospital at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.”

 Ignatz Wecksnis [Veiksnys?]—Still in Training at ArmisticeWecksnis, Ignatz Photo

Born April 22, 1886 in Udrinas, Suvalkai Region of Polish Lithuania. He registered for the draft in June 1917 at Springfield and listed his occupation as a miner working at the West End Coal Company.  He entered service on June 25, 1918 in Springfield and received training at Camp Taylor, Ky.

Wecksnis was stationed at Camp Taylor when the Armistice was signed. He was discharged Dec. 10, 1918 with the rank of Private in the 27th Company Training Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade. In 1938, he divorced his wife and in 1949, his daughter and her two children were killed in a fire in Kansas.  Coverage of the disaster mentioned that Wecksnis had moved to Wisconsin. He died in Florida in 1951 and is buried at Camp Butler National Cemetery in Sangamon County.

Stanley Willis [Wielis]—Saw Combat in France

Born c. 1893 in Kaunas, Lithuania, he entered military service in June 1918 at Chicago and was sent overseas on August 6, 1918 as a Private with Company E, 53rd Pioneer Infantry Regiment. He participated in the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives and returned to the U.S. via Brest, France, in April 1919 on the USS New Hampshire after having served as a Wagoner in the Supply Company of the 53rd Pioneers.

On the ship manifest, Willis listed his “brother, Tony Wielis, 2011 North 16th Street, Springfield” as his local contact. The Springfield City Directory for 1915 indicates an “Antonio Willis” and “George Ambrose” [a.k.a. George Brazas] living at 2011 North 16th St., as well as a “Stanley Willus” on Peoria Road. The whereabouts of Stanley Willis after the war are unknown.

Petrokas.Soldier's Notebook

War diary of Stanley Petrokas, courtesy of Patricia Wade



The U.S. saw enthusiastic surges in volunteer service for the military during World War I, and yet segments of the population, against not just war in general, were vehemently opposed to entering a European conflict.  Draft evaders in WWI were estimated, by one account, to be roughly 330,000 in number– a minor figure given 24 million men registered across the U.S.  There was at least one Lithuanian immigrant from Sangamon County who may have been among the 330,000 draft resisters. His biography follows.

 Pius Zvingilas [Žvingilas]

Born February 2, 1890 in the Suvalkai Region of Polish Lithuania, Zvingilas was in Springfield as early as 1910 per U.S. Census information.  He registered for the draft in June 1917 and listed his occupation as “coal miner [at] Peabody Mine #6, Sherman, Illinois.”

Zvingilas was single, of medium height with brown hair and a light complexion, and he indicated no dependents.  By all accounts, he was the appropriate age to be drafted. Furthermore, he had filed for citizenship prior to the war and this could have cost him what would otherwise have been his exemption, as an “alien” from the draft.

The Springfield City Directory of 1918 includes a “Pius Zvinglas [at] 205 1/2 North 6th Street” serving in the U.S. Army.  Then, according to a 1921 Journal article on “slacker” men evading service during the war, Zvingilas is singled-out in the news as having been “determined to prevent his induction into service.”

The account came from Horace S. Reardon of the North Draft Board of Sangamon County. According to Reardon, Zvingilas appeared at the draft board “with a long and decidedly radical argument on why he should not join the thousands of men who were preparing to fight for America.”

Consequently, Zvingilas was placed on a slacker roll and his name was included on a list of draft evaders printed in the U.S. Congressional Record.  However, arresting him proved elusive. “He’s gone, and we haven’t a trace of him,” Reardon quipped to the newspaper.  Finding him may not have been too hard as he reportedly had brothers in Sangamon County at the time.  Subsequent research indicates a “Pijus Zvinglas” died in 1958 and is buried in St. Gerturde Cemetery, Middlesex County, NJ.


If you have information on Zvingilas, please email this blog site.  The correct facts about his military status are appreciated.





Family with Springfield Roots Hosts Lithuanian High School Student



Joy & mom Lisa Johnson welcome Goda (right) from Šiauliai, Lithuania, at the Denver airport on August 8.  Note mom & daughter’s tie-dyed tee-shirts from Camp Dainva & small Lithuanian flag.

Last month, 16-year-old Lithuanian exchange student Goda Karinauskaite arrived in Denver, Colorado, to attend American high school alongside a 16-year-old American girl, Joy Johnson. Despite their Colorado home, Joy and her older brothers Jake, Luke, and Jack have a strong connection to “Lithuanians in Springfield.”  That’s because the Johnson kids are directly descended from immigrants Walter and Stephanie Abramikas, who found lifelong refuge in Springfield after fleeing the World War II Soviet invasion of Lithuania.

Host mother Lisa (Abad) Johnson is the granddaughter of war refugees Walter and Stephanie. Lisa’s own mother, Violeta, was born in Lithuania before Walter and Stephanie fled. A forester in Lithuania, Walter ended up working at construction machinery factory Allis Chalmers (with my own father, Vince). To bring in extra money, Walter also dug graves at night at Oak Ridge and Calvary cemeteries here.

A Family Comes Full Circle

The Abramikas immigrant family attended Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul (Lithuanian) Catholic Church, where daughter Violeta sang in the choir.  Their other daughter Regina served our Springfield Lithuanian-American Club in several officer positions. Both Abramikas daughters made sure their own sons and daughters, including Lisa, attended Lithuanian youth summer Camp Dainava in Manchester, Mich., to stay connected with their heritage. Lisa’s children have attended Dainava, as well.

And now with the arrival of an exchange student from Lithuania, this fourth-generation Lithuanian-American family comes full circle from their Lithuanian immigrant / refugee roots.

Jim, Goda, Lisa, Joy

Jim & Lisa Johnson with Goda between them–Joy in tree. Vail, Colorado.

The family met young Goda at the Denver airport at the end of her exhausting, three-day trek through Vilnius, Lithuania; Frankfurt, Germany; and Washington, D.C.  A member of the Future Leaders Exchange Program or FLEX, Goda is a U.S. State Department scholarship winner from the Šiauliai area. Her junior and senior years in high school will include an international baccalaureate program that promotes cross-cultural understanding.

Seeing the Rockies for the First Time

According to host mother Lisa, Goda’s first days in Denver were a kind of “Rocky Mountain high.” The Johnsons took her by car to Vail, then to Ft. Collins. “We drove all along the foothills, with the plains to the east and the mountains soaring in the west. Goda said she never saw anything so beautiful in her life.”

Clothes shopping, a haircut, and a health check-up to qualify for her new high school’s cross-country team also were part of Goda’s first weeks with the Johnsons.

“Her English is very strong…she’s very well-spoken,” Lisa reports. “One of her history assignments is to ask her host parents how our families all came to the U.S.” Then, in the true spirit of exchange, Lisa said, “Goda also shared some things about her family. Both of her parents live and work in England. Goda lived with her grandparents until five years ago, and now she lives with an aunt and uncle.”

A Common History of Emigration

Such family separations are characteristic of Lithuania’s third massive out-migration in 100 years. Unlike the “second wave” driven by World War II and the Soviet conquest of Lithuania, the current, so-called “third wave” of emigration is driven by economics.  And it is similar in size to the “first-wave” migration from 1880 to 1920, from which most Lithuanian-Americans today descend.

Abramikas family

From left: Regina, Stephanie, Violeta, and Walter Abramikas of Springfield, circa 1980. Walter & Stephanie were World War II refugees who came to Springfield as part of the “second wave” of Lithuanian emigration to the U.S.

Since the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1991 and then EU membership in 2004, 500,000 Lithuanians (out of a population of just 3 million) have emigrated to EU countries with more jobs and higher pay. “Goda sees many of the young people of Lithuania who have college degrees leaving their country and going to live in other countries where they don’t use their education, but instead get jobs as Uber drivers,” Lisa says. “She thinks it’s sad they’re not using their degrees.” (Lithuanians are not alone in this out-migration from weaker to stronger EU economies.)

Cross-Cultural Learning

Host mother Lisa is pleased that all the Johnson children quickly showed a strong interest in learning about Goda and her country.  Cross-cultural learning is the big-picture reason why Lisa and her husband Jim, who manages Wells Fargo Advisors’ Rocky Mountain Complex, chose to host.

“First, by our enabling Goda to have this exchange experience, we can change her world, our perspective, and the people in our community she reaches out to,” Lisa explained.  “Second, I want to learn how my life would have differed had my grandparents not had the courage to flee Lithuania at the end of World War II. We can learn this by listening to Goda’s stories of her family’s life and experiences.

“Lastly,” Lisa said, “we want to share with Goda how leaving their country, for our relatives who fled, was a difficult choice to make, and that life in America was not as easy as it may have appeared.”

Making Memories for a Lifetime

Goda’s State Department exchange program requires her to return to Lithuania for at least two years after her year at an American high school to share her U.S. experiences with people back home.  “Ultimately,” Lisa said, “with the kids it chooses to bring to the U.S., the hope is that they will one day be in leadership positions where their American insights and experiences will be a positive influence, and they can share with their entire country what they have learned here.”

As for the Johnson family, Lisa said, “One of the most important things we hope we can impart is that we are all normal people just like her—that we have our daily struggles, just like her.”  On the fun side, the Johnsons plan to take Goda to the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo and drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park to “sled” down the sand dunes. On their return trip, they will “swing by” the Royal Gorge near Canon City to walk across a mile-high bridge that connects two mountains over the Arkansas River.

Editor’s Note:  Goda’s exchange student scholarship is being managed by U.S. State Department contractor American Councils for International Education. Two summers ago, after American Councils’ representative in Troy, Ill., James Kerr, asked for my help in placing two Lithuanian students, I reached out to what seemed like hundreds of people. One of those people was my old family friend Violeta (Abramikas) Abad, who contacted her daughter Lisa (Abad) Johnson in Denver. I am so excited that my outreach has borne fruit!  Though Lithuanians are spread far and wide, it turns out to be a small world when we remember and keep up our contacts.  

Updating Springfield McDonald’s History

McDonald's 1825 S MACARTHUR 1961

Grand opening, Springfield’s second McDonald’s restaurant, 1825 S.MacArthur, 1961. Lithuanian-born John Mack, Sr., at right edge.  This famous teen hang-out of the 1960s-80s closed in 2017.

On August 29, the State Journal-Register published the piece (below) reporting the Lithuanian history of our Springfield McDonald’s restaurants.  Many thanks to writer Jay Kitterman, director of the Culinary Institute at Lincoln Land Community College–and also to my friend Judy Jozaitis, a VP for workforce education at LLCC who connected Jay with pertinent posts on this blog.  Thanks, also, to the current franchisee, Rick McGraw, for graciously acknowledging his business’ Mack / Makarauskas history. 

Epicuriosity 101: McDonald’s has long history in Springfield, new ideas on the way

Have you ever worked at McDonald’s or a “fast food” restaurant?

I always told my hospitality students at Lincoln Land Community College that the skills they learn would serve them well, no matter what they did in the future. More than 20 million Americans, including probably one of the richest Americans, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (grill man), have earned their first paycheck at McDonald’s.

In today’s multi-tasking world, the ability to listen to one order while filling the prior order and delivering/cashiering the order prior to that one, takes a special person. You soon learn that customers (now often called guests) can be difficult and even unreasonable. I always shared with my employees in the restaurants and hotels that I managed that “the customer may not always be right, but they are still the customer and the reason we were there. Do a good job and you will be rewarded — with a harder job” (which is true of careers everywhere).

This month’s article will be about McDonald’s, Springfield McDonald’s history, and the changes that are coming.


The  Makarauskas family’s first day together in Springfield, 1922. Front row l to r: sons Michael and John. Back row, l to r: Stanley and Agnes Makarauskas, Agnes’s uncle.

Springfield’s Lithuanian historian, Sandy Baksys, details the beginnings of McDonald’s restaurants in Springfield. Springfield’s first McDonald’s franchisee was the aptly named John Mack (Makarauskas) Sr., who was born in Lithuania in 1912. He was a coal miner before operating Mack’s Food Store at 1501 Keys Ave. In 1957, John Sr. and his wife Mary (Gidus) Mack had the foresight to make the leap from their corner grocery to the brave, new world of fast food.

Sandy Baksys writes that after a personal phone call from Ray Kroc and having been turned down by many banks, a $100,000 loan for the Macks from Illinois National Bank finally came through. John and Mary opened their first restaurant on South Sixth Street at the perfect location: just outside the gates of construction machinery factory Allis Chalmers, where two shifts a day of hungry workers could appreciate a 15-cent burger with 10-cent fries.

At the peak of their empire, the Macks were exclusive franchisees of eight McDonald’s all over Springfield. John Sr. died in 1974, and the Mack family got out of the burger business in 1989. The Mack family, in particular Mary Mack, wife of John Mack Sr., was responsible for creation of Springfield’s Ronald McDonald House, following the death of her nephew, Robert Mack, of brain cancer at age 18.

I recently met with Rick McGraw and his family, one of the Springfield area franchisees, about what is new at McDonald’s and what we can expect in the near future. First, a little about Rick. He started his McDonald’s career as a “crew kid” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1968. He met his wife, Dona, (the day I visited she was busy approving bills) in Wisconsin. He worked his way up and McDonald’s helped finance them to open up his first franchise in Litchfield in 1978.

Over the next 10 years, Rick and Dona McGraw opened up stores in central Illinois and in 1989, purchased the Springfield franchise from the Mack family. They have successfully expanded and now are hoteliers and franchisees of Nancy’s Pizza restaurants. Daughter Christa McGraw heads up the Nancy’s part of the company (along with responsibilities with the hotels), with locations in Springfield and Litchfield. Their other daughter, Jenna, is responsible for their hotel operations. Loyalty and family are primary concepts to Rick and Dona. A number of their employees/managers have been with them for many years. Rick beams when he says, “Nothing is better than working with my kids,” and considers himself very lucky.

Son Mike McGraw now heads up the McDonald’s part of their company. Mike grew up working as a crew member, eventually managed his own store and now is an owner/operator. Mike provided me information on the big changes coming to your local McDonald’s.

The changes are reflective of a new restaurant model that has been successfully rolled out in more than 2,600 international McDonald’s restaurants and puts choice and control in the hands of guests by evolving how they order, what they order, how they pay and how they are served.

For those looking to order at their own pace, McDonald’s digital self-order kiosks will make ordering and paying for a meal easy. Among McDonald’s new menu options are Signature Crafted recipes, where customers can order 100 percent beef or juicy grilled or crispy chicken, picking an artisan roll or sesame seed bun, and choosing from one of three new signature crafted recipes – Signature Sriracha, Pico Guacamole or Sweet BBQ Bacon.

Guests’ orders will be delivered to tables by McDonald’s crew members. Serving families has always been central to McDonald’s and this one change should make a big difference for families with young kids. This would have been very helpful when Carol and I were traveling with our children and at the last minute realized we had forgotten to bring enough napkins or ketchup to the table.

Additionally, this past spring, McDonald’s announced that by mid-2018, it will serve fresh beef, prepared when ordered, in all Quarter Pounder burgers across the majority of its restaurants. Other recent changes are:

• In 2015, the company announced a number of changes as to how it serves and sources its food by offering All-Day Breakfast, committing to only sourcing cage-free eggs by 2025, and committing to only serve chicken not treated with antibiotics.

• Last year, the company removed artificial preservatives from several menu items, including Chicken McNuggets and eliminated high fructose corn syrup from the buns used on Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, Filet-O-Fish and McChicken sandwiches.

There is a new look coming to McDonald’s stores. Their store located at Toronto Road and Interstate 55 was recently remodeled with the new décor package. I would call it a more “adult” design. The seating is no longer all bolted to the floor; there is new lighting and high top tables.

Locally, Mike informed me kiosks will come over the next couple of years and their Sixth Street location is scheduled to be their first. Table service has been rolled out at their Sixth Street restaurant and the Monroe Street restaurant, and they will roll out more next year. The introduction of fresh meat is also planned for next year.

My thanks to Rick, Dona and their family for all they have contributed to our community over the years. For Rick, next year will be his 50th year of being associated with McDonald’s.

For this month’s recipe I found the web site TopSecretRecipes.com and chose one of my annual favorites.

Shamrock Shake

Makes 2 servings

2 cups vanilla ice cream

1 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon mint extract (not peppermint)

8 drops green food coloring

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend on high speed. Pour into two 12-ounce cups and add whipped cream and a cherry.

“If you work just for money, you’ll never make it, but if you love what you’re doing and you always put the customer first, success will be yours.” Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder

Want to know more?

Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in culinary arts, hospitality management, baking/pastry, and value added local food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute.

Information: bit.ly/Culinary_LLCC

Questions? Email epicuriosity101@llcc.edu.

The Skyrocket & the Illinois State Fair

What to do after a long day–and night–at the Illinois State Fair? The after-Fair, after-hours mecca for everyone from carnies to Hell’s Angels to local movers and shakers was the Skyrocket Tavern, right across the street from the main pedestrian entrance at Gate 2, near the intersection of Sangamon Avenue & Peoria Road. Thanks to Scott Welsh, son of the tavern’s last owners, Peter and Barbara (Bierbaum) Welsh, we finally have some photos to go with memories he shared on my blogsite in 2014.

Skyrocket tavern

Courtesy of Scott Welsh

According to Scott: “The Skyrocket was known as a rowdy place (not just during Fair Week) due to its location just over the city line on Sangamon Avenue, which allowed for a 3:00 a.m. liquor license. People streamed into the Skyrocket after midnight after having been served elsewhere for many hours.”

Peter Welsh bought the Skyrocket and the house next door in 1963 from Ules Rose after going to work there in 1958. The tavern had been opened by Lithuanian-American Kostie Welch (Wilcauskas) in 1945, then bought by Rose (whose daughter Barb married Charlie Foster, Jr., the son of Ann Mosteika Foster, long-time music director and organist at St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church).

All seven Welsh children and their mother Barbara worked in the tavern at one time or another, and its position next to the Illinois State Fairgrounds attracted a cast of characters few places in town would see.

According to son Scott Welsh, “It was an education for all of us. The stories of the SkyRocket are legend, including visits from the Hell’s Angels, dignitaries hanging out late night, and many ‘disagreements’ between patrons handled with flying fists. My dad Pete ran a tight ship and was respected by most for not putting up with a lot of problems. He was smart in that he hired off-duty sheriff’s deputies as his bar ‘backs’ and doormen.

“There were many great characters that frequented the Skyrocket, and a few infamous ones.  Sunday breakfast conversations between Mom and Dad usually consisted of a list of people who became ‘barred,’ and asked not to return.  You could write a book just about the carnies who came in every year.

Skyrocket bar

Skyrocket bar, undated. Scott Welsh says the man ID-ed as Pete Welsh at right edge is mis-identified. From Debbie Rogers Greenan, Memories of Springfield June 2016 blog post.

“I remember a guy named Studley Jefferies, who had formerly worked for the Busch family at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis.  He spent his later years working at the barns on the fairgrounds. Some of these people didn’t have family, and my Dad would invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, much to my mom’s chagrin.  He inherited a long-time bartender named Frank Ballog, who was a true gentleman bartender.  He was missing an index finger, and told me a girl bit it off when he tried to kiss her.

“The SkyRocket featured mostly country-rock music with bands like Gail Day, Country Dawn, and many other local groups.

“During Fair Week, there was always something happening. For many years, my dad Pete had his own beer truck in the parking lot. In about 1975, when I was 10 years old, I once hawked every space in the parking lot for $3 each. I thought I was rich, but Dad was so pissed I took all the spaces, he had smoke coming out of his ears!


Young Peter and Barbara Welsh, 1958, courtesy of Scott Welsh

“The SkyRocket served food until the late 1960s, then only during Fair week, when my mother ran the kitchen. Interesting in that she grew up right across the street from Bozis’ Tavern, and down the street from Alby’s (two other Lithuanian-American taverns).

“My Dad, Pete, was a professional baseball player. He came to Springfield in 1956 to play in the Jack Rossiter Baseball Camp (former St. Louis Brown) at Memorial Field. He had been signed by the Washington Senators the year prior.  He rented a room from my Great Aunt Wanda Bierbaum, and met my mother on a blind date when she was 15.

“They corresponded over the next few years, and he came back to Springfield after his baseball career ended due to bursitis in his pitching arm. Mom and Dad married in 1958, and he started to work at the Skyrocket the following week.”

The family lived in the house next door to the tavern until its seventh child was born and they moved to Lake Springfield in 1968.

Thornton Oil purchased the land in the early 1990′s.


Part II: 100th Anniversary Tribute to Local Lithuanian Soldiers of World War I

Second in a Series by William Cellini, Jr.


Editor’s Note:  When looking at the WWI draft registrations of local Lithuanian soldiers, I noticed that almost all the men appeared to have registered on the same day:  June 5, 1917.  What was so special about that day? According to a recent article in the State Journal-Register, it was the official opening of the first selective service process in U.S. history.  “Conscription Day” was dubbed “Manhood Day” with much patriotic fanfare and a concerted effort across all government, business and civic institutions in Springfield to ensure a strong turnout.

The not-at-all subtle message was that any male between 21 and 30 who didn’t show up to register for the draft on June 5, 1917 was not a real man. To drive home that message, a public rally for 5,000 was held at the old Illinois State Armory at Second and Monroe St. the evening of June 4. Schools and business were closed on June 5 for a downtown parade and patriotic concerts throughout the day. According to the SJ-R, the “festivities” officially started at 7 a.m. with the ringing of bells and blowing of factory, mine, and railroad whistles throughout the city—a kind of wake-up call or alarm to draft-age men, as if they weren’t already alarmed by the prospect of trench warfare in France.

In Memoriam

Graphic by William Cellini, Jr.

Recently, I learned that the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the war-averse U.S. public of the time was as serious a business as the war, itself. That’s because a woefully under-manned U.S. military faced the challenge of conscripting enough troops not just to fight, but win—literally millions of men.  Along those lines, “Manhood Day” seems to have had its intended effect, drawing in even Lithuanian immigrant “aliens” who had not begun the U.S. citizenship process, and were therefore exempt from draft. Because they were in an important industrial occupation, Lithuanian miners had still another exemption on that count.

In short, of the approximately 70 local Lithuanians who registered for military service, many served despite not being required to do so. We’ll never know if that’s because the “manhood” appeal worked, because of loyalty towards their new country, a lack of mining work, or some other reason. It is also worthy of note that the same official handwriting appears on many of the Lithuanian men’s registration papers because they were illiterate in both Lithuanian and English, many signing with their “mark” or an “X.”

Following are 12 more brief bios of local Lithuanian soldiers compiled from exhaustive public records searches by William Cellini, Jr.

Peter [Piotras] Jurgelonis [Jurgelionis] — Trained by Center for Illiterate Soldiers

Born c. 1890 in Purviškiai, Kaunas County, Lithuania, Jurgelonis registered for the draft in June 1917.  At the time, he listed himself as single and working as a laborer for “Peter Ambroar” who was most likely a member of the Ambrose [Brazas] family in Springfield.  Jurgelonis sailed overseas from Quebec, Canada on September 4, 1918 as a Private in “Company B of the 355th Infantry, 84th Division.”  While his personal overseas service record is not known, if he stayed with the 355th Infantry once he arrived in France, that September he would have taken part in the MeuseArgonne Offensive.

Jurgelionis, Peter. WWI Draft Registration Card, source Ancesty.com.jpg

Jurgelonis returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, in April 1919 as a member of Company D in the 347th Machine Gun Battalion. On the ship roster he listed his nearest relation as “Stanli Sverarplis,” probably Stanley Swerplus, a “cousin” on Peoria Road.  From France, he headed to Camp Upton, Long Island, N.Y.  Camp Upton had the distinction of being the first Recruit Educational Center formed to teach foreign-born, non-English speaking and illiterate soldiers during their induction period and after the war. He was discharged on May 7, 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. After the war, Jurgelions was recorded as living on Springfield’s North End in a predominately Lithuanian neighborhood. On the U.S. Census of 1920 he is listed as single and working as a “fireman” at a brick company. Two Lithuanian-born boarders were also residing in his home. Jurgelonis’ death date and location have not been verified.

*Potentially this is an error on the ship manifest. The 355th Infantry was assigned to the 89th Division. Source: The U.S. Army in World War I: Orders of Battle by Richard A. Rinaldi.

Jurgelonis. Camp Upton, NY Post Card, 1918. Source, EBAY.com

Recruit Educational Center at Camp Upton, Long Island, N.Y.


John [Jonas] Kedis ∞ Killed in Meuse-Argonne Offensive Weeks Before Armistice

John Kedis was born c. 1885 in Lithuania and emigrated from Kaltinenai to the U.S. in April 1910. On his 1910 ship manifest he lists his father, Jeronimas Kedis, in Lithuania as well as his brother, Stanley, in Springfield as his relations.  Prior to the war, a Springfield newspaper article from 1914 mentioned how Kedis was living at 707 1/2 East Washington Street and working in the kitchen of the Leland Hotel.

U.S. Arrives. ISR June 9, 1917, p. 1

He was involved in a physical altercation with a fellow employee at the hotel and was arrested. Kedis was again in the news the following year for his role as a “look-out” in an arson plan with one George S. Kiezancus, proprietor of a tavern in the 1100 block of South Grand Avenue East. Kedis ended up being jailed for five months and he entered a plea of guilty.  He was sentenced to an additional thirty days for the arson charge.

Records show he was living in Chicago and working as an iceman for Commonwealth Ice Company when he registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. He sailed overseas with the U.S. Army leaving from Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 10, 1918 with Company A of the Provisional Pioneer Reinforcement Regiment from Washington Barracks (today Ft. McNair, Washington, D.C.). While overseas he was transferred to Company C, 1st U.S. Engineers, 1st Infantry Division.


On November 21, 1918, the Illinois State Register listed local war dead and Kedis appeared as a casualty.  His brother Stanley was the recipient of a letter published by the Register from John Kedis’s commanding officer, Col. Billby (of the Engineering Corps) reporting his official version of John’s death. Tragically, had Kedis survived only a few more weeks, he would have made it to Armistice Day.  He is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.


Joseph Kowlowsky [Kowlowski]  ∞  Pana’s only Soldier Killed in Action 

He was born October 11, 1983 in Marijampolė County, Lithuania, and registered for the draft in June 1918 in Christian County. He listed himself as single,of medium height with brown eyes and dark hair,  and working as a coal miner for the Smith-Lohr Coal Mining Company in Pana.  Kowlowsky was sent overseas on June 22, 1918 from Newport News, Va., aboard the SS Duca d’Aosta, an Italian ocean liner used for troop transport.  He sailed with a contingent of U.S. National Guard troops from Company L of the 148th Infantry, 37th Division, and was sent  into battle in France. He was killed in action in September 1918.

Kowlowsky, Joseph Draft Registration, WWI

Signed with his “mark.”

When overseas casualty reports were released in Springfield that November, the newspapers noted Kowlowsky (spelled ‘Kowlosky’ in the report) was killed. According to the news account, he was “about 27” years old and a “well-known Pana miner of the North Mine local”.  His sister, Mrs. Eva Burdzilauskas of Pana, received the telegram informing her of his death.  Kowlowsky had the distinction of being the only Pana soldier killed in action during WWI, although the town did lose soldiers to illness, likely the Spanish flu.  He is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France. His sister Eva’s Lithuanian husband died and was buried in Pana in 1938.  Eva died in 1975.


Franciscus [Pranciškus] Krasauskis

Born September 13, 1894 in Batakiai, Taurage County, Lithuania, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1913. Krasauskis lived in the 1700 block of East Matheny in Springfield. Listed as “Frank Kross” on some military records, he received basic training at Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky., where he petitioned for citizenship on July 17, 1918.

Krasauskis, Franciscus [Pranciškus] a.k.a. Frank Kross Photo


He initially served in the 34th Company, 3rd Infantry Regiment, but when he was sent overseas to France, he became a Private First Class in Company P of the 22nd Engineers. He returned to the U.S. via Saint-Nazaire, France, on June 22, 1919.  Krasauskis ultimately moved to Chicago, but his brother Anton (Antanas) remained in Springfield.




Juozas Kriscunas [Kriščiūnas]—One of Two Brothers Who Served

Born Oct. 7, 1889 in Marijampolė County, Lithuania, the son of Mato Kriščiūnas and Elžbieta Chevenskas [Čevinskas?].  Kriscunas emigrated to the U.S. around 1908 and lived in Springfield prior to WWI.  He served in the U.S. Army from October 1917 until April 1919, including on the Western Front. He returned home on March 22, 1919 aboard the USS Finland from Saint-Nazaire, France, with the Camp Taylor Detachment (Company C) of the 114th Field Artillery. He listed his nearest contact in the U.S. as “brother, Antone Kriscunas,” of Springfield.  After the war, he and his brother moved to Wilkes-Barre, Penn. Juozas married and worked at the Glen Alden Coal Company in Wilkes-Barre. He died on May 26, 1970 in Pennsylvania.

Anton (Antanas)  Kriscuos [Kriščiūnas]—The Other Brother Who Served

Another son of Mato Kriščiūnas and Elžbieta Chevenskas [Čevinskas?] born in July 1890—just a year younger than Juozas.  Anton lived at 1215 East Jefferson St. in Springfield and was called up for military service in May 1918. He trained at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., and was a Private in Battery C of the 48th Field Artillery, 16th Infantry Division.  It is not known if he was sent overseas.  He was discharged on February 17, 1919 at Camp Grant near Rockford. Anton remained single and moved to Pennsylvania with his brother Juozas, who had also served in the war.  Anton died there on January 21, 1948. The informant on his burial card is “Joseph Kriscunas, Wilkes-Barre, PA”– most likely his brother.  His headstone, inscribed “Antonas Kriscous,” incorrectly indicates he was in a Pennsylvania military unit during the war. However, further research indicates the government corrected his place of enlistment to reflect his Illinois service.


Charles Kristute [Kristutis?] of Auburn– Served in ‘Casual Company’

Kirstute. September 1918 Draft contingent Sangamon Co

Kristute is in this draft contingent from Sangamon County

Born Jan. 1, 1893 in Telšiai County, Lithuania, he registered for the draft in Auburn, Ill., where he worked as a coal miner, on June 5, 1917.  His physical description indicated he was of medium build and slender figure with brown eyes and black hair.  Called before his local draft board on May 7, 1918, Kristute entered military training at Camp Forrest, Ga., on Sept. 4, 1918 as a member of the 12th Casual Company, 2nd Battalion Engineers.

A “casual company” was typically filled with in-transient personnel and on occasion, such companies were supplied with immigrants. Kristute obtained his U.S. citizenship on December 7, 1918 at Camp Forrest, less than a month after Armistice, so it’s likely he never served overseas. He was discharged in January 1919 and appears to have left Illinois sometime shortly after the war.  According to public records, a Charles Kristute  whose military service history matches this soldier died in 1958 in Gary, Ind.


Joseph [Juozapas] Linges [Lingės]— Students’ Army Training Corps

Born in 1892 in Pilviškiai, Marijampolė County, Lithuania, the son of Juozapas Linges Sr. and Helen [Elena] Bronks. He emigrated to the U.S. via Bremen, Germany, in 1913 and made his initial petition to become a citizen of the U.S. in October of that year.  His uncle and aunt, Anton and Eva Linges, lived in Springfield–and perhaps that is why he settled in Central Illinois.  Linges underwent basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., in May 1918 with several Lithuanian-born soldiers from Sangamon County. He again petitioned for citizenship in June 1918 while at Camp Harry Jones in Douglas, Ariz., near the Mexican border.

A Springfield newspaper article published after the war mentions how Linges served with the 48th Field Artillery, and earned his Victory Medal by applying for it via the Students’ Army Training Corps. According to the website for Illinois College in Jacksonville, the SATC, which consisted of 157 colleges and universities by April 1918, was put in place “to train draftees in a variety of trades needed for the war effort, and was jointly administered by the military and universities.” (It’s not known where Linges received his combined SATC military and trade education—or in which trade—although as mentioned, Illinois College was a participant. It’s also possible that he accessed the SATC only for the processing of his medal.)

6 Camp Kearney YMCA Building Postcard.

Camp Kearney, YMCA postcard

By December 1918, Linges was stationed at Camp Kearney, Calif., according to the obituary for his sister, who might have died from the global Spanish flu pandemic that  ravaged Europe, Asia, and the Americas 1918-19.  It’s likely that the California location for Linges so soon after Armistice indicates he remained stateside during the war. After being released from military service in 1919, he worked at the Elks Club in Springfield. He married Margaret Gillette, likely of the Gilletties Lithuanian family (of Riverton, Ill.) and they had two children, Bernadine and Joseph.  The family lived on North 8th Street near the Illinois Watch Factory, where Margaret was employed for many years.  Linges died in Sherman in 1986.


Joseph [Juozapas] Matulis–Returned, Possibly with Spanish Flu, on Medical Ship

Born March 5, 1888 in Kampeny [Kampiniai], Lithuania and emigrated via Hamburg, Germany, to the U.S. around 1902.  Having declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen in 1915, he entered military service in June 1918 at Springfield and received training at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Ind. Matulis was sent overseas in September 1918 as a Private in Company P, 22nd Engineers of the 2nd Army and returned to the U.S. on May 22, 1919 via Saint-Nazaire, France. The soldiers on board his transport ship bound for Camp Merritt, N.J., were suffering from pneumonia (likely from the Spanish flu), or were listed as wounded on the ship’s manifest. (Perhaps due to whatever medical condition caused him to be assigned to that particular ship,) Matulis also was diagnosed with “mitral regurgitation,” a backward leakage of blood through the mitral valve of the heart.

Matulis, Joseph. photo

Joseph Matulis

His nearest contact was his “father, John Matulis, Springfield, Ill.” He was discharged in July 1919 at Ft. Sheridan in Illinois.  In 1920, he was living in Springfield on East Miller Street with his immediate family and listed as single. He married Finnish immigrant Helen Heeliko [Halikko] in Cook County in May 1923 and by 1940 they were living in Broadview, Ill., with six children. Matulis worked at Edward Hines Veteran’s Hospital in Illinois and appears to have never returned to Springfield.


Thomas [Tomas] Nerkevich [Narkevičius]—Three Brothers Registered

Born in 1888 in Russia of Lithuanian heritage, he was the son of Tomas and Petronele [Anna] Nerkevich, who emigrated to the U.S. around 1898.  The couple had three sons: Alfred (b. 1898 in the U.S.), Frank (b. 1899 in the U.S.) and Thomas, the subject of this bio. The family lived on North 11th Street in a predominately Lithuanian enclave, according to the 1910 U.S. Census. Per a 1907 report in Springfield’s Register paper, Thomas, Sr., is mentioned as operator of “a saloon near the Devereux coal mine.”  The senior Nerkevich also operated his own tavern in the 700 block of East Washington Street, where the younger Thomas was a bartender.

In 1917, all three brothers registered for the draft, but Frank and Thomas registered in Cook County, likely due to living in that city for employment reasons. Thomas was a Private in Company D of the 32nd Engineers and he sailed overseas on June 15, 1918. After serving in the railway and bridge section of the engineering corps in France, Thomas departed from Bordeaux, France, on May 27, 1919 on the USS Susquehanna. He was discharged at Camp Grant near Rockford, Ill., in June.


Mike Paplanski [Paplonskis]—A Coal Miner Who ‘Volunteered’

Born October 15, 1886 in Marijampolė, Lithuania. At the time he registered for the draft in June 1917, Paplanski listed himself as a non-declared alien, which meant he had not taken steps to become a U.S. citizen and was not required to register or be drafted into service. An unmarried coal miner, his registration noted he lived on Springfield’s North End and was tall in stature with gray eyes and light brown hair. In March 1918, Paplanski was included on a roster of 138 draft-eligible men published in the Register newspaper. He underwent basic training at Camp Taylor, Ky., and on June 25, 1918 was sent overseas.

Paplanski, Mike draft eligible in Newspaper

Paplanski among draft-eligible in the State Register

Listed as “Poplanski” on the transport roster, he held the rank of a Private in Company P, 22nd Engineers and sailed with two other Lithuanian-born local soldiers, Franciskus Krasauskis and Stanley Petrokas. He returned to the U.S. in June 1919 aboard the USS Princess Matoika via Saint-Nazaire, France. He listed his sister, “Mrs. Francis Chirelis,” as his contact in Springfield. Paplanski was discharged from the Army in July 1919 and lived on North 15th Street in Springfield.

He died on January 12, 1940 at the Edward Hines Veteran’s Hospital in Northern Illinois and his body was returned to Springfield for burial. According to his obituary (listing him as “Michael Paplausky”), he was a member of the local unit of the Progressive Miners of America and his funeral and wake were held “at the residence of Mrs. George Chepulis, 2215 North Fifteenth Street,” with his funeral mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church.

Stanley [Stanislovas] Patrilla [Petrilla] of Virden, Auburn

Born December 1889 in Bacunai [Bačiūnai], Šiauliai County, Lithuania. According to his immigration manifest, Patrilla traveled from Lithuania to Germany and sailed to the U.S. in September 1910.  He indicated his destination was “Virden, Illinois” and listed his “cousin Joseph” in Virden as a contact.  Sometime later, Patrilla worked as a coal miner in Auburn, Ill., and by 1913, had filed his declaration of intent (first papers) to become a U.S. citizen.

Patrilla, Stanley. Photo

As a draft-age male in the process of becoming a citizen, Patrilla was required to register for the draft and did so in June 1917 in Auburn.  He was single at the time and his physical description showed he was of medium build with grey eyes and light-colored hair. He entered military service at Springfield in May 1918 and received training at Camp Gordon, Ga., and at Camp Sheridan, Ala., and was at Camp Sheridan when the Armistice was signed.   He was discharged as Private First Class in Company K of the 45th Infantry, 9th Division, on June 14, 1919 at Camp Taylor, Ky.

He married Matilda Maggs of Auburn and they had a son named Stanley and two daughters, Dolores and Isabelle. Into the 1940s, Patrilla worked as a miner at the Panther Creek #5 mine in Springfield. He died in 1948, and his wife Matlida died in 1974. According to his obituary, he was survived by two brothers and one sister.