Recently, Lithuanian troops have deployed as part of the coalition fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this is not the first time Lithuanians have seen combat in Asia. In 1896-1899, they fought in the Philippines, then in 1899-1901, in China. Lithuanians served as volunteers in the US armed forces, but fought in the Czar’s army as draftees.
After the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, Japan set up colonies in China, as did Russia, the United States, England, Germany and France. These colonies were established mostly for commercial purposes, but Catholic and Protestant missionaries also arrived to spread their word and seek converts. The presence of these foreigners was unwelcome, however, and a homegrown Chinese resistance based in secret societies formed that opposed the Europeans, their culture and their religion. These individual societies eventually banded together into what became known as the Big Fist or Boxer Rebellion.
In response, Russia and the United States deployed troops in China against the Boxers. The Boxer Rebellion lasted two years, from 1899 to 1900, and the Chinese were defeated. Letters sent home by Lithuanians fighting in China and the Philippines tell about their lives and hardships in these wars.
Travels and “Devils”
Lithuanians who served in the US armed forces were sent to China by way of the Philippines, where the US was fighting the Spanish-American war. After defeating the Spaniards, the US had to fight the Filipinos, who wanted to be free of all foreign occupiers. Juozas Vosylius, from the Vilkaviškis region, writes as follows about his road from Lithuania to these faroff lands: “Leaving Lithuania, I landed in Liverpool, England, where I lived for a year and a half. In 1888, I went to America, first to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania and then to Massachusetts and Illinois, where I worked in a wire manufacturing factory in Waukegan for five years and earned a good living. But having a lot of ‘good friends,’ I drank everything away, for, as they say, with whom you end up, is how you end up.”
Vosylius further writes that, when unemployment increased in the US and jobs were hard to find, he joined the US army and sailed from San Francisco to the Philippines. “Approaching the Philippine Islands we came near a mountain, from which fire was spewing into the sky. According to stories in Lithuania, hell resides at the center of the Earth, so I gazed intently trying to see a devil with his pitchfork. That’s what I believed from reading the lives of the saints, but I did not see a single devil.”
Many Lithuanians in those days must have accepted their priests’ sermons literally, for another Lithuanian, Juozas Jakas, also believed in devils, and when his troop stepped off their ship in the Philippines, he noted: “The Chinese who live here are also Catholics and have decorated their walls with many pictures of saints and even devils. It is not appropriate to keep images in one’s home of devils, which stand next to a dying person with their pitchforks and wait to grab their soul, so that they can burn it in hot tar in hell.”
Battles and other Pleasures in the Philippines
“We fought a lot of battles against the Filipinos, the greatest of which was in the hills between San Pablo and Santa Cruz. How many of us Americans were killed I do not know, but I saw thirty-eight dead and about a hundred injured. Fighting was very heavy around Manila. The Filipinos had set up a minefield, so that when two battalions of California Volunteers stepped onto it, they went up into the air like flies.”
“The war against the Filipinos will take some time, because fighting against them is not the same as it was against the Spaniards. We Americans pursue them into unfamiliar areas and, next thing you know, they are attacking us from the rear.”
“Even in the towns, where the Americans are garrisoned, we have to be careful and do not venture forth with less than fifty soldiers, and even then they kill or wound several of us.”
“And all the insects and reptiles. As soon as you fall asleep, you become their supper. In the mornings you have to shake all of the insects out of your clothes before you can put them on. The midday heat is so intense that not even a single bird or frog is out, but their noise at night is louder than a wedding party, you can’t sleep without stuffing your ears.” “In Manila there is a Jewish man from Prienai who runs a saloon and a house of prostitution where our soldiers leave all their wages. When he and I speak Lithuanian, no one else understands us. In Manila, I met three Lithuanians: Jonas Janauckas from Naumiestis, Juozas Vasikauckas from Vilkaviškis, and Antanas Szukis from Raseiniai.”
“In small towns there aren’t any saloons, so there’s nowhere to drink away your wages, and our soldiers should be able to save some. But no, they gamble at cards or dice and lose everything. It’s almost impossible to find a virtuous person in our regiment; they’re all drunks, lazy or thieves.”
Lithuanians in larger numbers arrived in China at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Some were refugees from Russian deportations to Siberia, others ended up in China while wandering during the First World War. A member of San Francisco’s Lithuanian community had been born in China to Lithuanian refugees from Russian Siberia and arrived in the US under the Chinese quota. In a few cities, like Charbin and Shanghai, there were sizeable Lithuanian communities.
To quell the Boxer Rebellion, the Russians sent more troops than the United States, and there were more Lithuanians among Russian than US troops. The following are excerpts from letters written by the same Juozas Vosylius and others.
“On September 26 for the second time we met with the Muscovite army and the Lithuanians who were among them. …It is joyful and, at the same time, melancholy to meet our brothers in such a distant land. There are about fifty Lithuanians among the Muscovite troops, but they are scattered about, so we met only a few, from Kaunas gubernija: Antanas Avižonis, Vincas Pernavas, B. Pacziulis, Vladas Radzinskas, Julius Grigaliuūnas, Jonas Psimėka, J. Bžeskis, J. Petkeviczius, A. Kalinis, and Bagušis.”
The above-mentioned Antanas Avižonis served in the Russian army for many years, was taken prisoner by the Germans during World War One, wrote in the illegal Lithuanian press, and at one time spent two years in the US. The Lithuanians in the Russian contingent describe their experiences as follows: “On June 10 we left Chabarovsk, Siberia and, on the tenth day, reached the Taku forts in China. Not having seen war before, it appeared to us to be very brutal. The foreigners are all armed to the teeth, but the Chinese—unable to protect themselves from all sorts of missionaries offering them eternal salvation while taking away their earthly possessions and unable to get rid of them peacefully—started fighting back.”
He further writes that, after they had occupied the city of Tientsin, a big explosion killed or wounded many “Muscovites,” including a number of Lithuanians: Martynas Riklis from Raseiniai and Jonas Petrauckas from Panevėžys were among the dead, while Viktoras Dapkus from Raseiniai and Petras Bardauskas, a Latvian from Minsk, suffered injuries.
One of the Lithuanian soldiers predicted a bright future for the Chinese: “The Chinese will soon be civilized, because the first beer brewery in China has now been built.”
Lithuanian Soldiers as Book Smugglers
After the 1863-1865 Lithuanian revolt and uprising against Czarist Russia was crushed, printed material in the Latin alphabet was prohibited. Lithuanians did not understand nor take to the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. So for forty years what books, newspapers and other literature in their own language reached Lithuanians, was printed outside the country and then smuggled in. The book smugglers, knygnešiai , occupy an important place in Lithuania’s history, for it was their often dangerous work that helped Lithuanians preserve their language and culture and kept Lithuania from being completely Russianized. Lithuanian soldiers serving abroad were often part of this network.
Antanas Sujeta wrote: “Among the Muscovite soldiers, I met a Lithuanian captain. He said he was from Senapilis, but that his Lithuanian is poor, so we conversed in Polish. He called me an idiot for volunteering for the army, especially at this time. According to him, you should never join an army unless you are being forced to. I had a couple of copies of the US Lithuanian newspaper Vienybė and gave them to him. He said that, having seen a Lithuanian newspaper for the first time, he felt like he was given a new life.”
Juozas Vosylius writes similarly: “Once I receive Vienybė , after reading it, I forward it to other Lithuanians; that way, several copies end up in Manchuria, with our brothers who suffer there under Moscow’s yoke.”
The “Muscovite” Lithuanians had this to say about the Lithuanian press in the United States: “It is not only Lithuanians who were surprised that we receive Lithuanian newspapers and letters from America, for in Lithuania itself it is rare that you run across something to read in your own language. Even the Belarusians surrounded us with all kinds of questions.”
Later, the following letter was received from Lithuania: “A Lithuanian newspaper published in America found itself in Lithuanian hands in China and from China reached Lithuania. You are so fortunate that you can read whatever you want in your own language. Here in Lithuania, the Lithuanian printed word is valued like honey, and you have to cross many Muscovite bayonets and shells to reach it.”
But not all Lithuanian American soldiers valued learning. Returning from China through the Philippines, Vosylius complained: “I became anxious and longed for the company of my Lithuanian brothers. True, here in Manila there are a lot of Lithuanians and we get together often. But, my God, there are so few good ones. Some wait for their pay just so they can drink it all away. Others are ashamed of their Lithuanian language, yet hardly know any English. We receive a few Lithuanian newspapers from America, and some Lithuanians here make fun of them, but since they can’t read English, they don’t know anything at all.”
Sujeta and Vosylius not only valued Lithuanian newspapers, but supported them while they were in the field of battle. Sujeta: “When we get our paychecks we will send a donation for the exposition of Lithuanian books in Paris.” * Vosylius: “Enclosed 50 cents for the tombstone of Dr. Vincas Kudirka, who did so much good for Lithuanians, also a 25 cent donation for those brothers who suffer because they tried to spread learning.” **
Like all young soldiers—the Russian Czar’s conscripts as well as American volunteers—the Lithuanians fighting in China and the Philippines, learned some of life’s hard lesson:
“The 14th regiment fought in a battle against the Filipinos, and my company was almost wiped out. Many now lie in their graves and others in the hospital, but the cemetery is not far for those either. When it stops raining, the slaughter will resume.”
“On May 28, we received four hundred new recruits to replace those in our regiment who were killed or died from all kinds of diseases.”
“In the July 13 battle, 68 American soldiers were killed, among them one colonel and two officers, and 42 were taken prisoner. My friend Stasys Karasiejus, from Vilnius gubernija, was lucky to survive.”
“We are very unfortunate having to slave for the Czar like miserable wretches. Last summer, during the Chinese uprising, not a few Lithuanians lost their lives for an un- known cause, and who knows what yet awaits us.”
“From Lithuanian newspapers we read that many Lithuanian Americans are volunteering for the army. Not a single one here finds anything pleasant, only unimaginable suffering. To serve in war is no easy task, and I don’t wish for any Lithuanian to experience the misery that I have.”