The Compact Life of a Compact Man

Steve Walunis, Private 1st Class, U.S. Army

Steve Walunis (aka Steponis Valiunas), Private 1st Class, U.S. Army

Steponis Valiunas left his home and his family in Rumšiškės, Lithuania as a very young man, and made his way across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. At only 5’6″ (or less), he was a compact man. He became my grandfather, but I never met him.

I’m trying to piece together the story of his life and get a sense of who he was from the few family documents and photographs I have, and the even fewer stories I remember my mother telling me about him. More research will be done, but in the meantime, here’s what I have discovered so far.

Steponis Valiunas was born in Lithuania in 1895, the 4th of nine children, and the second of 3 sons. If I remember correctly, my mother said he came to America around 1913, though she never said how or why. Perhaps it would help to understand a little about what was going on in Lithuania around this time.

Although Lithuania had once been the largest country in Europe—extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea—by the late 1800’s, Russia had taken control of the country. They aimed to keep it an agricultural area, while their plans for the other Baltic states included more industrialization. By 1865, the Russian government had banned all printing in the Lithuanian language. I remember the stories that my mother or grandmother told of my great-grandfather and his family hiding their Lithuanian books under the floor in case of a raid. So it was not a happy time to be in Lithuania, and many Lithuanians sought jobs in more industrialized nations such as Estonia, Russia, and the United States.

My understanding is that most families could only afford to send one person to other countries to find jobs, and probably he would be expected to send money back home. Often it was the eldest son who was sent off to find a better living. As the second-oldest son, my grandfather was perhaps somehow better suited to the rigors of leaving home and starting over, and I look forward to the possibility of discovering if this is so and what the reason could be. Perhaps his older brother was already married and maybe even had children.

So, Grandfather Valiunas made it to America sometime before The Great War, and it seems that he settled in the Minersville area of Pennsylvania to work as a coal miner.

U.S. Army, WWI

Steve Walunis' Military History

The Military History of Steve Walunis

Steponis Valiunas enlisted in the U.S. Army on July 1, 1917, by which time his beautiful Lithuanian name had been anglicized to Steve Walunis. He served about 2 years, including training, serving overseas in both Germany and France. Steve left the U.S. for the war on April 23, 1918, and landed in Europe on May 7. He was a Private and a Private 1st Class, Battery B, in the 10th U.S. Field Artillery, apparently stationed in Germany.

His official Military History Record shows that he fought in the Chateau-Thierry sector (July 9-15, 1918), the Champagne-Marne Defensive (July 15-18, 1918), “the last major German offensive on the Western Front during the First World War [that]…overwhelmed the Germans…[marking] the start of the relentless Allied advance which culminated in the Armistice with Germany about 100 days later;”1 the Aisne-Marne Offensive (July 18-August 6, 1918), the battle of St. Mihiel (September 12-16, 1918), “the first and only offensive launched solely by the United States Army in World War I;”2 the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Verdun Sector (September 26-Nov. 11, 1918), “a major part of the final Allied offensive of World War I that stretched along the entire Western Front.”3

Map of the final German offensives on the Western Front (World War I), 1918 5

Map of the final German offensives on the Western Front (World War I), 1918 5

He was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre and received a citation for Gallantry in Action G.O. 29 3rd Division H.Q., 7/8/19. He also won a First Place Army Marathon Award at the Divisional Athletic Meet. I was a fast runner as a kid, and I thought it was because I was sort of tall and skinny for my age, with long legs, but perhaps I inherited it. My grandfather was not very tall; he was variously listed as being 5’4½″ to 5’6″ tall.

He was also noted for having an “excellent” character. He received his Honorable Discharge on August 29, 1919, at Camp Dix, New Jersey.

Although he suffered no injuries and was listed as being in good health when he was discharged, my mother said he had been gassed in the war, which was probably a contributing factor to his later health issues.

Post War

After the war, Grandfather Walunis returned to Minersville, Pennsylvania to work as a coal miner. On December 11, 1922, at the age of 27, he became a United States citizen, receiving his Certificate of Naturalization in the court of Schuylkill County held at Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

It’s interesting to note that when Grandfather Walunis went into the Army in 1917, he was a citizen of Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania), but when he got his United States citizenship, he was listed as having been a citizen of The Republic of Lithuania! While he was fighting for the United States in WWI, Lithuania regained their independence from Russia. The Germans had captured part of Lithuania from the Russians in 1915. Then, “in 1917 Russia surrendered to Germany (after the war hardships led to a revolution in Russia) and renounced any claims to the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, while the subsequent German losses in the Western Front led to a possibility to declare independence of Lithuania on February 16th, 1918.”4 So perhaps while he was fighting for the United States and her allies in France, he was fighting for Lithuania as well.

Marriage and Family

Obituary of Julius Walunis

Obituary of Julius Walunis

On January 28, 1923, my grandfather, now listed as Stephen Valiunas, married my grandmother, Margaret (aka Magdalena) Tamašauskas at the Sacred Heart Church of New Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My mother was their first child, born in March of the following year. Her brother, Julius, was born 2 years later, and in 1928, my Uncle Edward was born.

Tragedy struck 5 years later. Grandfather’s first son, Julius, drowned in a pond at the house of relatives in Donaldson, PA. My grandparents were at a market in the nearby town of Lebanon when it happened. I can only imagine how this sad event must have affected their lives. My mother told me she spent some time living with her grandmother after this. She never said why exactly.

I know nothing more about my grandfather’s life after the loss of his 1st son until he became so ill that he was hospitalized in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia on May 15, 1938. He was diagnosed with what was referred to as a silica hazard disease, aka black lung, officially now known as Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). It was caused by his long exposure to coal dust and probably aggravated by having been gassed in WWI (as my mother told me). He died in the hospital a month later, on June 14, 1938.

What I have deduced is that he was a man of great fortitude and determination who seemed to be doing all he could to become an upstanding American citizen, to live a good life as soldier, worker, husband, and father. I’m just really sad he never got to live long enough to get to know his grandchildren. I would have loved to have known him.

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_the_Marne
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Saint-Mihiel
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuse-Argonne_Offensive
  4. http://www.truelithuania.com/topics/history-and-politics-of-lithuania/history-of-lithuania
  5. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=750977