By Ed Staskus
There has never been an excess of men who fight for a guerrilla group and three armies, one of them twice, during any single war. An army a day keeps the lion’s share of men busy enough. Leonas Lucauskas stayed busier than most other combatants during the struggle that was World War Two, serving in the Lithuanian, German, and American armed forces. He fought with partisans in the forests. He may not have had as many lives as a cat, but it was close enough.
“My father Leonas was born in 1916, in the Ukraine,” Leo Lucas said. “My grandfather Juozas and grandmother Stanislava were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, which was their home.” He meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer.
“He was a professor, teaching there during the war,” Leo said.
The school was the Poltava National Technical University. It was founded in 1818 by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last Ukrainian strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Lithuanian and Polish freebooters controlled vast tracts of the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who were later no match for the Russians.
The main building on campus was built in the early 1830s as the home of the Institute of Noble Maidens. It had an Empire-style look. When the institute became the technical university, women were forbidden to attend. The empire was out of bounds.
After the war the family, including Leonas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. They settled near Iglauka, not far from Lake Yglos, His father taught school in Marijampole, 12 miles to the west, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were prosperous owners of acreage and property.
In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and his older brother unexpectedly died of an illness. The next year his mother went to a wedding. While there she was shot dead.
It had been Russian Imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of plots. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck together socially, friends, neighbors, and families bound by the old-time way.
The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries. It was a zero-sum struggle. “A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted other people’s land, came to the wedding, started a ruckus, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” Leo said.
Years later, Leonas told his son the challenge of his life after his mother’s death was, should he take revenge when he grew up? They lived in small towns, everybody knew everybody else, and everybody knew who the Communists were. Should he kill them when he grew up? He decided he wouldn’t.
When he grew up, he got married, had a daughter, and was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then World War Two happened. His father was assaulted shot and killed by fifth column collaborators in his home. Leonas joined the Lithuanian Army and the Soviet Union invaded.
It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders. Within a week the Baltics were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany. Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward jig grinning behind his toothbrush mustache.
Leonas took to the trees, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. It wasn’t any more dangerous than anything else in dangerous times. He had been working in their fields when his father was killed. “They were killing landowners. My father’s luck was just the luck of being in the fields,” Leo said. “They would have shot him if they had been able to track him down.”
A year later Lithuania was invaded by the German army. Most Russian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by bringing their weapons to bear, controlling railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.
Leonas was one of many who joined the German Army, being assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Russian Baltic Offensive of 1944 was in full swing. The Red Army on the march to “liberate the Soviet Baltic peoples.” An NCO by then, Leonas and his men were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them dearly every day.
“The rich Lithuanians were officers,” Leo said. They weren’t in the tranches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were getting killed. They all wanted to get away.”
There was a small airstrip nearby for reconnaissance and resupply. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Leonas and three other men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front and wing-mounted engines roaring, when with hardly a word spoken between them, they made up their minds on the spot to steal it and fly to safety.
Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the German pilots out the door, while the other Lithuanian and Leonas kept watch, guns at the ready. He was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of the foot just before slamming the door shut.
“I was playing on the floor one day,” Leo said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”
One of the Lithuanians returned the shooting with a MG15 machine gun set in the dustbin turret, while the other two men dragged Leonas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car.
How hard can it be? he thought. With bullets slamming into the corrugated aluminum fuselage, he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, raised the nose, and “Iron Annie” lifted itself up into the air.
They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the Poland to Germany border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH being its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.
It solved their landing problem, since Leonas had already told his confederates he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into pieces. When Leonas came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his countrymen.
The doctors and military men asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in German, in High Deutsch, not Low. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. Leonas bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.
After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and assigned to the motor pool. Soon after that he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, when early one morning, in the middle of winter, he got a wake-up call from one of his motor pool sidekicks.
“Don’t come to work today,” the man said.
“What do you mean?”
“Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”
He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in mid-July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny. They would stand him up in front of a firing squad.
His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on some ice, smashing into a tree, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether he died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the SS got him. They literally cooked people to death.
The Tatra 87 had been the car of the year the last five years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Leonas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Allies, too, at least for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more high German officers than died fighting the Red Army.
He jumped to his feet, threw himself into his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 4 x 4 Blitz trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.
He didn’t run out of gas and didn’t get shot by either side. In the event, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war raised the white flag he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.
“My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” Leo said. “I’m six foot four. But my father Leonas was five nine and maybe one forty pounds.” In the end, what counts is what you do. Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.
At the beginning of 1945 the Allied Expeditionary Force on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. The Battle of the Bulge ended in an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off as long as possible. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. He boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. It didn’t do any good.
After surrendering, Leonas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Americans. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. He had been picking up bits and pieces of English. Russian and Polish are among the Top 10 hardest languages to learn. English is no slouch, either. He persevered with the new grammar book and served as a Sergeant. In 1946 and 1947 he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The men who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or were locked up forever.
As the hard-fought civilization-saving decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Leonas emigrated to North America, finding work as a lumberjack near Sudbury, Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” said Leo. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land mass the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was.” He wasn’t, at least, a mile down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.
Making it in a company town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills can become exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Leonas determined to find another way, his own way.
He and several other men pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with enough cotton to get them to roll, and hit the road. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding the opportunity to go to the United States in 1950, took it and settled down outside Buffalo, New York, where he stayed the rest of his life.
He got married again. His wife Louise taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store for more than thirty years, rarely missing a day. He built a house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. “I must have moved 5,000 wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our factory friends went on strike, I delivered food to them in the morning before school,” Leo said. His older sister Katherine still lives in the family home.
Leonas often hung from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. “My father was a strong man.” said Leo. Sometimes men are strong because it’s the only choice they have. Spinning your wheels doesn’t get it done. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs. He rarely missed a dance. He was an affable strong man.
Once he was done, he never enlisted in any other man’s army again.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”