The Lithuanian Icarus and Daedalus

Steponas Darius
Stasys Girėnas

  • Feliksas Vaitkus
  • Frank John Lubin

The interwar period was a time of great pilots, who became legends beating various records. At the same time, many of these figures became tragic heroes who lost their lives in air crashes. The long-distance flights over the Atlantic from the US to Europe were particularly important challenges. Indeed, Steponas Darius (born Steponas Jucevičius-Darašius, 1896-1933) and Stasys Girėnas (born Stasys Girskis, 1893-1933), were Lithuanian-American pilots who made one of the most significant and tragic flights in the history of world aviation. On July 15th 1933 they attempted a nonstop flight from New York City, United States to Kaunas, Lithuania. July 15th is also the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when the Poles, Ruthenians, Lithuanians, Tatars, Moldavians and others defeated the Teutonic Order. It was one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages. The journey would involve a total of 7,186 kilometers and was attempted in a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker airplane named Lituanica (Lithuania in Latin). After successfully crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 37 hours and 11 minutes, they crashed on July 17th. This happened at 0:36 by the village of Kuhdamm, near Soldin, Germany (now Pszczelnik, Poland). The accident was most probably the result of difficult weather conditions, as well as engine problems. Altogether they covered a distance of more than 6400 kilometers without landing in 37 hours and 11 minutes. As far as the distance of non-stop flights is concerned, their result ranked second in the world. The flight was also fourth in terms of duration at the time. What is more important, however, is that the Lithuanian pilots flew one of the most precise flights in history in very unfavorable conditions without navigational equipment. It at least equaled and in some ways surpassed Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight. The two pilots also carried the first transatlantic air mail consignment in history. The wreckage of the Lituanica is on display in the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas. Feliksas Vaitkus (1907-1956), a Lithuanian-American pilot from Chicago, was inspired by the flight of Daruis and Girėnas. He decided to commemorate them with the flight of the Lituanica II in 1935. He entered the aviation history books as the sixth pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. In the 1940s Vaitkus served as the chief test pilot at the Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle and tested hundreds of B-17 and B-29 bombers. He fought in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War (1950-1953).

Aviators Steponas Darius and Stasys Girenas.
Portrait from Lithuanian 10 Litu, Source: Shutterstock

Girėnas and Darius were born in the region of Samogitia. After the air crash, Lithuanians renamed the village where Darius was born after his American surname. Darius moved to the US with his family in 1907, while Girėnas came to America when he was 17 years old. They both settled in Chicago. Darius joined the United States Army and changed his name in 1917. He served as a telephone operator in an artillery regiment that fought in France. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart medal. In 1920, he moved to Lithuania, which had just regained its independence in 1918. He joined the Lithuanian Army and graduated from the War School of Kaunas in 1921. He participated in the Klaipėda Revolt of 1923, which resulted in the region becoming a part of Lithuania. The region had been for centuries the northernmost part of the German province of East Prussia, which was inhabited by Lithuanians and Germans. The region was a fiefdom of Poland from 1466 to 1657 and played a key role in the history of Lithuanian culture. While living in Lithuania, he actively promoted various sports. He initiated the building of the first stadium in Kaunas, which was later renamed after him and Girėnas. A tall stone monument dedicated to the pilots was erected close to the stadium.

Darius brought the ‘American’ sports of basketball and baseball to Lithuania. He not only played these sports himself but was also responsible for the first booklets in Lithuanian about them. Moreover, he became an international footballer, having played for the Lithuanian national football team in its first competitive game.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Lithuanian-Icarus-and-Dedalus-match-zdj2.jpg
Basketball match of national teams of Brazil and Lithuania at Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Source: Shutterstock

However, it was basketball that ultimately became the most popular sport in Lithuania. Lithuanian-American basketball coaches and players helped the national men’s basketball team to win the 1937 and 1939 EuroBasket tournaments. This caused the popularity of basketball to spike in the country. Since then, Lithuania’s devotion to basketball has made it a notable sporting force despite its small size. In 1939 the Lithuanian team was led by Frank John Lubin (1910-1999), who is known as the “grandfather of Lithuanian basketball”. He was born in Los Angeles to a family of Lithuanian immigrants.

Monument to Darius and Girėnas in Marquette Park
Monument to Darius and Girėnas in Marquette Park, Chicago, Source: Wikipedia

When living in Lithuania, Darius also completed pilot training. In 1927 he returned to the US and started working in civil aviation. He initially formed his own private airline. Girėnas, upon America’s entry into World War I, also enlisted in the United States Army. During this time he was trained as a mechanic. After the war he worked as a cab driver in Chicago whilst learning to fly. He eventually acquired his own plane. Despite being injured in an air crash, Girėnas continued flying and in 1931 he won first place at the Chicago Air Festival for the best landing of a plane with its engine turned off.

The Lithuanian pilots are commemorated in various places and forms in the US and Lithuania. In 1935 the Lithuanian community in Chicago dedicated an Art Deco Monument to them in Marquette Park. The Ship SS Stepas Darius, a Liberty ship built in America during World War II, was named in the pilot’s honour. In 1957 the Lithuanian pilots were memorialised with a granite flagstaff in New York City that shows the pair in bas-relief. The monument is located in Lithuania Square in Brooklyn.

Before the flight Girėnas and Darius left a testament to the Lithuanian nation:

"Young Lithuania! Inspired by Your spirit, we embark on a mission we have chosen.
May our success strengthen Your spirit and confidence in Your own powers and talents!
But should Neptune and the mighty ruler of storms Perkūnas (a god of thunder) unleash their wrath upon us,
should they stop our way to Young Lithuania and call Lituanica to their realm – then You, Young Lithuania, will have to resolve anew, make sacrifice and prepare for a new quest, so that gods of stormy oceans be pleased with Your effort, resolution, and do not summon You for the Great Judgement.
May Lituanica's victory strengthen the spirit of young sons of Lithuania, inspire them for new quests.
May Lituanica's defeat and sinking into the depths of the Atlantic nurture perseverance and resoluteness in young Lithuanians, so that a Winged Lithuanian conquers the treacherous Atlantic for the glory of Mother Lithuania!
We therefore dedicate and sacrifice our flight for You, Young Lithuania!"