The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America – Part Seven

The Story of Guts and Glory

By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation takes place in 2021. As we plan the future of the SNF through financial and membership growth, we take a moment to reflect on our origin, our commitments and our accomplishments. In her highly researched account written for the centennial book “Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001,” Dr, Krinka Vidakovic Petrov produced a work as interesting and valuable today as the day it was written. It is being presented it in installments. Earlier installments are available on the American Srbobran research site, www.snfpaper.org.

There are countless documents attesting to the war effort and the noble emotions which led young Serbs in America to offer the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – for the freedom of their nation. Here are two examples:

The period from the beginning of the war up to the end of 1917 witnessed a unique chapter in the history of Serbian patriotism. Since the U.S. was a neutral country, Serb war volunteers went to fight in Europe at their own risk and at their own expense. Since most of them were still citizens of Austria-Hungary, they and their closest kin were also subject to severe forms of punishment by Austrian authorities. However, their patriotism was overwhelming and unconditional.

Djordje Krstonosic, an immigrant from Vojvodina who had been in the U.S. only a few years, describes the enthusiasm and determination with which these young men were going to a war, from which many would never return. His story starts on Vidovdan of 1914. The Soko organization of America was holding its national tournament in Cleveland. When news came of the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, all the attendees began cheering for Serbia.

On July 28, 2914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which had just emerged triumphantly from the Balkan War. After the declaration of war, all of us who cherished the Serbian spirit and in whose veins Slavic blood flowed felt sadness in our hearts as we followed the unfolding of events, fearing that powerful Austria could destroy our Mother Serbia, exhausted and weakened by the preceding war effort. We pulled all our strength together and sacrificed all that we had…And when the first opportunity to join as volunteers presented itself, our people gathered in great numbers, responding to the call of our Slavic duty. The strength and audacity of the Serbian members of “Soko” in America was overwhelming…[Krstonosic: 1]

Djordje Krstonosic and his brother were among the first to volunteer. It happened in January of 1915 at the Soko Hall in Detroit where volunteers were recruited. As the men stepped forward to sign up, their friends cried, knowing they would never see many of them again. Krstonosic’s group of volunteers joined other volunteers in New York, and from there they sailed first to Naples Italy and then to Ulcinj, Montenegro, then to the front in Hercegovina. Djordje Krstonosic and his brother had come to America from Parabuc, Vojvodina, Austria-Hungary in 1910. Five years later they were fighting the Austrians in the homeland they had left. Nothing could have prepared them for the suffering they experienced in the war, but nothing could have stopped them from fighting either.

Djordje’s brother never returned. He was killed. But Djordje came back to Detroit, where he immediately began recruiting more volunteers for the Serbian army.

The Soko volunteers were joined by many others who were not members of this organization. They answered the call of duty and traveled via Canada and Bizerta to Salonica, where they joined the Serbian army and volunteers who had arrived from Russia, who had previously been in the Austrian army, had been caught at the Russian front and had organized their own volunteer division:

Ninety percent of our immigrants living in prosperous America were Serbs in spirit and body. They worked tirelessly to support the great effort of their brethren in Serbia…who were sacrificing everything to liberate and unite our Yugoslav nation. All our Serbs, Slavs and brother Czechs…provided aid to the Serbian Red Cross, while those who were able to join as volunteers did so to personally take part in the heroic struggle and deserve the wreath of glory…no glory being greater than that deserved in the benefit of one’s homeland. [Krstonosic: 149]

Krstonocic and his small group were luckier than others. A big group of volunteers recruited in 1915 were transported to Europe in three ocean-liners. The first group arrived in Salonica in August of 1915 on two Canadian ships, which sailed under the protection of the allied fleet. The second group assembled in Vancouver and a camp for the volunteers was established in Three Rivers, Canada. The commander of the camp was Dr Djuro Guca (a Slovak from Vojvodina). A young Russian (the only one in the unit) was given the honor of bearing the Montenegrin banner presented as a gift by the Montenegrin consul, Antonije Seferovic (most of the volunteers in this group were immigrants from Montenegro).

Ultimately, around 500 volunteers sailed from Halifax to Naples, then to Brindisi and finally to the port of St. Giovanni di Medua (on the coast of Albania). It was Christmas Eve when this ship entered the small port. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion. Several minutes later, the ship hit an underwater mine and began sinking fast. Most of the passengers were killed by the explosion; many were wounded and died in the cold sea and few survivors could be saved. People in the port watched the tragedy with disbelief. Only around 100 passengers (volunteers, members of a Red Cross delegation, and crew) survived. Almost 400 volunteers died before they even reached Serbia.

More than a decade later, in September of 1930, the American Srbobran published an article by Milos Radunovic from Sacramento, who suggested that a monument be erected and dedicated to the Medua victims:

Since the volunteers who died at Medua were mostly from Montenegro, Boka Kotorska and Herzegovina, the monument to these heroes should be placed in front of the Monastery in Cetinje, beside the “Monument to the Heroes of Unification” [Yugoslavia]. The monument should bear the names of all the volunteers who met their death in St. Giovanni di Medua.

Thus, the Committee for the Medua Monument was established in America to collect funds for the construction of the memorial (a sister committee was formed in Cetinje). The monument – The Vila of Lovcen (Lovcenska Vila), a sculpture by Risto Stijovic, representing the patriotic spirit and martyrdom of the volunteers from America – was unveiled in 1939. It bears the following inscription: “To the Volunteers who died at Medua. Erected by the Yugoslavs of American and Canada 1939.” Special credit in the Spomenica (Memorial Book) published on this occasion was given to the American Srbobran for supporting the project. The book also contains a list of donations collected by the Serb National Federation, lists of other fundraisers (published in the American Srbobran) organized by the Volunteer Association of America and Canada in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as a list of contributors from Yugoslavia.

When America declared war in April of 1917, Serb immigrants continued the volunteer campaign, which could now be officially sponsored. Djordje Krstonosic recruited more volunteers on returning to the U.S. Finally, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to France, where he fought for the Allied cause until the end of the war in November of 1918.

Prior to U.S. involvement in WWI, the Serbian Orthodox parish of Gary, Indiana, had petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to approve the signing up of volunteers in their community.

Wilson’s approval came in March 1917, whereupon plans to recruit, train and transport volunteers became the Church’s first priority. In the fervor of patriotism that accompanied the rallies, a promise to return the men to their jobs in the steel plans after the war was sworn by speakers at the numerous events. [Erceg: 40]

The process took several months and finally, in December of 1917, the Gary Evening Post reported that 196 Serb volunteers were leaving for the font. Many of their relatives accompanied them to Chicago, where the governor of Illinois saw them off with an enthusiastic speech and a crowd of 25,000 attended a parade in their honor.

Nine of the ten Vajagic brothers and cousins with their priest and church president. A tenth brother who was badly wounded is not in the photo. Risto Vajagich, fifth from left wearing a banner, earned Serbia’s highest medal for heroism. His courage was never mentioned by the media. [photo courtesy of T. Erceg]

These men fought bravely to defend Mother Serbia and liberate Serbian lands in Austro-Hungary. Among them were the ten Vajagic brothers from Gary. They were Bosnian Serbs, all members of Lodge No. 82 “Banovic Strahinja” of the SOF Srbobran. The oldest was 40, the youngest 20 years old. While fighting at the Front, they displayed exemplary courage. At the first opportunity to show their determination to defeat they enemy, they volunteered for a dangerous mission – which they performed in an outstanding manner. The oldest Vajagic brother ,Risto, “was awarded Serbia’s highest decoration for bravery, the Karageorge Star with Crossed Sabres, in gold” and the War Museum in Belgrade includes an exhibit of the mission performed by the Vajagices [Erceg: 60-61].

These were the best of the srbobranci (Serb defenders), who put the love for their nation above all other values. Regardless of the fraternal organization they belonged to or the parish they were members of, or the cultural societies they were active in, all these men were willing to sacrifice their lives for the supreme value of the Serbian tradition – freedom. They were the brave who were determined to make their people free.

Next Installment:   Diplomacy and Organizations

Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade, has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, is a renowned scholar and diplomat, and has authored several books and numerous articles in literature and history. She is a Belgrade native and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Zagreb. In addition to her books Serbian Americans: History. Culture. Press, From the Balkans to the Pacific: Serbian American Culture and Literature, The Great War 1914-1918: The Kingdom of Serbia, the United States of America and the Serbian American Diaspora, and Essays in Comparative Folklore, she has co-authored several language textbooks, and published in professional journals in at least six countries including the United States and the former Yugoslavia. She is a past editor of the English section of the American Srbobran. Dr. Petrov researched, compiled and served as managing editor of the Serb National Federation centennial book Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001, in which this article "The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America" was originally published in its entirety.

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