Monday, April 4, 2011

"My Life's Path" by Vidak Milovich / The story of a proud Montenegrin warrior

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Aleksandra’s Note: There are the heroes in the history books, and then there are those heroes whose lives and contributions are not recorded in any history book, but whose legacy lives on through the memories of all who knew them. Vidak Milovich is one such man. A proud daughter named Zorka Lester, who loved her father and loves him still, has graciously shared his memoir which I am honored and privileged to share with you here on “Heroes of Serbia” as his family marks the 35th anniversary of his death. Vidak Milovich was a proud Montenegrin Serb, born on June 6, 1893 in Grahovac, Montenegro, just in time to be drawn into the wars that would come one right after another in the second decade of the 20th century. In December of 1975, in his 83rd year of life, Vidak Milovich sat down to relive his life’s path and record his personal history for posterity. He was a patriot, a courageous Montenegrin warrior who fought in and survived three wars, an immigrant, a proud American citizen, and a hard worker who went through hard times. Vidak Milovich was also a dedicated husband to his wife Mildred and a father to six children, Zorka, Marie, Diana, Vera, Stana, and Peter. His daughter Zorka describes him as a wonderful, charismatic man who was beloved by family and friends and respected by all who knew him. And they all thought he would live to be a 100 or beyond.

He lived long enough to provide this memoir to his family and friends and to attend his daughter Zorka’s wedding in March of 1976, one month before he died.  This is something for which she remains eternally grateful. She misses him still.

Thank you, Zorka, for sharing your father’s memoir with me so that I can pass it on to others. It is my hope that it will inspire others who have had a meaningful journey to put pen to paper so that their life’s path is known and remains forever remembered by those who come after them. The legacy of their lives deserves such remembrance.

I am including a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson honoring the spirit of Montenegro and her warriors as my personal tribute to Vidak Milovich. Along with the personal photographs that Zorka has provided, I’m including photos I have found that reflect the beauty and majesty of Montenegro, this special place that produced people like this.

Sincerely,

Aleksandra Rebic


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Montenegro in the Balkans 2007





“Montenegro (Crna Gora)”

By Alfred Lord Tennyson


They rose to where their sovran eagle sails,

They kept their faith, their freedom, on the height,

Chaste, frugal, savage, arm'd by day and night

Against the Turk; whose inroad nowhere scales

Their headlong passes, but his footstep fails,

And red with blood the Crescent reels from fight

Before their dauntless hundreds, in prone flight

By thousands down the crags and thro' the vales.

O smallest among peoples! rough rock-throne

Of Freedom! Warriors beating back the swarm

Of Turkish Islam for five hundred years,

Great Crna Gora! Never since thine own

Black ridges drew the cloud and brake the storm

Has breathed a race of mightier mountaineers.


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MY LIFE’S PATH

By Vidak Milovich

 
Vidak Milovich circa 1930

Remembering and thinking about all that I have gone through since the 18th year of my life, as well as the three wars in which I participated, and since I now being retired have time, I decided to write a short autobiography. I am doing this in spite of the fact that I am neither a writer nor an author. I will begin from my 18th year of life...

Under the laws of Crna Gora [Montenegro] regarding military service, every young "Crnogorac" [Montenegrin] by the age of 18 was called to serve in the armed forces for a period of time. This time of service was not long - from 3 to 6 months at the most, in order that the young man could become familiar with the most important military skills. It was not necessary to have a longer period of training since every youngster between the age of 12 and 15 was familiar with the handling of wartime weapons. In Montenegro there existed people’s armies of clans and each clan had its own battalion. Every Montenegrin between 18 and 70 years of age received arms, always from Russia and the Russian Czar, which were comprised of a rifle or bayonet and a revolver. Those arms were kept in their homes and practice was held on each holiday with the youngsters always participating. Therefore, by the time they were adults, they were already familiar with the skills of war.


The Balkan Peninsula 1878-1912

In 1912, I was called to serve my time in the military, and 6 months later the First Balkan War erupted, with Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria on one side and the Turkish Empire on the other. Upon agreement between the allied Balkan countries, Montenegro declared war on the Turks 10 to 15 days before the other countries entered the war. We were recruited immediately into our various companies and battalions. In addition to Russian arms we also had uniforms. My battalion advanced over the Cijevna River [river that flows through Montenegro and Albania] toward the border towns of Tuzi and Sipcanik [towns in the Podgorica, Montenegro municipality] which in those days were well-fortified with a strong defense. We crossed many large natural marvels over the Prokletije mountain range. It was there that I saw an old priest with a cross and a gun in his hands jump from one mountain to another! We were headed toward Skadar, then also known as Scutari.



The Prokletije mountain range
Photos courtesy of "Skyscraper City"


Battles were fought on all sides and I remember that in the very beginning we captured one Albanian. Since I was a young recruit, they gave him to me to escort him to the commander for questioning. The Albanian was tied up and walked in front of me. All at once, he suddenly turned around and tried to bite off my nose! In my surprise, I accidently hit him with the end of my gun, causing him to bleed from his mouth. I had to explain this to my commander, because in Montenegro prisoners of war were not to be mistreated. Though they were the enemy, they were to be treated in a civilized manner.

We captured 80 Turkish soldiers and our battalion, whose holdings were meager as it was, generously gave up two of their much needed oxen to the prisoners. The prisoners killed the two oxen and divided the meat between them. Our guards, who were supposed to watch over the prisoners, did not monitor them too closely, so there were instances when the prisoners fled and returned to their own army.

Montenegro was a small and poor country. The army was usually supported by the people as help was not received from the richer Balkan allies. The military budget was small and insignificant and was unable to provide the military with all the necessities that were needed. Thus, the soldiers often went hungry. When the rains and snow came, the soldiers didn't have adequate clothing and often became ill as a result of the weather. In addition, we were often involved day and night in constant struggles with our well-equipped enemies. We often came across villages that had stockpiles of stored corn, and those of us who were younger and had strong teeth were able to eat it. However, it was difficult for the older men, like the priest who fought with his cross and gun.

It is really impossible to write of all the difficulties under which we fought and survived during that time, but Montenegrins did not lack that which was most important - heroism and courage.

There was no rushing to capture Scutari (Skadar) before it was fortified, when it would have been easier to capture with less losses. For this the fault could be laid on individual brigade commanders. Something was not done properly, but we soldiers didn’t know what it was, and we never did learn what it was. Other parts of the Montenegrin army, which operated in Sandzak under the command of General (Serdar) Janko Vukotic, had great success and the cities fell one after another under the pressure of that army and Sandzak was liberated from the Turks in a short time. Then, that group continued to Metohija [the southwestern part of Kosovo], capturing Prizren [in southern Kosovo], the capital of Tsar Dushan, about which even King Nikola of Montenegro, wrote poems. The Montenegrins liberated great parts of Metohija, and Djakovica [in western Kovoso], too, was liberated from the Turks as the army of Serbia arrived. Vukotic established Montenegrin authority in all of the cities and then moved with his group to help the army around Scutari.

Well known and admirable is the crossing of the Montenegrins over the formidable wonder of nature, the mountains of Bogicevice, considered to be uncrossable. During this crossing in wintertime, there were numerous casualties of people as well as animals used in transporting war equipment. Both people and animals fell and were crushed in the deep pits of these unfortunate mountains. But it didn’t stop the heroic people of Montenegro, and the army arrived at Scutari.

While the command was hesitating to capture Skadar [Scutari], even with the arrival of a fresh and large army, fueled by the long-standing dream of finally freeing the Serbian people who had suffered for centuries under the tyrannical Ottoman conqueror, Austria used that time to send her military experts to fortify Scutari. With regards to her policy for conquering the Balkans, it was not in Austria’s interest that the two Slavic kingdoms, (Serbia and Montenegro) come together and secure for themselves an outlet to the sea.

The Austrians fortified Scutari and the surrounding areas with concrete barriers, steel beams and rows of barbed wire. In an attempt to destroy the Austrian fortifications and the barbed wire obstacles, one had to have artillery, which we didn’t have. Some of the brave sons of Montenegro stormed these barriers with their bare chests, leaving their lives and heroic bodies on the barbed wires of Scutari.

To be able to approach through the open fields, barbed wires and fortifications, we wove branches into baskets and filled them with stones, and those were our “tanks” at that time. Strong fire from Turkish cannons quickly destroyed our “tanks” and we were left helpless in the open fields, exposed to cannon and machinegun fire. Despite this, the Montenegrin heroes did not back down. At that hard moment a unit of the Serbian army arrived, I think if I am not wrong, under the command of General Damjan Popovic. The Serbian army was well armed with especially good artillery and immediately went into battle at “Brdica”, which was also well fortified, suffering large losses.

To prevent the fall of Skadar to the Serbians, the Austrians sent an ultimatum to the Serbian government to withdraw from their Scutari positions within the following 24 hours. The Serbians complied, and the Montenegrins were, once again, alone in their quest to take Skadar at any price and in spite of everything.

In the spring of 1913, most likely in April, the Montenegrin army headed by Crown Prince Danilo, finally entered Scutari. Esad Pasha gave Danilo the keys to Scutari, which had been, in the middle ages prior to the Ottoman conquest, the capital of the Kings of Zeta.

The First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire neared its end with the liberation of Scutari. Only Jedrene where the Bulgarian army was battling was left to complete the job. It was necessary for Field Marshal Stepa Stepanovich to go there with his Serbian army, and under attack by the Serbian and Bulgarian forces, Jedrene fell. The peace terms were concluded in London and the Turks renounced their claim of the Balkan territory they had held for more than five centuries. Jedrene was given to Turkey as was the immediate land next to Bosporus and Constantinople.

Not too long after capturing Scutari, an unhappy Austria demanded that the Great Powers blockade Montenegro with their navies and gave Montenegro an ultimatum to leave Scutari. King Nikola and his army found themselves in an impossible position. To leave Scutari, where they had lost 10,000 Montenegrins, was a real tragedy for Montenegro. For Montenegro to declare war on all of Europe was politically unwise and impossible. In addition to all of this, Russian Tsar Nikola II, under pressure from the other Great Powers, advised the Montenegrin King to leave Scutari, to the shame of the Great Powers, executioners of the Balkan people. Scutari [Skadar], the oldest Serbian capital, built by the Zeta rulers, was given to Albania, the new state that was created in 1913 by the Great Powers. But this was not the only crime committed by the Great Powers against a small people. History is full of this kind of crime of the Great against the small.

Just when we were demobilized and headed to our homes, the Second Balkan War between Bulgaria against Serbia, Greece, Romania, Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire erupted in mid-June of 1913. Montenegrin King Nicholas I immediately sent help to Serbia and organized a division of about 10,000 Montenegrins, with about 25 soldiers in each company. At that time I, too, was selected by the battalion commander. We didn't know where or why we were going. The talk was that we were going to the celebration of the liberation of Kosovo. But around Skopje in Macedonia we began to meet wounded Serbian soldiers, and we then realized where and why we were going.


Serbia and Montenegro 1913

The Balkan Peninsula 1912-1913

Our division was scheduled to the terrain around the Bregalnica River, [the second largest river in the Republic of Macedonia] under the command of General Janko Vukotic. The battles started, and although they were well-armed, the Bulgarians many times were unable to withstand the Montenegrin assaults. Every Montenegrin was equipped, along with his rifle and bayonet, with a revolver which served them well during their assaults. These revolvers were received from Russia. When we first crossed into Bregalnica, the river was shallow and we were able to cross it easily. The blood from those killed in battle flowed into that river, but so did the rains that came, and soon the river was overflowing with the rains that continued to fall and on the way back many of our Montenegrin soldiers did not make it across alive, especially those who were unable to hold onto others. We lost many to the waters of the Bregalnica.


Photo of the Bregalnica River by Dragan Mitic on Panoramio


In the battles around the small and large peaks of the Govedarnik Mountain range in Macedonia the Montenegrins suffered the most as the Bulgarian soldiers were well-armed with modern weapons and artillery. I remember that before our assault, the Bulgarians on the small Govedarnik slaughtered Jovan Trebjesanina-Lopusin, the son of the famous Montenegrin Serdar Begana Trebjesanina Lopusin and that occurred during the last day of the battles, after Bulgaria had already been conquered.

During this time, the deadly illness Cholera invaded the Serbian Army. This grave illness carried high temperatures, nausea, blood loss, loss of sight, and sometimes death. Cholera had so taken over the army that huge graves were dug where there were as many as 30 soldiers buried at one time. I myself contracted the illness, but I survived it. Once this Second Balkan War was over in July of 1913, our army returned to Montenegro where we were met by King Nikola who congratulated us on our victory and expressed his deep sorrow for the great losses and suffering we had endured.

Somehow, with the help of friends, I crossed the mountains of Sinjajevina in the north of Montenegro and arrived in Niksic where there was a horse waiting for me. Friends led the horse since I didn't know where I was going. Finally, we arrived in Grahovac and our own homes.


Peace between the warring Balkan countries was fortified in Bucharest in August of 1913 and the arbitrator was Russian Czar Nicholas II. Immediately upon my return from Bulgaria and the return of my health from Cholera, I decided to accompany my uncle on his journey to America. I informed my father of my decision which he did not approve of. Inasmuch as I was determined to get to America and had definitely decided to go with my uncle, my father's attempt to dispel my plan was unsuccessful.

I purchased a ticket to Galveston, Texas. After arriving in Galveston, I worked at various jobs until the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, which was triggered by the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Ferdinand, and his wife Sofija, in Sarajevo on Vidovdan, June 28, 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Young Bosna Organization. The First World War began as a result of the ultimatum by Austria-Hungary to Serbia. The “excuse” for going to war was the assassination of Ferdinand, but the real reason was economic imperialism and colonization by the Great Powers.

As the new war in Europe grew bigger and wider, a great campaign calling for the enlistment of Serbian volunteers was initiated in all areas of America and Canada wherever there were Serbian congregations and communities. In fact, some politicians from Serbia traveled to America to recruit volunteers. There was a large number of Serbs from Montenegro in my community and immediately 18 volunteers were recruited. Some of the men had difficulty deciding whether or not to volunteer, but after talking between themselves about how “Milovich” (myself), “who had participated in two very recent wars was now volunteering to participate in yet a third war in so many years, why wouldn't they?

From Galveston, Texas we left for Montreal, Canada where 2,200 volunteers were assembled. We were trained a little there and then left for Halifax where we were loaded onto two ships. The journey crossing the ocean was very difficult but we finally arrived in Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea where we were greeted by the English. Three days later we left for Solun (Salonika), Greece. When we arrived among the Allied troops we were asked where we wanted to go. I replied that I wanted to go to my own battalion in Montenegro. We arrived at our unit on October 4th, 1915, right before the enemy occupation of Serbia and Montenegro.

As in every war, but even more so over the course of this First World War, battles were waged, soldiers and civilians suffered, soldiers and civilians were wounded and killed, and there was as much suffering from bad weather conditions, disease and hunger as there was from the brutality of the enemy.

Life during the Austrian occupation was worse than unfortunate. In addition to losing their freedom, the people suffered many difficulties under the occupation which resulted in the lack of harvest from the land, which they needed for their survival, and poverty. Men died from starvation in their own homes. Workers received a bag of corn flour which they took home and mixed with water to make some sort of "skob" which was eaten without salt. They also gave us some sort of grass which even the animals wouldn't eat. This was coupled with the cold, rain and snow. Life under the Austrian occupation is hard to describe, even for one who is well-versed in writing. How then can I describe it? Nevertheless, I am writing as I remember it.

The collapse and defeat of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria was finally completed in late 1918. Peace conferences began their work, and the establishment of the peace process began with American President Wilson’s well-known “14 Points”. For us came freedom. The former independent kingdoms of Montenegro and Serbia were unified in November of 1918 and on December 1, 1918 the unified country of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, [later to become the first Yugoslavia in 1929] comprised of Slavic territories formerly under Austria-Hungary, was established under the dynasty of Karageorgevich.

The Austro-Hungarians who had occupied our land and terrorized us during the occupation quickly evacuated and fled. I remembered well one Hungarian who had beat me with the butt of his gun and those wounds did not heal easily, but he, too, fled when they were defeated so that I was not able to find him.

At the end of WWI, I was ordered to remain in Montenegro and secure Velimlje, Montenegro, because not all Montenegrins and supporters of the Montenegrin Petrovic-Njegos dynasty were in agreement with the unification of Serbia and Montenegro which was announced by the "Podgorica Assembly” of November 24, 1918, and there were some rebellions. I remained in "Velimlju" until the time when the volunteers from America decided to return to America. The new country [“Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”] paid the travel expenses back to New York for all volunteers who had survived the war.

Vidak Milovich circa 1920


When we arrived in New York, we were immediately confronted by businessmen and agents from various companies, and we were shipped further. I ended up in Duquesne, Pennsylvania [part of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area]. Once again I was faced with great difficulty as it was almost impossible to find work. I didn't work for more than 2 months, so I left for Cleveland, Ohio. I found work in Cleveland working with wire cables. Working with me were Blazo Dakovic and two Bokezi-Bjiladinovic and Radovic. We ended up quitting that job, because an agency promised us work on a boat, but first we had to join the union and pay $5.00 in dues and $2.50 to join. We waited over 8 days and no work was to be had. I left for Russellton, Pennsylvania to work in a coal mine where I quit after three days and left for another coal mine in Sesser, Illinois where I worked for a longer time.

After working for three years at this coal mine in Sesser, Illinois, I was married in 1923 to Mildred Dakovich, who had five brothers and five sisters! I worked in that mine for periods of six months at a time. When the company did not have a market for coal they would close the mine and reopen when the sale of coal increased. Life again became very difficult, because there was now a family to support, and the children came one after another, each of them needing to be cared for. My wife and I had six children, five girls and one boy.


The Milovich's celebrate their
50th wedding anniversary
in 1973


To the great misfortune of everyone, the Great Depression descended upon us, and all work stopped. I then looked for work in Kentucky where I was paid 20 cents for a ton and after working there for two months I wasn't able to earn enough to buy gas for the car.

At the end of 1935, I found work with the Carnegie Steel Company and following one year's work I made enough to send for my family and for household furnishings. And that's the way it went - working sometimes, without work other times. I was often laid-off because of the lack of work and because I didn't have seniority. I then went to work for the WPA [the Works Progress Administration] for eight months until our company would call us back to work for three days a week. Sometimes there would not be work for even one day, but we had to show up to show our interest in whether there would be work. The answer was usually 'there is no work, come back tomorrow'. This kind of life and work continued until the start of the Second World War when work became immediately available on all sides since war needs had to be satisfied, for a war unlike any the world had ever seen up to that time in history. I want to say here that I never worked overtime and I never worked on my Krsna Slava (my Patron Saint's Day) or Orthodox Christmas and Easter.

In 1959, I went into retirement and was spared from company lay-offs and shutdowns forever.

Since, as a pensioner I now had a lot of free time, I went back to the old country in 1964 where I remained for four months. Even four months seemed too short a time since I had many relatives, friends, neighbors and God-children who all wanted me to visit with them. This was a wonderful time, in a beautiful place, which I will always remember. I have wanted to visit my beautiful Monenegro again, but now age has caught up with me. With age comes many illnesses and weaknesses. In my 83rd year of life the perils of age have not avoided me. I have lost most of my hearing, my vision has decreased, and my hands tremble. However, I can still do some things with great effort and bear these 83 years quite well. So, even though my hands tremble and my vision is poor, I decided to write this little memoir in order that my children and grandchildren, as well as my friends, will know how in my life's path I withstood the difficulties of life, including the wars that came and went, beginning in my youngest years.

Beyond this desire, I feel that there is a personal satisfaction in reliving one’s past and its memories. Everything I have written here was described in short form, for to write in detail about all that I have lived through since my 18th year would fill a 500-page book. I am not a suitable historian even were I a younger man and not the old man I am today, nor did I relive my experiences for the pages of history. I have lived for 83 years, and this has been my life’s path.

Vidak Milovich


December 12, 1975


Vidak Milovich at the wedding
of his daughter Zorka in March of 1976


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Mr. Vidak Milovich and his wife spent his last years in Alsip, Illinois. He passed away on April 5, 1976, one month after seeing his daughter Zorka get married and four months after writing this memoir.

He, along with his wife Mildred, his son Peter, and his daughter Stana, are buried in the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Libertyville, Illinois. Zorka and Marie remain the two surviving children of the six.

Those who knew Vidak Milovich will never forget him.


Northern Montenegro

File:Durmitor - Škrčko jezero.jpg
Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
Photo by "Mercy" at Wikipedia Commons

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If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at heroesofserbia@yahoo.com


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2 comments:

Bettyann Hamilton said...

I had the extreme pleasure to meet Mr. Milovich. What a wonderful read and an inspiration to document your personal history. Thank you for sharing this.

Jason said...

I am proud to have been able to say this man was my Jedo (Grandpa). Unfortunately he passed away when I was only two but his legacy lives on. Throughout my life I have heard many great stories of him from people I hardly knew. I am very happy my Aunt Zorka was able to put everything together and let people know what a great man he was!