People on Lithuanian money. Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas


On 17 July 1933, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean on their plane Lituanica with only 650 kilometres remaining to reach Lithuania, the country’s heroes Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas plummeted to their deaths. Their images were featured on Lithuanian money.

Who were Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas?

Steponas Darius (real name – Steponas Jucevičius-Darašius) was born on 8 January 1896 in the village of Rubiškė, Tauragė district. In 1907, his struggling family emigrated to the US. In 1916, Darius graduated from the Engineering School and later continued his studies in this particular field. Ever since he was little, he enjoyed sports (played basketball and baseball) and engineering (especially aviation). Later he changed his surname to Darius. In 1917, the US declared war on Germany and Darius voluntarily joined the army. He served as a telephone operator, fought in France and was wounded. After returning to the US, he actively participated in a military organisation of the US Lithuanians, organised volunteer recruitment and sent them to Lithuania. In 1920, he left for Lithuania himself. As soon as he arrived, he was appointed to the Intelligence Unit of the General Staff. After that, Darius served as a scout pilot. In 1924, he received the rank of Military Pilot and Senior Lieutenant. In 1923, he was actively helping in organising the Klaipėda Revolt. As already mentioned, he was interested not only in aviation, but also in sports. He was the pioneer of quite a few sports in Lithuania, as he played football, was a long-standing goalkeeper for the Lithuanian national team, partook in athletics and received a silver medal in javelin throw at the Lithuanian championship. He spread the word about basketball and baseball, both of which were relatively unknown in Lithuania at that time. Darius participated in the first basketball game and received the title of the highest-scoring player. He also enjoyed winter sports, as he played hockey and broke some of Lithuania’s records in speed skating. He was also the chairman of many sports leagues and wrote books on sports. In 1927, Darius received the rank of Captain and returned to the US in the same year. There he got his pilot’s licence and launched commercial activities in flying post and passengers. However, his business was not successful. In 1928, he retired and started dreaming of flying to Lithuania. Darius continued to work as a pilot in various US companies and founded an aeroclub of US Lithuanians.

Stasys Girėnas (real name – Stanislovas Girskis) was born in 1893 in Vytogala (the current-day Šilalė district) into a large family. Girėnas was the youngest, sixteenth (!), child. However, due to illnesses and other misfortunes, only four children survived and the parents also passed away at a quite young age. Due to their challenging circumstances, Stasys and his brother Petras in 1910 left for Chicago, the US, where he started working at a press. He was interested in machinery, thus he purchased a bicycle (these were still quite rare back then), a motorcycle and, later, a motorboat and would take people on it for a fee to sail the lake in Michigan Girėnas was highly interested in aviation. During World War I, he voluntarily joined the US army and changed his surname to Girch to sound more American. In the army, he served in the Air Corps and learned to fly planes professionally. In 1919, when the war ended, he was demobilised. After returning from the army, he purchased a vehicle and, alongside other enthusiasts, founded the first Lithuanian taxi company, where he worked as a cashier and a driver. The company was quite successful until 1929, when the Great Depression started and the firm went bankrupt. In 1924, Girėnas and his Swede friend purchased a plane to fly at their spare time. In 1925, he fell and got severely wounded but later recovered and did not lose his love for flying. In 1931, he was awarded the American Legion Aviation Company’s prize for the most accurate landing with a dead engine. In the same year, he obtained a transport pilot licence which allowed him to fly passengers and goods weighing up to 3,500 pounds. After purchasing his own new plane, within three years he managed to train as much as 52 pilots (three of them were Lithuanians).

Transatlantic flight

Darius and Girėnas got acquainted in 1927. They were united by their love for planes and thus came up with the idea to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Lithuania and make the country famous. Even nowadays there are not many small planes that could succeed in flying such a long distance and back then it was much more of a brave plan. In 1932, they purchased a six-seat plane Pacemaker from the US company Bellanca for 3,200 dollars and started preparing it for the flight. Interestingly, this was when a more Lithuanian surname – Girėnas – was thought of: when Darius and Girėnas shared their plan with one of the Lithuanian newspapers in the US, its publisher decided that Girskis or Girch does not sound very Lithuanian and suggested the surname Girėnas. The plane’s name Lituanica was also suggested by the editor of the Lithuanian newspaper Naujiena. Both US Lithuanians and Lithuanians in the homeland gathered money for the flight. Around 4,000 dollars were collected. A route was set up: New York – Newfoundland – Atlantic Ocean – Ireland – Kaunas, making a total of 7,186 kilometres. The prepared plane could fly 8,000 kilometres. Lituanica took off from New York Airport on 15 July 1933. The pilots were also carrying a parcel (it was the first transatlantic parcel in the world). After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, due to difficult weather conditions over Ireland, Darius and Girėnas veered to the north and reached Germany via Scotland and the North Sea. Lituanica crashed on the night of 17 July near the village of Kuhdamm, Soldin (now Pszczelnik, Poland), with only 650 kilometres remaining to their ultimate goal. 25,000 people waiting in Kaunas Aleksotas Airport did not see their heroes arrive. The news of the catastrophe reached Lithuania only the next day. There is still no clear explanation why Lituanica crashed after having travelled the longest and most difficult part of its trip. The official explanation was that the crash was caused by a storm or an engine defect (there is an unofficial version that the plane could have been shot down by the Nazis). Even though they did not reach their goal, Darius and Girėnas earned their place in the history of global aviation. Lituanica spent 37 hours and 11 minutes in air without landing and flew a total of 6,411 kilometres (to the crash site). At the time, it was the second longest flight globally. It was also the second most accurate flight in the history of aviation. Darius and Girėnas paved the way for airmail between America and Europe.

Darius and Girėnas’ commemoration on a banknote

After their death, Darius and Girėnas became national heroes and were awarded the 5th Class Order of the Cross of Vytis and many others. There are numerous monuments, paintings, songs, streets and even settlements (the village where Steponas Darius was born was renamed to Darius) dedicated or named in their honour. Moreover, a lot of documentaries and a motion picture (1983) were also created. The pilots’ personal belongings and the plane’s wreckage are exhibited at the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas.

One of the most notable commemorations was Darius and Girėnas’ depiction on money – their images could be seen on the 10 litas banknote up until 2015.

When the Soviet occupation was nearing its end, during the Reform Movement, the idea of having national money became an object of discussion. On 11 September 1989, a group of researchers, bankers and artists gathered at the Institute of History and discussed the design guidelines of Lithuanian money. In December of the same year, a design tender was announced. Unfortunately, artists did not yet have a clear idea on how the money should look like, thus no one was declared as the winner. Two painters – Alvydas Mandeika and Liudvikas Pocius – were awarded second places. Pocius was the one to feature the famous pilots in his design. However, they were featured on the 1 litas banknote instead of 10 litas at first. After that, there was a lot of discussion on both the banknote designs and who or what should be featured on them. A lot of consideration was given to featuring the Grand Dukes of Lithuania but this idea was later abandoned since there are no real portraits of these rulers. It was later decided to feature the figures of the 19th-century National Revival and eminent personalities of the early 20th century. It was considered whether Darius and Girėnas should be featured on the 5 litas banknote at first, yet it was later decided that it should be the 10 litas banknote. Their depiction was supposed to demonstrate the connection that Lithuania has with its diaspora.

In 1991, a US printing house printed the first issue of litas banknotes. The design of the 10 litas banknote was created by the artist Giedrius Jonaitis. Truth be told, the first issue was not of a high quality, had too little security features and the whole design looked quite naive. Especially that of the 10 litas banknote, which was black and white, and the portraits were placed in the centre of the banknote (which is usually avoided because banknotes are often folded in the middle, thus the portraits would get destroyed). Therefore, the design created by Jonaitis for 5 litas was applied to the 10 litas banknote. As already mentioned, the pilots’ portraits were placed in the middle of the obverse, while the reverse featured Lituanica flying over the stormy ocean from America to Europe, heading to Lithuania. The portraits were reproductions of two photos merged into one image. As Jonaitis recalls, he did not think that his simple design will be reproduced without adding intricate ornaments and security features that are characteristic of banknotes. He thought that his composition was only an idea, a foundation that would be used by money producers. However, they left the original design which was by no means perfect. The banknote had too much blank space, the denominations were too small and there were other issues as well. When creating a new issue, the pilots’ portraits were moved to the right side and more details and colours were added, so the design of the 1993 issue of the 10 litas banknote is much more familiar to Lithuanians today. There were a total of five issues of the 10 litas banknote (1991, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2007).

The last two issues featured probably the most accurate portraits and had a lot of security features. There are also some interesting tiny details that one can notice. For example, on the lower left corner, there are see-through signs on the obverse and the reverse that combine to form the Lituanica plane when held up to the light. Another detail that made the banknote especially popular amongst US collectors cannot be easily spotted with the naked eye. Darius is portrayed wearing a hat which has the logo of the famous Chicago Airport Palwaukee as well as the words Milwaukee and Palatine (area names that were used to form the airport’s name). Darius used to always wear this hat in public.

The banknote itself was and still is valued around the globe not only because of this tiny detail, but also due to its unique design. In 2009, it was even featured on the cover of the famous World Paper Money Catalogue issued in the US.

On 1 January 2015, the litas was replaced by the euro and the described 10 litas banknote became a numismatic value.

Darius and Girėnas’ commemoration on a coin

When the litas was introduced on 25 June 1993, the Bank of Lithuania’s first commemorative coin followed soon after. It was a 10 litas coin made from an alloy of white copper and nickel, dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the transatlantic flight of Darius and Girėnas. Its design was created by the artist Petras Garška, who also designed the 1991-issue circulation coins. The obverse of the coin features the Vytis, same as all other the Bank of Lithuania’s coins. Interestingly, when the new standard of the coat of arms was not approved yet, circulation coins featured Juozas Zikaras’ interpretation of the Vytis, created during the interwar period. The described commemorative coin offered the first chance to use the new standard of the coat of arms (Arvydas Každailis’ interpretation approved on 4 September 1991). Therefore, this coin was the first one to feature the Vytis as we know it today. The reverse features the pilots’ portraits. It was created during the interwar period. The composition of the pilots’ portraits was created immediately after their deaths by the sculptor Bronius Pundzius (he also created the bas-reliefs of the pilots on the famous Puntukas stone). The slogan on the coin’s edge reads: ŠLOVĖ ATLANTO NUGALĖTOJAMS (GLORY TO THE CONQUERORS OF THE ATLANTIC).

Darius and Girėnas are etched into the hearts of every Lithuanian and are well-known even far away from the country. These men really deserve to be featured not only in paintings or films, but also on money. This makes them forever a part of our collective memory.