Gregory Melikian is not a household name in the Armenian community.
Not unless you’re connected with World War II and are familiar with lost history. For, his is a story that tops anything from the Book of Golden Deeds.
Exactly 67 years after sending the message that ended this conflict in Europe, Melikian was notified of his award from the French Legion of Honor.
A story recently published on the front page of the Arizona Republic detailed the account of this rarity and told the story of an Armenian American and his belated award. The fact he’s now 88 reaffirms the adage, “Better late than never.”
Despite his advanced age, Melikian owns and operates the San Carlos Hotel in Arizona. That, in itself, is worthy of exposure, much less the military award that ranks among the most prestigious of the lot rendered by the U.S. Army.
The moment remained etched in his mind. Melikian was the radio operator who typed out Eisenhower’s message to all military groups and command centers, informing the military world that the war had ended. The date was May 6, 1945.
People begged him to apply for the French Legion of Honor, an award given by the French president to citizens who have made contributions of exceptional merit.
The honor was created by Napoleon in 1802 and has gone to thousands of American World War II veterans to recognize acts of bravery during the Liberation of France.
After being convinced it was the right act to follow, for no other reason than to bring homage to his family, Melikian looked into the issue and noted the Legion of Honor was not bestowed posthumously.
He got right on it, but not without some rigmarole.
It took three years for him to cut through the red tape, due to a 1973 fire in the National Center of Personal Records in St. Louis, which destroyed an untold number of military records, including those belonging to Melikian.
As the bearer of good news, there was a precarious side to sending such a message. Had it been intercepted by hostile personnel, the results could have proved detrimental to this country. “It was either us or carrier pigeon—and we were a lot faster,” he recalled. “I used a code that has remained embedded in my mind that took 5 minutes to dispatch, consisting of 75 5-letter groups.”
It all took place at 3:30 a.m. Melikian was 20 at the time, miles away from home, and serving his country with pride and diligence. He had no idea if he’d survive the war, given the fact he was a high-priority target. Based on messages he had heard, Melikian sensed an end to the war. Announcing it was yet another matter.
Knowing the historic value of the coded message he had just transmitted, Melikian asked officers for the direct translation. Within minutes, he was handed the uncoded transcript.
It read: “A representative of the German High Command signed the unconditional surrender of all German land, sea, and air force in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command at 0141 hours Central European Time May 7, 1945.”
Melikian pulled the all-capital-letters message from the machine and tucked it away, knowing one day people would want to see one of the war’s most significant missives.
After his wedding and the birth of four children, he claims it was the greatest moment of his life. And all of America’s at that time.
“That’s when I knew for sure I was going home and in one piece,” he recalled. “I’d made it.”
The remainder of the morning was marked by celebration. Cups filled with champagne that made the region famous. Toasts in the war room. Germans conspicuous by their absence.
Once the war ended, Melikian secured a law degree in 1949 and established a successful practice in New York City, specializing in real estate.
In the summer of 1953, having developed a passion for the classical arts, he attended a ballet and was smitten by a particular Russian dancer named Emma. They wed in New York’s Russian Tea Room after an 11-month courtship.
The lawyer would eventually become a New York City civil judge but his true joy was purchasing and restoring historic buildings, many of which in Arizona where he now resides.
Thus, on May 7, 2012, Melikian was named a chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honor, receiving the coveted medal in California before his wife and family. Son Robert said he was never more proud of his dad.
“When we were growing up, he always told us he was the guy who ended World War II,” the son revealed. “For the longest time, we thought it was just a story.”