A Tribute to Brig. Gen. Haig Shekerjian

The highest ranking Armenian American serving in U.S. military graduated from West Point 100 years ago.

Brigadier General Haig Shekerjian is one of the highest ranking Armenian Americans ever to serve in the U.S. military, and the first cadet of Armenian parentage to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., at the turn of the last century. One hundred years later, West Point continues to attract American cadets of Armenian descent. An important figure both in U.S. military history and post-genocide relief efforts, Shekerjian’s example inspired scores of young Armenians to enlist in the U.S. army at the height of World War II.

Photo from ‘United States Army in World War II: The Technical Services: The Chemical Warfare Service: Organizing for War’ by Leo P. Bropby and George J. B. Fisher, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.: 1989.
Brigadier General Haig Shekerjian

Shekerjian was born on June 13, 1886, in Adabazar, Izmit, Turkey. He moved to the U.S. at the age of five with his parents Hagop and Esther (Alexanian). In 1911, on his birthday, he became the first cadet of Armenian descent to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree and was commissioned as second lieutenant of infantry.

From April 1916 to February 1917, Shekerjian, nicknamed “Shek,” served with the Punitive Expedition in Mexico under General John J. Pershing. During World War I, he served as assistant military attaché in Greece, and then with the Allied Armies of the Orient in the Middle East. In 1923, he was transferred to the Chemical Warfare Service and stayed with the branch for 39 years, retiring in 1946.

Shekerjian became the first Armenian American brigadier-general by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. (The other is Brigadier General Michael J. Tashjian, West Point class of 1948, who was deputy chief of staff, procurement, Headquarters Air Force Systems Command, Andrews Air Force Base, Md. He retired in 1976, and now resides in San Diego.) Shekerjian was appointed commanding general of the Chemical Warfare Replacement Training Center from 1942-43, after which he assumed the position of commanding general of Camp Sibert, in Alabama, from 1943-45. He then became deputy head of the Army and Navy Liquidation Commission, U.S. Middle East Theater of Operations (1945-46).

“My father told me about [Shekerjian] back in 1947, when I was applying for West Point,” recalls retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Sarkis Semerjian, West Point Class of 1953. “He mentioned [it] after he learned [about him] during a trip he took to the Boston area. He said, ‘You know, there is an Armenian general, retired now, that went to West Point.’”

Semerjian says it is important to remember Shekerjian. “He set a tone, a precedent, for more Armenians to apply [to West Point]. I found that most people in the military are totally unfamiliar with Armenia and Armenians. This is one way of bringing [it] to their attention. Most Armenians in the military did this. Peter Mirakian did this. George Juskalian did this [Retired army colonels, both deceased]. And I did this.”

The U.S.  Military Academy at West Point boasts two U.S. presidents—Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower—numerous distinguished generals, heads of foreign states, policy makers, and entrepreneurs. For Semerjian, it is important for Armenian Americans to be part of that institution, both to serve the country they now call home, and to repay an old debt—an idea that is a distant echo of Shekerjian’s words. Eleven cadets of Armenian descent were enrolled in the 2010-11 school year, and the school has two faculty members of Armenian ancestry, according to Semerjian.

In 1943, Private A. Baligian of the U.S. Army, a correspondent for the Hairenik Weekly (later renamed the Armenian Weekly), visited Camp Sibert and conducted a brief interview with Shekerjian, which appeared in the June 16, 1943 issue of the Weekly. Shekerjian spoke about his 1919 travels to Constantinople, Erzerum, Erzinga, Kars, Etchmiadzin, and Yerevan. “Having lost his parents early, he keenly regrets that he never learned the mother Armenian tongue, except a few scattered words,” wrote Baligian.

Shekerjian appeals to compatriots

That did not deter the general from remaining involved with the Armenian community. He delivered speeches at rallies and used various organs to reach out to Armenian Americans to garner support for the war effort during World War II, often referring to the heroism and sacrifice displayed during the war by Armenian Americans like Captain Albert Arabian and Lt. Ernest Dervishian. (Dervishian was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II. Upon returning to his hometown of Richmond, Va., Dervishian was presented with a $1,000 war bond, which he selflessly returned to the city, requesting it be used to help other veterans.)

On June 10, 1945, Shekerdjian delivered a speech to his compatriots at a War Bond Rally in Chicago sponsored by the Armenian Nationality Groups Division of the Treasury Department. His speech was clearly aimed at rousing pride and presenting the war as an opportunity to prove the Armenian resilience and fighter spirit.

“From personal experience I have found that men of Armenian parentage make excellent soldiers, even as their forefathers proved themselves on the Trans-Caucasian battlefields down through the years,” he said. “During this war I have known many soldiers of Armenian descent… These men feel their responsibilities as Americans and have fought, and are fighting, to preserve the American ideal as our ancestors fought to preserve the ideals which belonged to them in the land where Mount Ararat raised her stately towers to receive the Ark of Noah, thousands of years ago, and where legend tells us that the Garden of Eden lay in the valley of the Araxes.”

“It is not by chance that men of Armenian parentage are good soldiers. Stories of their ancestors tell that courage and bravery and love of freedom have always been foremost in the hearts of Armenian people… Armenians have been through many trying years but have never lost heart and forsaken the principles for which they fought so often,” he added.

Shekerjian was awarded the Army Commendation Ribbon and the Legion of Merit for his services during World War II. His appearances were essentially recruitment efforts. For Shekerjian, his service in the military was in part repayment of a debt owed by Armenians for American assistance to the survivors of the genocide.

In 1943, he concluded another speech by reminding the community how, after the genocide, Americans helped save Armenian orphans. “And today I have no doubt but that thousands of those youngsters restored to life by American food and American care fought with the Russian Armies at Stalingrad with their Armenian cousins of the Kuban [a geographic region in southern Russia, surrounding the river Kuban] and are today continuing the fight for total annihilation of German power in Russia,” he said. The speech appeared in the Jan. 19, 1944 issue of the Hairenik Weekly.

Twenty-five years earlier, traveling through Asia Minor, Shekerjian witnessed first-hand the pathetic and desperate circumstances Armenians were living in. “I am somewhat familiar with conditions then existing in Caesarea, Sivas, Erzingian, Erzeroum, Kars, Alexandropol, Erivan, Tiflis, and Zangezour,” he wrote. “I recall many thousands of very young orphans scattered through the Armenian Republic. Their future seemed hopeless as one saw young babies and small children lying around in filth and mud, with gaunt starved bodies, and their eyes filled with pathetic appeal.”

Those orphans, 25,000 of them, were saved through the efforts of the Near East Relief. Six months after his first visit, he returned to the area to see an orphanage, run by American volunteers, sheltering the children. “This time I saw smiling faces with well-rounded bodies. Children were running and playing children’s games, hide and seek, and even baseball,” he recalled.

Many in that generation felt a deep gratitude towards the U.S., and considered army service as a means to return a favor. “It shows that we are part of the United States; that we’re doing our share of serving in the military; that we’re not reluctant to serve. It’s paying back. It’s paying back for what they did to our surviving parents,” said Semerjian in an interview with the Weekly.

Thousands of homeless Armenians saved

When Nazi soldiers retreated from the Battle of Stalingrad, they brought back with them 3,500 Armenians. In 1947, George Mardikian, the San Francisco-based humanitarian and owner of the Ommar Khayyam chain of restaurants in Fresno and San Francisco, while in Germany, came across some of these Armenians. When he returned to the U.S., Mardikian tried to organize the Armenian American community to aid their compatriots in Germany. Soon, the Armenian National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians (ANCHA) was formed. The heads of the organization then approached Shekerjian and asked that he represent the organization in Germany. Shekerjian’s first task was to assure that these people, now in Germany, Austria, and Italy, had their immediate and basic needs met, and to transport them to a safe location.

In 1948, Shekerjian left for Germany with his wife Helen Russell Bain. There, he became chief ANCHA resident representative, near the Armenian Displaced Persons’ Camp, at Stuttgart. Around the same time, the Stratton Bill was passed, allowing large numbers of displaced people to enter the U.S. Shekerjian completed his mission by relocating around 3,000 of the original 3,500 to the U.S., a few hundred to South America, and arranged for the remaining Armenians to be received by their compatriots in the Middle East.

Almost half a century after Shekerjian’s death on Jan. 22, 1966, few today remember him, and fewer still know of his post-retirement humanitarian work. In an obituary, Shekerjian’s classmate, Benjamin C. Lockwood Jr., in the fall 1966 issue of Assembly, the former alumni magazine for West Point graduates, highlighted the accomplishments of his former roommate and friend, and, in simple and true words, wrote: “In Haig Shekerjian’s death, the Army and the country have lost a fine soldier and humanitarian.”

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Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk, and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in political science and English from the University of Massachusetts (Boston), where she is currently continuing her graduate studies. Email Nanore Barsoumian at writenanore@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter (@NanoreB).

19 Comments

  1. I had heard of the General and his travels in Armenia soon after the Genocide, but knew little else except that he was accompanied by another Armenian-Amercian namely, Lt. Khachadoorian. Thanks for filling in the details. I believe his nickname was actually “Sheik”.

  2. I loved that story/biography Nanore. I know there’s more out there. Please find ’em. I work in the film industry and Im gonna share this story with my co-workers. They love the Armenian culture and food.

  3. Hye, I knew  not of Haig Shekerjian’s connection with ANCHA… we have had such great humanitarians, patriots in our history… For, at St.l Illuminator’s Armenian Cathedral in New York city when the ANCHA organization, (with efforts of the owner of the Omar Kayam restaurant of California) was processing and assisting families entering the USA… ARS fed, cared for, then assisted in their relocating (most chose to go to California). The newcomers were all assisted and aided at our St. Illuminator’s Armenian Cathedral, 27th Street, New York City… Too, the Armenian Garmeer Khatch (ARS) women who, volunteering selflessly to assist our newcomers to the USA.  We have been blessed with so many in our diaspora for all their efforts for our Armenians – dedicated and devoted to our people across all nations, as well as our Haiastan. And, our ARS, volunteering to assist our people wherever, whenever, however… Armenian style.

  4. Dear Nanor, Thank you so much for reminding us such a great personality of our recent history.I”ve heard about him first time from my lovely neighbor Nazik, who had been in that camp after the war. When he visited the camp for the first time , he did not believe his eyes that these people were Armenian. Then those poor people spoke Armenian in order to convince him.  He immediately ordered food for them. Mr. Mardikyan was not only a restaurant owner, he was the main food supplier for the American soldiers in Europe.Together they work so hard to help these people. Since Mr. Mardikyan had very close relation with the government and especially Hoover, this hard work had been done.
    These people were not POW’s,Like my neighbor Nazik, they were taking from their hometown Tselanoke, in Greece, and sent to Germany by the Nazis to work as a slave in the factories. There were also Armenian soldiers fighting in Soviet Army, they did not want to go back because being POW, Siberia was waiting for them. Whenever Mr. Shekerjian had been visiting the camp, the Greeks was saying ” You’re King is here”. Yes, indeed, he acted like a king by protecting and saving the lives of his brothers and sisters. These are my neighbors memories who died two years ago.
    If you want more information about this time of our history you may read Mr.Mardikyan”s autobiography “Song of America”.

  5. Great article.  I am sure there are a lot more of us Armenian American veterans who also agree.  Possible book in the future???

  6. “There were also Armenian soldiers fighting in Soviet Army”
    In fact, there were more then 500,000 Armenian soldiers in Soviet Army fighting against Nazis.  This is out of 2,160,000 total Armenian population of USSR at that time.
    325,000 of them were drafted from Armenia proper and the rest from other republics including Georgia and Azerbaijan with 50,000 (or 33% of total Armenian population) from Artsakh-NKR, 25,000 of whom died – Turks loved to send Armenians to die and then count them as their own losses.
    The total Armenian losses were more then 300,000 soldiers with 175,000 of them from Armenia proper.  Total US losses in WWII were 418,500 compare to USSR’s 23,400,000.
    One interesting fact is that many Soviet POWs freed by the US forces died within a short period of time and first were buried together with US soldiers at the same military cemeteries.  “But in 1947, as the Cold War was picking up steam, the Americans decided that they wanted the cemetery for their own dead and reburied the remains of Soviet soldiers” to separate cemeteries…
    One of such cemeteries in Holland has a website and a Foundation that assists families to find their relatives’ graves: http://www.russisch-ereveld.nl/gezocht_armenie_en.html
    There are still at least five Armenian soldiers there whose relatives have not been found yet:
    Balasanyan, Artavazd Stepanovich
    b. 1910, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Akhalkhalaki district, Burnashet

    Arutyunyan, Babken
    b. 1907, Oktembryan (Armavir) district
    Zakharyan, Amayak Stepanovich (?)
    b. 1918
    Navzesov (?), Mussa
    b. 1900, Yerevan
    Petrosyan, Koryun
    b. 1915, Akhuryan district, Nerkin-Kanlidzha (Vagramaberd)
    The Foundation also offers an opportunity to adopt a grave by people unrelated to the fallen soldiers: http://www.russisch-ereveld.nl/grafadoptie_en.html

     

  7. Random Armenian,

    I know, it was an insane war that is unfortunately not studied well in schools here aside from the Pacific part of it and the 1944 invasion in Europe.
     
    The numbers I quoted are from a Wikipedia article with pretty good sources.  USSR lost estimated 24-28 MILLION people, but more then half of this number were civilians slaughtered by Nazis.  The military losses were much higher then they could be but remember that Soviet Union lost most of its European territory without much fight at the beginning of the war and had to retake it meter by meter.  The offense is always more costly then defense.
     
    The official draft ages for Soviet soldiers were I believe from 18-45, but in bad years extended further, plus it was common for younger kids to volunteer and lie about their age in order to enlist.
     
    These fallen Armenian soldiers made a huge sacrifice, but they saved civilian population of Armenia proper from Nazi occupation thus saving the nation.  For example, Belarus, which was occupied by the Nazis in the beginning of the war lost 25% of its civilian population.  In the case of Armenia the losses would be much higher because Turkey was ready to enter the war on the Nazi side but lost interest after the Stalingrad battle.  Nevertheless, Soviet Union had to keep about a million troops on the border with Turkey just to discourage it from getting any ideas… These troops were desperately needed in Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere, but had to stay on the border with Turkey to protect Armenia.
     
    Many Armenian soldiers were fighting in all-Armenian units and showed great courage and heroism en mass defending Crimea, Stalingrad, taking Berlin, and in many other important battles.
     
    A lot of war records are published now online and you can see scanned original military documents with names and dates of when soldiers were killed or MIA.  These databases are searchable by name, DOB, place of birth, etc.  I was able to find my great grandfather there – he died from wounds in a hospital during the Siege of Leningrad and is buried in a mass grave there  – we had no idea.  For many of Armenian soldiers the place of birth is listed as “Turkey” or cities in Western Armenia – this means they escaped the Genocide as little kids mostly born between 1910-1918…

  8. http://www.Voskanapat.info
    I’m having a hard time with the numbers. I’m not doubting them, it’s just the sheer size of the numbers.
    Ages 18-45, makes sense given the number of people recruited.
    There were many Armenians in the US who fought in the US military, and they themselves were the sons of genocide survivors. Imagine what their parents were going through with the possibility of losing even more.
    If you didn’t know what happened your great grandfather, finding the records must have brought some sort of closure.
    I had not heard about Soviet troops in Armenia to discourage Turkey. I’ll have to read up on it.
    I found another Armenian general: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Isakov He was born in Kars.
     

  9. Random Armenian,
    I didn’t mean to hijack this topic about an American Armenian general…
    Maybe there would be an opportunity on this site to publish more articles like this about other famous Armenians in the military.
    Isakov was a Fleet Admiral, not a general. There were many others in the Soviet Army, including the most known Marshall Bagramyan who was born in a village in Artsakh that was a birthplace for actually TWO Marshalls (5 star general equivalent I believe) and now occupied by Azeri Turks.

  10. Dear Nanore Barsoumian 
    Thank you very much for this article. Mr. Shekerjian is one of those GREAT Armenians , who just can’t be forgotten ! When I see such Armenians I become proud of being Armenian. Thank you once more, you’ve done excellent, outstanding job !!!
    Best regards
    Hrachya Hayrapetyan

  11. This is great information. If you don’t mind I would like to link this information to my website. I think is important to recognize people for their service and sacrafice whatever the background. On a day like today though, I think it is important to remember what a specific ethnicity contributed to our armed forces and how prevelant they were in supporting American values.

  12. I just finished reading the article on Gen. Hair Shekerjian. I was only a few years old when General Shekerjian came to visit the DP camp in Stuttgart.

    My father never forgot the good that was done by ANCHA.
    On February 22, 2015, a “Hoke Hankist” will be said at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Fresno, California for the Founding Fathers of ANCHA. This “Hoke Hankist” (may they rest in peace) has been requested by the Armenians who were displaced by WWII.

  13. I have a “short snorter” bank note of Iran bearing the autograph of Brig. Gen. Shekerjian probably signed 1945-46. The back of the note is autographed by the future Shah of Iran.

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