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.
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.”