On August 10, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia, birds were singing and the sun was shining when Ernest Herbert Dervishian took his first breath. His parents Hagop and Mary were Armenian refugees who were forced to leave their beloved land and started a new life in the United States. After surviving hell, this little angel was a true gift of God.
Dervishian was a cheerful boy who was always willing to help and eager to learn something new. After studying at Richmond College, he decided to become a doctor until an unforgettable tour of the Medical College of Virginia made him change his mind. He later recalled, “They showed us the most gruesome things to see if we could take it, and I just couldn’t. This included an entire bin of cadavers. I had never seen a dead man before”. After realizing that the medical field wasn’t for him, Dervishian went to law school and passed the bar in December 1937.
A son is never old enough or strong enough to lose his dad, and neither was Dervishian. He lost his father on February 21, 1940. The following year, Dervishian put his law career on hold to serve his country and fight for peace, democracy and freedom. He became a proud member of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division and first saw combat in Tunisia. Like every soldier serving in the US Army, Dervishian received basic training, but nothing could prepare these young men for what they were about to endure.
Thousands of miles from home, Dervishian saw the indescribable horrors of war and knew that he could be captured, wounded or killed at any moment. The thought of dying and never seeing his loved ones again was terrifying. Dervishian later said, “Any man who tells you he’s not scared when fighting is either a fool or a liar.”
Author and educator John Baldoni once said, “Heroism is not blind courage: it is selfless action. It is knowing the odds are stacked against you, but feeling that you must do what you do for the good of others.” That is exactly what Dervishian did, day after day, battle after battle.
T/Sgt Ernest H. Dervishian was among the infantrymen who confronted German forces in Italy. First near Salerno (September 1943), and then near Anzio (January 1944). The fighting was ferocious, and so many lives were taken by the cruelty of war.
On May 23, 1944, Dervishian and four members of his platoon were near the village of Cisterna, Italy. They were far ahead of their company and were advancing cautiously. As Dervishian approached a railroad embankment, he spotted many German soldiers hiding in dugouts. He then told his four comrades to cover him and launched a solo attack, which took the Germans by surprise. Dervishian and his men captured 25 German prisoners who were picked up by advancing units. Shortly after, Dervishian and his men spotted more German soldiers and launched another attack against them. Ignoring his own safety and the bullets flying above his head, Dervishian kept moving forward and managed to capture more German soldiers. The Americans kept attacking German positions, but suddenly, Dervishian and his men were pinned down by a heavy machine gun stationed 15 yards away. In order to make the Germans stop firing, Dervishian decided to play dead. He later recalled, “I laid still for about 10 minutes. I was shaking so hard I thought it would give me away. Bullets sprayed alongside my arm so close that they made my sleeve flutter.” When the firing stopped, the unthinkable happened. Dervishian stood up and attacked the machine gun nest with hand grenades and his carbine. He forced the four Germans inside the nest to surrender and used their machine gun to attack another German position. The entire engagement lasted about 25 minutes, and Dervishian ultimately captured 39 German soldiers.
To honor his outstanding courage, on January 8, 1945, Dervishian was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for military valor. When he returned to Richmond, the mayor declared February 1st as “Dervishian Day” with more than 30,000 people in attendance to acclaim this Armenian American hero.
Following the war, Dervishian remained active in the Army Reserve and retired as a colonel in 1968. He became the happiest man in the world on December 10, 1950, when he married the love of his life, Anne Garoogian. Together, they raised three lovely girls.
On May 20, 1984, in Richmond, Virginia, birds were singing and the sun was shining when a hero named Ernest Herbert Dervishian took his last breath. Three days later and exactly 40 years after that extraordinary day in Italy, a crowd gathered at Westhampton Memorial Park in Richmond, Virginia, to honor a remarkable man, a loving husband, a wonderful father and a true hero.
Like all the Armenian American heroes who gave everything they had to defeat the forces of tyranny, Dervishian didn’t consider himself a hero. “God’s hand was on my shoulder. I was lucky. Countless others performed acts equal to mine. They were not so lucky.” But Dervishian was a real hero—a relentless hero whose bravery was stronger than fear; a selfless hero who was willing to die for future generations to live in peace; an inspiring hero whose legacy will live on forever.