On December 12, 1908, in Chicago, Illinois, a beautiful baby named Sam Kazar Harootenian was born. This little boy looked like an ordinary baby, sounded like an ordinary baby and behaved like an ordinary baby, but he was far from ordinary.
Sam was the pride and joy of Mary and Kazar Harootenian, Armenian refugees who were forced to leave their beloved land and start a new life in the United States. Sam loved his parents as much as they loved him, and he always listened to their precious advice.
From an early age, his parents told him what being Armenian is all about, and how, throughout history, Armenians have always shown resilience, strength and courage. Sam quickly understood that the Armenian blood running through his veins would always give him the capacity to resist, against all odds.
In 1943, the forces of tyranny were destroying everything like a tsunami, so Sam did what he had to do. Like many Armenian American men, he decided to join the US Army to liberate Europe and defeat the Nazis.
Known as Corporal Sam Harrison (his Americanized name), Sam Harootenian became a proud member of the 280th Field Artillery Battalion and landed on Utah Beach (Normandy, France) on September 18, 1944.
Sam participated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which took place in Germany between September 19, 1944 and December 16, 1944. More than 30-thousand American soldiers were killed or wounded during that battle. The fighting was so deadly that everyone called it “The Death Factory.”
The best way to comprehend what happened in that forest is to listen to the men who survived that horrendous battle.
John R. Weinert (12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division): “The death and destruction was unbelievable. Dead bodies were stacked, like logs, awaiting recovery. Whole sections of forests were sheared off 50 to 60 feet above ground by incoming artillery tree bursts.”
John Herbert Brill: “Many of the combat veterans who fought through the D-day landing and later the Hürtgen Forest remarked that Hürtgen was by far the bloodiest, most filthy fight they had encountered. These heroic men fought continuously within 50 yards of the enemy, often with actual physical contact and with sure death only seconds away. It was not an uncommon sight to see a dead soldier with the pit of his stomach ripped open, with his head blown completely off, with his back broken by shrapnel, or to hear the wounded scream in terrifying pain with their legs or arms completely blown off by an enemy shell.”
Camille E. Pepin (121st Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division): “You got so scared, it wasn’t funny. And let me tell you, there were no atheists in the foxholes, it’s true. It was indescribably dangerous and, looking back, it’s hard to believe you did that.”
Deep in that forest, Sam Harootenian showed remarkable courage and fought heroically. Against all odds, he survived the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and headed towards the Rhine River. He later recalled: “Our artillery scouts made their own reconnaissance and went into position as an isolated unit. We reached the Rhine on March 5, 1945. Crossed the Rhine on March 27, 1945.”
Three weeks before the war in Europe was over, Sam and his brothers-in-arms were in Hanover in Northern Germany. Suddenly, without any warning, their position was badly hit by German fire. The attack was devastating, and just like that, many young men were struck by the cruelty of war. Some died instantly, some died after several hours of agony, but Sam refused to die. In critical condition, he was transported to a field hospital where doctors said, “We’d better list him as killed in action.” Clinging to life, his left arm was torn off near the shoulder. He had lost three fingers on his right hand. His right knee had been totally crushed, and his pelvic bones were in pieces. Against all odds, he miraculously survived his wounds and was later taken to a hospital in Paris. He later recalled saying to himself: “Face up to it, Sam. Decide right now how you’ll take all this. Someday you’ll be out in the world, crippled. Will you whine, complain and lose all your friends? Are you going to talk, talk, talk about it, tell how you’re suffering, get everybody to pity you, and run from you? Or are you going to smile, shut up about your pains, be warmly interested in other people, and forget yourself by helping others?”
Sam ended up spending 27 months in hospitals and underwent 33 surgical operations. Day after day, week after week, month after month, he endured unbearable pain and suffering. His body was mutilated, his bones were shattered, and his heart was about to be broken into pieces. In 1946, while he was stuck in hospital, Sam’s mother passed away, and a few months later, his father also died.
Physically and emotionally destroyed, many men would have given up and surrendered to death, but this story isn’t the story of an ordinary man. It’s the story of an Armenian American hero who knew that life is worth living, no matter what.
Sam was later transferred to the Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco where he was given a wheelchair and intensive rehabilitation. He then decided to stay in San Francisco, where he launched two successful companies.
Sam also spent the rest of his life helping disabled military veterans. His story inspired so many disabled veterans, and his strength gave them so much hope. In 1950, Sam Harootenian was named “Hero of the Year” for rehabilitation work by the Disabled American Veterans. He then pursued his mission by doing extensive rehabilitation work with wounded Korean War veterans.
Talking about this exceptional man, the former mayor of San Francisco Elmer E. Robinson said, “Sam is an inspiration to everyone who knows him. His tremendous force of character is evident in his fight back to a position of great usefulness to this community. He’s a wonderful American. He sets us all a great example of patriotism and unselfish community service.”
On January 1, 1994, in San Francisco, California, the man who refused to die passed away. Sam Harootenian was 85 years old, and he is now resting in peace next to his beloved parents at the Armenian Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, California.
Happy birthday, Sam. Thank you for fighting for our freedom. You will always be an extraordinary man who went through hell for a heavenly cause. Your courage, your story, your kindness, your resilience and your legacy will live on forever.