Memorial Day in Fresno

Every year, on Memorial Day, many Armenian Americans travel to Ararat Armenian Cemetery in Fresno, California, to visit their deceased loved ones and honor the heroes who gave their lives for our freedom. By walking around this very special place, you might find the graves of John M. Haroian and Luther Avakian, two handsome men who were born and raised in Fresno County, California.

Pvt John M. Haroian

Haroian and Avakian didn’t know each other, but they had a common cultural identity and a common tragic destiny. They could spend hours talking to people about their childhood, and that’s what they did. Their respective parents were Armenian refugees who were forced to leave their beloved land. Haroian grew up on a farm in Sanger with his parents Kachadoor and Elizabeth and his little brother Nish. Whenever Haroian spoke about his childhood, he would always talk about his mother’s cooking. According to him, her gata was a taste of heaven. Avakian also loved talking about his parents Mugger and Queenie and his beloved sister Victoria. Thinking about them would always put a smile on Avakian’s face.

2nd Lt Luther Avakian

During World War II, Haroian and Avakian both decided to join the US Army. At that time, they were both living in Fresno, and both had a bright future ahead of them. Sadly, the future of the world was uncertain, and so many men and women had to put their plans and goals on hold. After saying goodbye to their respective parents, they headed toward Europe, where all hope seemed lost and where millions of people were barely clinging to life. 2nd Lt Luther Avakian became a fighter pilot of the 352nd Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group, while Pvt John M. Haroian became a proud member of 7th Armored Division. They both knew that the odds of surviving this never-ending war were slim, but they also knew that the fate of the free world was at stake.

Thousands of miles away from home, Haroian demonstrated outstanding courage and was a source of inspiration for all his comrades. He was way too young to see what he saw, and way too young to feel what he felt, but he fought heroically and kept moving forward, until January 24, 1945. On that fateful day, Haroian was confronting German forces near St. Vith in Belgium when he was struck by enemy fire. His comrades rushed to his aid and desperately tried to treat his wounds, but nothing could be done to save him. Haroian was only 19 years old when his life ended.

Pvt John M. Haroian’s gravestone

Six months before Haroian died, Avakian was fighting for freedom over France. Mission after mission, Avakian flew into hell and did everything he could to defeat the forces of tyranny. Ignoring their own safety, Avakian and his comrades destroyed 28 locomotives, sank eight barges, damaged 13 trucks and struck many German bases. Every time they took off, these pilots knew they might be killed, badly wounded or lost at sea, but day after day, they showed the entire world that not all heroes wear capes; some fly P-47 Thunderbolts. On June 6, 1944, Avakian wrote a letter to his beloved father which ended with the words: “Dad, you keep the home fires burning, and I will see what I can do here.” The next day, Avakian took off from England and headed toward the north of Paris for another perilous mission. Sadly, he never came back. Struck by German anti-aircraft fire, Avakian’s Thunderbolt crashed, killing him instantly. He was only 21 years old.

2nd Lt Luther Avakian’s gravestone

If these two Armenian American heroes had survived the war and returned to Fresno, Haroian could have witnessed his little brother Nish become a remarkable physical education teacher at Sanger High School. Avakian could have visited Armenia and discovered the beautiful homeland of his parents. Haroian could have found the love of his life and started a family. Avakian could have become a devoted husband and a proud father. But their destiny was to die in Europe and return to their country in coffins. It was to die as heroes and sacrifice their lives for people they didn’t know. It was to lose everything, so that freedom would win.

Following the war, their respective families decided to repatriate their lifeless bodies and bury them at the Ararat Armenian Cemetery, which is also the final resting place of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian hero who assassinated Talaat Pasha, the principal architect of the Armenian Genocide. Also buried in this cemetery are Pvt Berge Poochigian and PFC Leroy Emerzian, two more kids who had so much to live for and never got the chance to fulfill their dreams. Poochigian was killed on May 12, 1945 during the deadly Battle of Okinawa (Japan), and Emerzian was killed on June 18, 1945 during the ferocious Battle of Luzon (Philippines).

Ararat Armenian Cemetery

So if you plan to visit the Ararat Armenian Cemetery in Fresno, please take a moment to honor and remember the heroes who sacrificed everything they had, for everything we have. It is our duty to keep their stories alive and make sure that future generations know what Haroian, Avakian, Poochigian, Emerzian and all the others did for us.

To honor all the Armenian American heroes who died during World War II, here is an excerpt of a poem named “Memorial Day,” which was written in 1914 by Joyce Kilmer. This young American poet was killed in action in 1918 during the Second Battle of the Marne (France). He was only 31 years old.

Memorial Day

The rose blossoms white and red
On tombs where weary soldiers lie;
Flags wave above the honored dead
And martial music cleaves the sky.

Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,
They kept the faith and fought the fight.
Through flying lead and crimson steel
They plunged for Freedom and the Right.

May we, their grateful children, learn
Their strength, who lie beneath this sod,
Who went through fire and death to earn
At last the accolade of God.

John Dekhane

John Dekhane

John Dekhane grew up in Paris before moving to the South of France. He works for a sport organization in Monaco. Since he was a child, he has always been interested in World War II with particular emphasis on American soldiers. In order to honor them, over the past years, he has located and purchased WWII U.S. artifacts in Europe and donated these items to more than a hundred museums in the United States.
John Dekhane

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