In 1938, in Providence, Rhode Island, John “Johnny” Bejian was a 17-year-old with a very specific dream. Most of his friends wanted to be as talented as the phenomenal baseball player Joe DiMaggio, as famous as the legendary dancer Fred Astaire, or as popular as the iconic entertainer Bing Crosby, but Bejian wanted to live his passion for sports by becoming a sports announcer.
Born on June 12, 1921, in Providence, Bejian was the pride and joy of his parents Charles and Margaret Bejian. They were both born in Armenia, and like so many Armenians, they were forced to leave their beautiful homeland, forced to leave everything they had, forced to leave everything they loved. Bejian had two sisters, Peggy and Valencia, who adored their brother and were always there for him.
By the age of eight, Bejian was already interested in sports. At the time, the “Providence Grays” were playing in Minor League Baseball (MiLB), and the “Providence Steam Rollers” were playing in the National Football League (NFL). In 1928, the Steam Rollers won the NFL Championship, and in 1929, the Steam Rollers made history by being the first team to host an NFL game at night, under floodlights. Like most kids, Bejian would sometimes dream about the future and picture himself commentating a baseball game. Someday, somewhere, somehow, the world would hear his voice ending a live broadcast with a traditional: “Thanks for listening. Goodnight, Providence.”
Bejian later attended Central High School in Providence and was a remarkable student. He was always eager to learn, loved playing baseball and was one of the most popular students. According to all, Bejian was a born leader; he was the class president and president of the student council. Following his graduation in 1939, he worked for a jewelry manufacturing company and was then employed by the Nicholson File Company on Acorn Street, Providence. That’s when Bejian made a decision that changed the course of his life. Knowing that freedom was in great danger and knowing that an entire generation would be needed to stop the forces of evil, Bejian decided to join the US Army Air Corps and said goodbye to his beloved family.
Second Lieutenant John “Johnny” Bejian became a proud member of the 836th Bomb Squadron, 487th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force and served his country as a B-24 navigator. Mission after mission, this true Armenian American hero put his life on the line to liberate Europe. Being assigned to a bomber crew was basically a death sentence during World War II. More than 26,000 members of the 8th Air Force were killed during the war, and more than 20,000 were wounded. The average life expectancy of a bomber crew rarely exceeded 15 missions. Bejian knew that every mission could be his last one, but like so many brave young men, he did what he had to do.
On June 20, 1944, Bejian and his crewmates took off from England and headed toward Germany. Their mission was to travel deep into enemy territory and destroy an oil refinery near Hanover. Everything was going according to plan, but suddenly, all hell broke loose. German anti-aircraft fire struck the American bomber, perforating its fuselage and killing Bejian instantly. He was only 23 years old. On that fateful day, Providence lost one of its true heroes, but heaven gained an angel. Bejian was initially buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England, but in 1948, he was repatriated to Rhode Island and is now resting in peace next to his parents at North Burial Ground in Providence.
To honor this true Armenian American hero in a meaningful way, I contacted three Major League Baseball teams—the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Guardians—all of which displayed a tribute message on their scoreboards during their respective games against the Atlanta Braves on April 3, the Chicago White Sox on April 9 and the New York Yankees on April 11. I don’t know how many spectators at Busch Stadium, PNC Park and Progressive Field saw these special tributes, but I’m sure Bejian saw them, and that’s the most important.
So many years have gone by since that fateful mission over Germany, but here we are Johnny, still missing you, still thinking about you, still talking about you, and still honoring you. Happy Birthday, Johnny. Rest assured that your legacy and memory will live on forever.