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Valley veteran remembers role in the end of World War II

Greg Melikian (The Greatest Generation Foundation/Courtesy)

PHOENIX — Despite the violence and turmoil of World War II, one Valley resident left the war with the name “Peacemaker.”

Greg Melikian will be turning 96 later this year. On Tuesday, May 8th, 1945, he was just 20 years old, a young radio operator who sent the message of German surrender to the world.

Melikian’s journey began soon after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

“It was a question of how soon I would be called,” he remembers.

Back then he was living in Queens, New York as a teenager, the perfect age for the draft.

Instead of fighting on the front lines, however, Melikian’s love of language earned him an assignment as a high-speed radio operator.

It was challenging work.

“The Germans were jamming our radio station with a funny noise,” Melikian remembers, imitating the sound that would drown out transmissions.

“Anything to interrupt a radio operator from guaranteeing each coded letter.”

After landing in Europe, Melikian spent the next few years traveling the continent and relaying vital information to Allied forces.

By 1945, Melikian was moved to Reims, France, at the Allies’ Supreme Headquarters. Germany was rapidly losing ground in Europe. Just months later, Berlin fell and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was dead, having committed suicide in his own bunker.

Soon after, representatives from Germany were sent to Reims for negotiations.

“We knew [the Germans] didn’t come to talk about what movie to go to… they came to surrender,” Melikian remembers with a laugh.

“We started taking bets amongst ourselves down the hall from the war room.”

Officials from other Allied countries joined American General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters. The terms were agreed to: total and unconditional surrender. Now that message needed to be sent around the world.

Melikian has recalled on many occasions why he was selected. According to him, then General Dwight D. Eisenhower chose the youngest man on duty so he could tell the story of that moment for years to come.

“Tomorrow at 11:01 PM, all hostilities will cease.” Melikian quotes part of the 74 coded-word message he sent.

The War wasn’t over yet; it would be several months before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the Japanese surrender. Still, on Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, celebration erupted around the globe.

Reims is famous for its champagne, and it was put to good use that night.

“Those bottles of champagne opened,” Melikian says with a grin, “and they said ‘Boys, bring the bottles back and we’ll refill them for you.’”

The message that Greg Melikian sent back in 1945 could have been lost to time. Instead, it rests in ASU’s Hayden Library. He himself donated it after thinking to preserve it all those years ago.

“All my life I’ve believed in learning history,” Melikian remarks.

“Some people don’t think that’s too important. But if you don’t know your history… you don’t have a future.”

It’s not his only contribution to the ASU campus: the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian & East European Studies is named in his honor, and teaches students critical languages for an important purpose: if we can understand one another, then we can find more peaceful ways to resolve differences.

In the midst of the violence and destruction of war, Melikian sent the message that ended the fighting. Being a part of that moment in history has made him value peace, and he doesn’t forget the sacrifices that made it all possible.

“I think they’re my heroes,” he says of the soldiers who fought, and in some cases died, in the War. “In their presence, I always say ‘These other ones with me are my heroes.’ They started it, and I ended it.”

May 8th, 2020 was the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Compared to the revelry of 1945, these celebrations are noticeably muted. The coronavirus pandemic changed the way this day was remembered throughout the world.

Melikian was a guest at a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. The presence of he and other veterans caused a bit of controversy. In the midst of the coronavirus, traveling across the country could be dangerous for those who already faced peril many times before.

Melikian went despite the risk. He didn’t go into the White House, and took all the necessary health precautions. After the ceremony, he and President Donald Trump shared a few words about their mutual home of Queens, New York.

Memorial Day will probably be a similarly quiet affair, but Greg Melikian will still be celebrating.

“I’ll be putting up my flag for Memorial Day,” he says. “To commemorate no more wars. Peace. From The Peacemaker.”

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