John Shalikashvili: Immigrant Became Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

By Pruitt, Alison | The World and I, May 2009 | Go to article overview

John Shalikashvili: Immigrant Became Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff


Pruitt, Alison, The World and I


John Shalikashvili, the only immigrant to ever rise to the rank of four star general in the US Army, was born in Warsaw, Poland, on June 27, 1936. He was one of three children of Dimitri Shalikashvili and Maria Ruediger. Dimitri, who had fled his native Georgia following the communist revolution in Russia, was an officer in the Polish army when World War II began.

Germany invaded and occupied Poland, but the uprising of Polish resistance fighters forced Maria and the children to flee their home. John Shalikashvili later recalled: "The Polish underground occupied our apartment, and, shortly after that, the Germans bombed it ...

"With our apartment destroyed, we lived by just moving around ... We survived by going from cellar to cellar. Most often the only way to get any place was through the sewer lines ... A piece of bread during this period was like a holiday meal."

As Germany lost ground and the Russian army moved into Poland, the family fled in a cattle car to Bavaria, where Maria Shalikashvili had relatives. In 1952, the Shalikashvilis emigrated to the United States and settled in Peoria, Illinois.

John Shalikashvili, then sixteen, was fluent in Polish, German and Russian, but had not learned much English. In an interview he later recalled, "I spoke a little bit. But not much beyond 'yes' and 'no' and 'what time is it?'" In later years Shalikashvili thought about the impact of his move to the U.S.: "I'm sure you can imagine what this meant to someone my age then. Everything was new, everything was different."

He became a junior in Central High School in Peoria and would visit the movie theater after school. He remembered improving his English by watching Westerns, especially John Wayne movies: "In those days movies didn't start at a specific time and end at a specific time, but they would roll continuously ... The first time through it wouldn't make much sense to me. But the second time through, it would begin to make a little more sense."

Shalikashvili was unique at his high school and remembered "how excited everyone was that they had this foreign kid there." He later learned that many classmates believed he was shy because he spoke so little: "Part of it came because of language, part of it came because of the totally different environment ... than in a German school."

Shalikashvili grew used to the differences and learned English quickly. A long-distance runner, Shalikashvili never thought of himself as shy and felt that he made good friends in high school.

Shalikashvili speaks fondly of his time in Illinois: "I came from an environment and a world where everything was upside down ... There was never a time to sit down and reflect what life is all about ... until I came to Peoria." Expressing gratitude that his teenage years were shaped by middle America, Shalikashvili said, "My sense is that some of those things haven't changed. That there is a kid sitting in Warsaw, Poland, right now, who dreams about America in the same terms that I did and who would give his right arm to come to the United States."

In 1958, he and his family became American citizens; this was the first citizenship he had ever held. As the child of refugees, he had been neither a Polish nor a German citizen.

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John Shalikashvili: Immigrant Became Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff
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