Gen. John Shalikashvili

(June 27, 1936 - July 23, 2011)


Isn’t it every child’s daydream to find out he comes from nobility? Gen. John Shalikashvili needed no such wish.  His namesake, Prince Ivan Shalikashvili, fought so valiantly in the Crimean war that the Russian Emperor reportedly awarded him a gold scimitar inscribed “the brave.”

Shalikashvili’s maternal grandmother, a countess, was a lady-in-waiting in St. Petersburg to the Russian Tsarina. His mother spent her early years at court and would recall visits by Rasputin himself.

The General’s own childhood was full of adventure. His mother risked her life to rescue his father who, having become a prisoner of war of the Germans, was in danger of being turned over to the Soviets for execution.

And when only eight years old, Shalikashvili’s Warsaw home was hit by a German dive-bomber, and the family had to scramble underground for safety. For over one long month they lived in the cellars and sewers of Warsaw, lacking electricity, water, or adequate food.  Later, while fleeing to Germany their train came under air attack.

When his family finally arrived, with little but the clothes on their backs, in a small village in Germany, they found refuge in two castles—both belonging to his great aunt, the Countess Julie Pappenheim.

In 1952 Shalikashvili would take a grand ocean voyage: The S.S. America brought 16-year old Shalikashvili from the old world to the new.

Six years later Shalikashvili was given citizenship--his first ever.  Soon thereafter he was drafted into the U.S. Army and eventually chose the military as a career, as had most of his ancestors.  

In his early career he found much adventure: he rode by dogsled with an Eskimo scout to the northernmost reaches of Alaska. He stormed a Vietcong-held island by boat. He sipped tea near the DMZ in Korea.  He befriended a wild camel in the desserts of Tripoli.  

He orchestrated rescues of unprecedented scale.  In what can only be described as a miracle, Shalikashvili directed 35,000 soldiers from 13 different countries as well as volunteers from 50 NGOs to rescue over 500,000 Kurds who,  at the end of the first Gulf War, had been chased by the Iraqi military into inhospitable mountains. Within 90 short days, the Kurds were returned to safety in Iraq.

And thus he caught the eye of the most powerful military man in the world, Gen. Colin Powell. And that general would help make Shalikashvili Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), where Shalikashvili would help shape NATO, the most powerful military alliance in the world. Living now in his own private castle in Belgium, he’d meet with powerful foreign military leaders and together strive to make a friend out of a former enemy empire.

So impressed was President William Jefferson Clinton, the leader of the United States, that he invited Shalikashvili to a ceremony in a beautiful rose garden behind a grand white house. There the President announced that this former refugee from a far away land was his choice to take up the reigns of military leadership in the world’s most powerful kingdom. 

“Where else but in this land of boundless opportunity could a kid born on the wrong side of the iron curtain come here as a 16-year-old not knowing more than two words of English, start out as a private in the Army, and in time rise to  become the most senior general?”

              - Gen. John Shalikashvili

The Man Who Saved 500,000 Kurds

Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (1993-1997).

(R to L) John, father Dimitri, and brother Othar in costume in Pappenheim, Germany, prior to 1952.

Varsity Theater, Peoria, IL, where he perfected his English skills--ostensibly by repeatedly watching John Wayne movies.

On one of the last U.S. Army ski patrols, Fairbanks, AK, 1960.

Major Shali receives Gallantry Cross with Silver Star, Vietnam, 1968.

A fairy tale life

Chateau Gendebien, his residence as SACEUR, in Mons, Belgium.

Learn how you can support

      this biography project

John, taking care of his sister, just prior to the Warsaw Uprising, Poland, 1944.