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Raised in a Ukrainian family in the small village of Jarabina (nowadays Slovakia) Michael Strank could not have anticipated the rough waters that were waiting for him in life. As a small Ukrainian child, he had to cross the Atlantic Ocean with his family of immigrants, and twenty years later, he crossed the Pacific as a United States Marine. You may not have heard of him, but every American most certainly saw him — raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.
Photo: Joe Rosenthal

Michael Strank was one of over 80,000 Ukrainians who fought for the US during World War II, constituting approximately 0.5% of the U.S. Military. Their families came to the United States in search of better lives, often fleeing waves of oppression in the Russian Empire and USSR. Then, the sons joined the fight for freedom. 

Being the second-largest destination for the Ukrainian diaspora in the world, it is no wonder that the USA bears Ukrainian names in records of every major conflict in its history. Including the very first one: you can find names of Ukrainian volunteers in the Continental Army records during the War of Independence. There is even a legend about a Ukrainian in the first Jamestown Colony in 1608 — doctor Ivan Bohdan. 

As more waves of Ukrainian immigrants entered the United States, more of them were pouring into the U.S. Military. For example, the Ukrainian American Veterans Organization tells the story of several dozen Ukrainians who fought in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. All of them had been born in Ukraine but arrived at the front as proud citizens of Pennsylvania. 

In the decade before World War I, a quarter of a million Ukrainians came to the United States in search of a better life. Previous generations of Ukrainian immigrants had mostly come to the US after the abolition of serfdom in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In stark contrast, these were men and women seeking industrial jobs in cities like Detroit or Chicago. However, when the need arose, some of them actually returned to Europe, fighting for their newfound home, the United States. Evidently, they fought well, as 24 Ukrainians were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, an Army award second only to the Medal of Honor (which was first awarded to a Ukrainian twenty years later).

It is a little-known fact that for Ukraine, the grim realities of World War II began to occur six months earlier than elsewhere when, in March 1939, Hungarian troops, allies of Hitler, invaded Carpathian Ukraine (nowadays the region of Zakarpattia ). Then, when the Nazis themselves ignited the largest war in history, they shelled the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the first hours of the first day of World War II. 

At the time, more than half a million Ukrainians were living in the United States. Some of them had never been to their distant war-torn homeland, as their families had come to the US generations ago. Now, they were returning as part of the Greatest Generation. 

80,000 Ukrainians enlisted in the U.S. Military, roughly every sixth Ukrainian in the United States. With that force, you could assemble five Army divisions, the equivalent of putting 880 Ukrainians in every existing U.S. Army division during the War. 

Michael Strank, one of the heroes behind Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photo, served in the United States Marine Corps. He enlisted in Pittsburgh in 1939, born into a Ukrainian family on the other side of the world. He and his men fought throughout the entire Pacific campaign, all the way to the Japanese stronghold of Iwo Jima in February of 1945. There, this Ukrainian immigrant became part of United States history.

Sergeant Strank received orders to ascend the highest point of the island, Mount Suribachi, and, with his fellow Marines, raise the American flag. It was actually the replacement flag, bigger and more visible for the Japanese and American troops alike. More visible also to the world, through the lens of photographer Joe Rosenthal. Three of the six men depicted in the photo were later killed during the battle for Iwo Jima, including Michael Strank. On the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, where he immortalized with his men, you can read the words, “In Honor And Memory Of The Men of The United States Marine Corps Who Have Given Their Lives To Their Country.”

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
Photo: Catie Drew

Sadly, among 80,000 Ukrainian-American soldiers, there were many others who could fit that description, including Nicholas Minue, the first Ukrainian-American recipient of the Medal of Honor. Born to Ukrainian parents who later migrated to the US, he not only fought for the U.S. Army during World War I but also willingly gave up his higher rank (Sergeant) to return to the frontline during World War II. The U.S. Department of Defence describes his sacrifice: “Minue quickly volunteered to single-handedly charge the machine gun nest. Without concern for his own life, he charged the position and used his bayonet to kill 10 enemy soldiers. He destroyed the machine gun nest and continued moving forward to oust more enemy riflemen from their entrenched positions. Eventually, though, he was fatally wounded.”

Master Sergeant Nicholas Oresko, son of Ukrainian immigrants, received his Medal of Honor from the hands of U.S. President Harry S. Truman.

Oresko earned it as a platoon leader during the campaign in 1945 in Germany. To save his men, pinned down by machine fire, Master Sergeant single-handedly destroyed two Nazi bunkers. It cost him a serious injury, but the Ukrainian-American hero lived to be 96 years old. For two years, he was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. 

Nicholas Oresko receiving his Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman
Photo: Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Jack Palance, another son of Ukrainian immigrants who was in the Air Force, never received the Medal of Honor for his accomplishments during World War II but won an Academy Award as an actor. His injuries, sustained during the bomber training flight, contributed to his on-screen persona. In 2004, during the film festival, Russia decided to grant Palance its highest artistic award — People’s Artist of Russia. After being introduced, the soldier and actor refused: “I have nothing to do with Russia or Russian film. My parents were born in Ukraine: I’m Ukrainian. I’m not Russian. So, excuse me, but I don’t belong here. It’s best if we leave.”

Ukrainians firsthand saw the true face of communism. Thus, it was only natural for Ukrainian-Americans to fight in Vietnam. 

Akin to Jack Palance, Army Major Myron Diduryk (born in Ukraine in 1938 and arriving in the US twelve years later) became famous through art, though, sadly, it was other people telling the story. In the best-selling war memoir (and later Mel Gibson movie) “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” there is a description of the Battle of la Drang Valley, the first large engagement of the Vietnam War, and Myron Diduryk’s role in it: “He was eager and aggressive yet totally professional; over the next three days he would emerge as the finest battlefield company commander I had ever seen, bar none.” Major Diduryk, also known as “Mad Cossack,” died during his second tour in Vietnam five years later. 

Ukrainian-American soldiers honor Army Major Myron Diduryk.
Photo: UAV Tribune

Another American soldier, born in 1935 in Lviv, Ukraine, survived his two tours in Vietnam, became Major General, revolutionized the U.S. Military, and returned as a United States military advisor to the newly reborn Ukraine. His name was Nicholas Krawciw.

Nicholas Krawciw spent his youth in the Ukrainian scout organization Plast, taking leadership roles and elevating his unit to one of the best in the entire organization. He then entered West Point, the best U.S. service academy, where he was cadet regimental commander and, of course, captain of the football team. Two tours in Vietnam granted Krawciw three Silver Stars, several wounds, and invaluable battle commander experience. So later, when he was assigned as Director of Concepts and Doctrine in combat development to the Training and Doctrine Command, his ideas were highly influential within the U.S. Army. 

Here is the quote from the West Point Distinguished Graduate Award: “Nick Krawciw’s seminal work on maneuver doctrine revolutionized the way the Army fought, was organized, and was trained. Nick Krawciw’s ideas were largely responsible for victories in Panama, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and many important but smaller contingencies.” Some of his ideas on decision-making are now being taught to Ukrainian soldiers by their American colleagues. 

As for Nicholas Krawciw himself, he took many different roles during his long career, including commanding the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division in Germany and meeting potential USSR Armies in Europe. At the end of his military career, he became Director of NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 1990. 

Major General Nicholas Krawciw in 1987.
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

But his services to his countries continued. Endorsed by the U.S. Department of Defense, fluent Ukrainian speaker Krawciw moved to Ukraine in 1992 to help reform the Ukrainian military. As he said himself, “I will make every effort, use all my knowledge to help my Ukraine.” He died in September 2021, seven years into the Russian invasion of his first home.

These are just a few examples of Ukrainians who bravely fought in the U.S. Armed Forces, with all the dedication and courage inherent in Ukrainian warriors today. 

The Ukrainian American Veterans (UAV) National Monument, New Jersey.
Photo: Ukrainian American Veterans

Forged from three centuries of the War for Independence, Ukrainians, like no others, understand the struggle for freedom and independence. This is perhaps why they were able to adopt and influence United States military traditions so effectively. This is perhaps why they chose the Home of the brave.

In October 2015, Ukrainian-American soldiers were honored with a memorial on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Memorial Church in New Jersey for their services: “Dedicated to all Ukrainian-American Men and Women who have served in the United States Armed Forces.”

Yaroslav Zubchenko, Strategic Communications Department, General Staff of the UAF