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George Sirian: Survivor of Massacre in Greece Becomes Pillar of the US Navy

George Sirian
George Sirian, the orphan from Psara who went on to become a prominent Naval officer aboard the USS Constitution. Credit:

The story of the Greek Revolution and how the Greek people eventually won their freedom after suffering under the Ottoman yoke contains many miracles – and one of these is the life story of George Sirian, who escaped the Psara massacre, only to be adopted by an American naval officer.

One of the many Greek orphans who were adopted by Americans during that period, Sirian, who was born in 1818, thrived under the protection of his adoptive family, growing up and carving out a place in America through his own determination and hard work.

Sirian Gunner promotion
George Sirian’s transfer to Norfolk Naval Shipyard as a gunner in 1843 is recorded in paperwork in the collections of the USS Constitution Museum. Credit:

And like other orphans rescued from Greece during the War of Independence, he rose to become very prominent in his line of work.

Sirian became so well known in the United States Navy that an award was named after him —  the George Sirian Meritorious Service Award — given annually to an outstanding Chief Petty Officer selected from the entire United States Navy fleet worldwide, in ceremonies that are held annually aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, on which he served.

Rescued from a massacre, taken under wing of US Navy

The story of the six-year-old Greek boy who somehow escaped the Psara massacre and became the youngest sailor and longest-serving non-commissioned officer in the US Navy is an improbable one, but one that is no less believable than that of modern Greece itself.

Through the dint of his native intelligence and sheer will to survive, he came to flourish in his new surroundings — much like so many other Greeks who were forced to emigrate from their homeland.

George Ipsara Sirian was orphaned in July of 1824, before the age of six, during a battle of the Greek War of Independence. His mother was said to have placed him in a small boat in the sea to escape the massacre which took place on the Aegean island of Psara.

From the boat, George tragically was forced to witness his mother’s death at the hands of Ottoman Turkish forces. The child was somehow rescued from the tiny boat — but by exactly whom history does not record. Nothing more is known of George’s life until three years later, in May of 1827, according to information from the USS Constitution Museum.

George Sirian joined crew as a nine-year-old

The first official U.S. Navy documentation of George Sirian is when he joined the crew of the USS Constitution in May of 1827 — as a nine-year-old.

By all accounts, however, he must have been rescued by the United States Navy observers who had been sent there by President James Monroe. The ship had been near Chios during the earlier part of the fighting between the Turks and Greeks.

Its captain, unfortunately, was under orders not to interfere in the Greek struggle with the Ottoman Turks and was — tragically — not allowed to shelter refugees. The only way that Sirian could remain aboard was by joining the Navy.

This is why the nine-year-old refugee spent the next three years serving as either a cabin boy or “powder monkey” in the harsh hierarchical structure of the Navy of the time.

The second Psara Massacre to be taken to Boston to live

In this way, the crew was able to keep him aboard, occupied with unofficial duties until he was of legal age to enlist in the Navy on his own. After serving in these unofficial positions, Sirian was able to officially enlist in the Navy a few years later aboard the USS Constitution, which had periodically patrolled the area for years.

Sirian then attained the rank of “Ordinary Seaman”; he would serve aboard the frigate until its arrival in the United States at Boston on July 4, 1828.

And in another extraordinary twist, Sirian would not be the only survivor of the Psara massacre to be adopted and come to live in Boston ; a girl named Garifallia Michalbei was likewise rescued from slavery in Smyrna and was brought to live in Massachusetts.

Lt. Robert Randolph, an officer aboard Constitution, thankfully took the orphaned boy under his wing and the Randolph family is said to have sponsored George’s education in subsequent years.

Learned gunnery under Rhodes native

It wasn’t long before the amazing story of George’s rescue and subsequent voyage over the Atlantic made the rounds, and when he was only ten years of age, his very touching portrait was painted by the prominent New York artist C. C. Ingham.

George later was taken by Randolph to Gunner George Marshall, USN, a native of the Greek island of Rhodes who, in 1822, wrote the first practical military gunnery manual for the U.S. Navy.

Marshall instructed George in the art of naval gunnery — and later became his father-in-law when George married Eleanor Marshall in 1840. Of the couple’s seven children, only four survived to adulthood; however, three of them lived into the 20th century.

On April 20, 1837, while only nineteen, George was appointed Acting Gunner at Gosport (now Portsmouth), Virginia.

Served many tours on USS Constitution — still a commissioned ship in the US Navy

During no less than thirty-seven successive tours in the Navy, Sirian served on twenty different ships and seven shore stations.

He is the only man ever to serve on “Old Ironsides” on three separate tours of duty. The ship itself is another nearly-miraculous story, as it was built in 1797 and still is a commissioned vessel in the US Navy even today, berthed at Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.

Around the world cruise in 1840’s

Sirian took part in the ship’s famed around-the-world cruise of 1844-1846, circling the entire globe. A map showing “The travels of George Sirian” shows the course that the once-orphaned boy from Psara took on his way around the globe.

He also served a number of tours of duty at the Gosport Navy Yard, now known as the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the state of Virginia.

The Civil War was unfortunately a period of separation and fear for the Sirian family. George served as a gunnery instructor at the Naval Academy during a part of the war, when the institution was temporarily relocated to Newport, Rhode Island.

Sirian was eventually assigned to the US Navy’s “Asiatic Station” from 1872-1874, during which time he voyaged to the exotic ports of Japan and Hong Kong.

Retired at age 62 — after 53 years of service in the Navy

During his fifty-three years of service, he served in every single squadron of the U.S. Navy.

Sirian finally retired in 1880 after the second-longest active duty service career in US Naval history. He was placed on the retired list on December 15 of that year, at the age of 62. At the time of his retirement, he was the senior ranking gunner in the Navy.

He died in Portsmouth on December 21, 1891 at the age of 73.

George Sirian Meritorious Service Award given out on deck of USS Constitution

The orphaned waif, once rescued by kindhearted seamen from a tiny boat, had witnessed and participated in the growth of the U.S. Navy from a small force in the age of sail to the beginnings of its birth as a modern ocean-going battle fleet.

Sirian’s technical expertise, dedication, and leadership remain an inspirational model for the chief petty officers of today’s Navy. His achievements were recognized by his posthumous induction into the Surface Navy Hall of Fame in 2007, and in the creation of the award that is named after him.

Every year, the George Sirian Meritorious Service Award is given to those who best exemplify surface warfare excellence. Naval Museum exhibits about Sirian’s amazing life have been shown throughout the country.

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