John J. Pershing
Commander-in-Chief, American Expeditionary Forces
Dedicated to The Unknown Soldier
John J. ’Black Jack’ Pershing, 1860-1948, was one of America’s most famous Army officers known world wide for his untiring energy, faithfulness, and gallantry. His extraordinary personal efforts during WWI of insisting that America field its own Army with its own command structure rather than augmenting ally troops set the stage for America to become a world power during the 20th century. However, the warnings Pershing implored in Experiences about being ill prepared to meet aggression were largely ignored in the lead up to WWII. Some still feel we have not fully integrated that simple but critical aspect of national survival into our cultural ethos.
Pershing thus becomes another example in a long line of our citizens from ordinary circumstances who stepped forth upon the international stage in time of need. He graduated from West Point in 1886 and was appointed the overall American Commander in Europe during WWI. General Pershing ended his career as Army Chief of Staff retiring in 1924 fully recognized as a heroic and fearless warrior in defense of our Country.
Thousands of adoring American citizens, many ‘his doughboys’, along with numerous foreign dignitaries attended Pershing’s 1948 funeral service. Pershing is buried at Arlington National Cemetery along with his two grandsons, 2Lt. R.W. Pershing and Col. J.W. Pershing. General Pershing’s wife, Helen Frances Warren, and three daughters died in a tragic fire that destroyed the quarters at the Presidio of San Francisco August 1915 with only his son, Warren, surviving.
For Pershing to carry on with the burden of his professional duties after such a life-wrenching event speaks to the greatness of this man. But, carry on he did leading the American fighting forces to victory during WWI: the ‘War to End all Wars’. As his memoirs, My Experiences in the World War cover only WWI; the following is a short web based biography of Pershing’s full Army experience and personal life that is informative and fascinating. Click on: Arlington National Cemetery Website.
Published in 1931 General Pershing’s primary purpose in writing Experiences, the story of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, was to convey the many timeless lessons should the Country ever be called to arms again. WWI found us absorbed in the pursuits of peace and listening to no warnings of danger about the coming European conflagration. During the early part of the 20th century, Congress had authorized limited preparations for defense but none for aggression. Thus, it took years for the Country to change its habits in order to meet the realities of modern military combat in Europe.
Those lessons Pershing warned about were again largely unheeded during the 1920’s and 30’s in the lead up to WWII as they have been for other conflicts that America has entered. However, since 1945 the people of the United States have been constantly engaged in the level of preparedness it feels it needs to meet its obligation to ensure our personal and economic freedoms. The present internal political conflict regarding terrorism is an example of such debate and the lessons that Pershing warns are again in question. Can we change the very habits of our lives to meet the realities of Non-nation, long term, domestic and international aggression that we are now confronting?
The importance of Pershing’s contributions to America’s prominent position in world affairs today was profound. They are largely the result of his activities in Europe beginning in 1917 where he firmly insisted upon an independent American Army. France and England both wanted American troops to be divided among their armies feeling America’s contribution to the Great War was to be men and material rather than an independent fighting force. Pershing would have none of that.
Adding to Pershing’s stature of national importance concerning the U.S. becoming a world power was his insistence upon rigid combat troop training in the US before embarking for Europe. The methods for military training that Pershing began in 1917 were the foundation for the mobilization of WWII that produced the finest, most far-flung military force the world had ever seen. Those same concepts of an independent American fighting force with its own Commander undergoing disciplined training are still a major asset of our military and its ability to attract recruits. The professionalism of our citizen military has made it today’s most trusted and respected of all government institutions.
It is truly unbelievable how dismally unprepared America was to face modern warfare at the time. Here was the situation for Army aviation. The Air Service Section of the Signal Corps consisted of 65 officers and about 1,000 men. There were 35 officers who could fly and only about 5 of those could meet the requirements of the then modern battle conditions. None had any technical experience with aircraft guns, bombs, or bombing devices. The Corps had 55 training planes all without war equipment; of the 55 planes, 51 were obsolete and the other four obsolescent; the Corps could not put a single squadron in the field. It was estimated that we would eventually need 300 squadrons each with an average of 24 officers, 180 men, and 18 airplanes. The Army, Navy, and Marines, were all facing the same deplorable operational readiness conditions.
Pershing’s memoirs in My Experiences in the World War also recognizes the remarkable efforts of the American people, the soldiers, and his General Staff in meeting the needs of a modern war that included thousands of horses needing care, thousands of motorized vehicles needing maintenance, and thousands of men to be trained for combat. In addition, much of the infrastructure in France and Britain had to be rebuilt to accommodate the influx of the American Army. It is because of Pershing’s efforts in coalescing America and the free world in an ultimate victory during this tragic era of the first modern world war that he was so revered by his troops and our allies. He was a ‘larger than life’ figure for those who knew him, for those who served under him, and for those who became free because of him. Their dedication to him was above all reproach.
Experiences will be especially interesting to C-133 crewmembers as a large portion is dedicated to the flying forces at the time. The training, planes, airfields, navigation, and other operational tasks were shockingly primitive compared to the 1960’s and archaic in today’s world of the USAF. This revealing memoir published by Pershing about the American military world of the early 20th century and its need to engage on an international front set the stage for our modern force structure. The C-133 was a small but important part of that continuum leading to America’s rise to this present period of preeminence as the world’s only superpower.
During The War to End All Wars America suffered 53,513 hostile deaths, 204,002 wounded, and 63,195 non-hostile deaths caused mostly by the flu epidemic that swept through Army camps in 1918. Kansas City, MO, hosts Liberty Memorial that is noted as probably the most outstanding monument to WWI veterans in the nation. Its museum is the only one in the U.S. specializing in the WWI period. Experiences is well worth reading as General Pershing guides us through a historical time of change for our military forces and our Country. Enjoy!
39th ATS , DAFB, 1962-1965