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World War I Commemoration will Take Fresh Look at Gen. Pershing

General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, second from right, commanded the American Expeditionary Forces that fought in France during World War I. (US Army photo)
General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, second from right, commanded the American Expeditionary Forces that fought in France during World War I. (US Army photo)

It was not the war that ended all wars, a fact that resonates in today's long struggle to defeat terrorism.

World War I, which the United States entered in 1917 and helped win a year later, is easily passed over in the nation's annals of conflict.

Even though nearly 4.7 million Americans served during the war and 116,516 were killed (more than half in non-combat deaths) and more than 200,000 wounded, it is no longer a memory for most. Monuments to Civil War generals and big memorials to the Vietnam War and World War II grace the capital's mall and neighborhoods.

World War I? Not so much.

Even so, the centennial of the United State's entry into that war will be modestly commemorated next year, and with a big Missouri twist.

"World War I has been kind of book-ended between the Civil War and World War II," said Mitchell Yockelson, a military history specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration. "A lot of vets came back and never wanted to talk about it. Everyone and their cousin was trying to publish a book on the Civil War. By the time we were ready to embrace [World War I], World War II came along."

Yockelson is the author of a book about Missouri native John "Black Jack" Pershing, the U.S. Army general who led the American Expeditionary Force that tipped the war for the French and British against Germany.

The book, "Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I," is about the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, the bloodiest ever for an American army. A million Americans went up against a veteran German Army and suffered 26,000 deaths and more than 110,000 wounded before helping to force surrender.

Commemorations in Europe and across the United States next year will try to rekindle attention to the U.S. entry in the war, which was fought with massed armies in horrific conditions, with men killed by the legions in barbed-wired and machine-gun-swept no-man's lands. Progress was often measured in yards of ground purchased with tens of thousands of dead and wounded.

On April 6-8, commemorations of the U.S. entry in the war (which began in 1914) will be marked in U.S. embassies in Europe, and at a "Call to Arms" conference at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. A commemoration of U.S. Air Service will be held that same weekend at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.

Commemorations here and across Europe will continue through Nov. 11, 2018, marking the armistice to end the war.

The occasion offers another chance to review the life of Pershing, a native of tiny Laclede, Mo., 220 miles northwest of St. Louis.

'Fascinating and underappreciated'

Stern and tough on subordinates, Pershing was the man most responsible for the United States' moving from a peacetime army of 220,000 to the 2 million men who, in a matter of months, were transported to France to fight. They and the massive amount of supplies necessary to feed and arm them were transported through seas infested with German U-boats. Once abroad, the Americans built 900 miles of railroad track to supply their troops.

More than a century later, such feats look impossibly daunting.

The leader of it all, Pershing, is "one of the most fascinating and underappreciated figures" in American history, said Barney McCoy, a professor at the University of Nebraska who is working on a documentary on Pershing.

Pershing's life spanned the Civil War to the dawn of the nuclear age. He died in 1948 at age 87, having helped maintain a peacetime military between the two world wars and shape the key officers who helped the U.S. and its allies win World War II.

One of Pershing's earliest memories happened when he was just 3 or 4 years old. Confederate bushwhackers ransacked Laclede late in the Civil War. His father, a well-known area merchant and strong Unionist, was preparing to confront the marauders with a shotgun when Pershing's mother stopped him, declaring she did not want to be a widow with young children.

"How many U.S. generals have ever actually had their hometowns, even their home, invaded by an enemy force, and [from that] understand the important role that a military must play to provide security to a country?" asked the documentarian McCoy, who is plowing through volumes of Pershing's letters and other documents at the National Archives, Library of Congress and other resources.

"That must have been a resounding moment for Pershing," McCoy said.

Later, after the family lost almost all its possessions during the panic of 1873, young Pershing taught in an all-black school.

The nickname "Black Jack" originated as a pejorative, coming from Pershing's willingness to teach black students, and his service with the 10th Cavalry, the famed all-black "Buffalo Soldiers" of the post-Civil War era.

Much of Pershing's tough nature and his views toward equality "came from Missouri, and certainly the period of time when he grew up in saying how prejudice can shape a society and warp and even pervert the true intentions of humanity," McCoy said.

Intimidating but tender

Pershing, like many who served under him in World War I, was a reluctant soldier. He took a test for entry to West Point only after a younger sister noticed an ad in the local paper and said it was a good way for Pershing to get a higher education.

"He had an interesting career. He didn't want to go into the military, he wanted to be a teacher," Yockelson said. "But like most men at the time, he couldn't afford it."

He served as an attache in Japan. Two years before the war, he suffered great personal loss when his wife, Helen Frances Warren Pershing, a suffragette and daughter of a Wyoming senator, was killed in a fire, along with their three daughters. Only a son survived.

Pershing fought Pancho Villa's raiders the year before World War I broke out. He then led the U.S. AEF to victory. His handsome and stern countenance, his refusal to put American troops under the command of foreign officers and his quick-to-the-trigger decision to remove commanders if he felt they were not measuring up created enduring images and historical takeaways of that war.

But in McCoy's research, the documentarian has also found another side of Pershing that speaks to the complex demands of leadership. In letters to his wife and children, and later, in letters to a Romanian-born Parisian woman, Micheline Resco, whom he met during the war and established a relationship with that would last for the rest of his life, Pershing revealed a much different person.

The "ramrod and disciplinarian" public man "could be very intimidating," McCoy said. But to his family and later, to his lover, "he was very tender."

"In his own mind he had a vision of what that responsibility [of leadership] carried, and he was tireless in trying to make sure that he would uphold that position," McCoy said. "Yet on the private side he was looking for a refuge where he could be with somebody that he could trust completely, and be himself, and be tender.

"And I think there is always a question: If a man shows they are tender and compassionate, is that a sign of weakness?" McCoy said. "And particularly, that is the case where they happen to be the prominent military leader in the country and maybe in the world, after World War I. Certainly those dichotomies were at work with Pershing."

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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