Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and a visiting professor at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the LongerRange Future, speaks on November 27 and 28
Week of  23 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 14


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General Pershing's legacy stands tall in memorabilia collection

By Brian Fitzgerald

There are war heroes, and then there are war superheroes. When World War I is mentioned, one man's name comes to mind above any other military leader.

  John J. Pershing Photo from the Theodor Horydczak Collection (Library of Congress)

"There was no hero of the First World War comparable to General John Joseph Pershing," said BU Chancellor John Silber at the unveiling of a collection of Pershing memorabilia at BU on November 8. "He occupied a position in the First World War, as far as U.S. participation was concerned, comparable to that of Generals George Marshall or Douglas MacArthur in the Second World War. We're talking about one of the great military leaders in this country."

In 1917, when Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces to France, there did not exist a real overseas fighting force for him to command. But over 18 months he was able to put together an organized army of two million men. He was promoted to General of the Armies of the United States in 1919, a rank shared with only George Washington, who received it posthumously. Pershing is the only American to be named General of the Armies -- one rank above five-star general -- in his lifetime.

The Pershing Collection is on display at the Department of Military Science at 128 Bay State Road, in a building known as Pershing House. It is named after the late Colonel John W. Pershing (CAS'64), a longtime friend of BU's Army ROTC program, Alumni Award winner, and the grandson of General Pershing. "I know that Colonel Pershing would be delighted that the family artifacts honoring his grandfather now rest here at his alma mater," said Lieutenant Colonel R. M. Beckinger, a professor and department chairman. Colonel Pershing also endowed in perpetuity several need-based scholarships for Army ROTC cadets who would otherwise be unable to afford a BU education. "Our enthusiasm is only dampened by the fact that he's not here with us," said Silber.

The Pershing memorabilia at BU includes the general's hunting rifle (a Winchester Model 1884 Carbine), bronze busts of him and French general Marshal Ferdinand Foch, his photo album of World War I, his manuals and regulation books, a portrait of him in full regalia painted in 1934 by artist Philip de Lasslo, and a ceremonial hand saw containing nickel-plated brass screws made from shells used on the battlefield at Chˆateau-Thierry. It was at this French town in 1918 that the American 3rd Division drove German forces back across the Marne River to Jauglonne in a pivotal battle.
Silber pointed out that Pershing also had a distinguished military career before World War I, beginning with service in the Southwest and the Northern Plains of the United States on assignment with the 6th Cavalry from 1886 to 1890. From 1895 to 1896 he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry, a unit of the "Buffalo Soldiers" in Montana, earning him the nickname "Black Jack." Pershing's experiences leading black soldiers significantly affected him -- he remained concerned with their well-being and was instrumental in getting the black units of the American Expeditionary Forces into combat in World War I rather than relegated to support services in the rear. Pershing also fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, where he was decorated with the Silver Star. He was assigned to the Philippines twice (1899-1903 and 1908-1914), and was a military attaché to Japan during the 1905-1906 Russo-Japanese War.

In 1916, 10 years after he was promoted to brigadier general, he was appointed commander of the Mexican border forces and sent -- with First Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr. -- to capture Pancho Villa in Mexico. Their attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, but his troops did penetrate 350 miles into Mexico, routed Villa's revolutionaries, and severely wounded the bandit. The same year Pershing was promoted to major general and then general.

Pershing's legacy is America's prominent position in world affairs today -- largely a result of his actions in Europe. Although the French and the English wanted American soldiers to be divided among their forces in World War I, he insisted on an independent American Army, which ensured the leverage of the U.S. government at the subsequent peace conference. In addition, the training programs that Pershing initiated in 1917 were the beginnings of the refined mobilization plan of 1941 to 1945, which produced the powerful, well-organized American fighting force in World War II. After World War I, Pershing served as chief of staff of the Army, staunchly supporting national preparedness and a strong Army through efficiency and economy. Before he died in 1948, he refused the offer of a special memorial to him in Arlington National Cemetery. His wish instead was to be buried with his "doughboys," with exactly the same white government-issue headstone.

"I'm old enough to remember what a national figure he was," said Silber. "He was a household name, and still is."


23 November 2001
Boston University
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