General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces

In early November 1918, General John Joseph Pershing was in France, where the armies of that country, England and Germany had been obliterating each other in a stalemate for four years.  He was an experienced soldier.  He was gifted in leading men and respected for being steady and disciplined.

Appointed head of the American Expeditiary Forces (AEF) in 1917, he’d transformed an army of 130,000 into 2,000,000 — and announced that they’d be coming over there.  As it happened, not all were shipped out, but news of the sheer size of our reinforcements probably began the end of World War 1.  France and England ran out of men and the United States had their backs.

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National Archives photo

Pershing intended for the AEF to fight in their own units instead of being amalgamated under the direction of foreign generals.  He felt the differences in language and culture would hinder their effectiveness. He was constantly organizing and training soldiers and staff in the field.  The American commander, whom President Wilson named “General of the Armies” (a title given later only to George Washington), was against the Armistice on November 11.  He wanted unconditional surrender.

Instead there was a cease-fire.  Afterwards, Pershing restructured officers’ schools, which made a difference in the leaders of the next world war.  Many who had served under him in the first would remember his example: Patton, Marshall, MacArthur.  Dedicated to honoring his soldiers for their sacrifice during the Great War, he oversaw the building of battlefield monuments across the Atlantic.

The stalwart Pershing grew up in Missouri and took an appointment to West Point to further his education.  His mother puportedly said, “But Jack, you’re not going into the Army?”

He was president of his class at the United States Military Academy, though not the cadet with the highest grade point average.  He participated in Indian campaigns, taught military procedure at the University of Nebraska, and commanded an African American unit in the Spanish-American War, for which he was nicknamed Black Jack.  He also became a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.

During the Roosevelt administration he moved up in rank rapidly.  He married and had four children, serving in the Philippine Islands.  In 1915 his happy family life was shattered  when his wife and three daughters were killed in a fire in California.  Only his son, Warren, survived.  In 1916 he took troops to Mexico to stop Pancho Villa from terrorizing the US side of the border.

Pershing asked that he be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with the men he was with in World War 1, and a headstone like theirs.

It always bothered me when I was teaching that there were more biographies for children of pop stars and football legends than of people like Pershing, who had a great impact on our nation.

Also distressing is that some question his role instead of attributing accomplishment where accomplishment is due, or even conclude the Central Powers would have lost without our help. I guess people of this generation are into revisionist history.  Of course there are many more details than I’ve presented here, so one needs to do a quite a bit of reading to begin to understand Pershing, his life and his times.  I prefer accounts made by writers closer to the generation in which he lived.  They knew.

FDR knew, too.  During World War 2 he sent a greeting to General Pershing, who was living at Walter Reed Hospital and in declining health.  “You are magnificent,” the president told him.  All of America should agree.  If they choose to take time with the facts.


Uncle Leo

I grew up with the knowledge that my great uncle died in World War 1.  My dad was born in 1924,  so he’d never met him.

But Dad did, over the years, add some details about Leo Ross Porter’s life to our written family history.   Never married, Uncle Leo was a political cartoonist for the Lansing State Journal before joining up.  He had attended art school and traveled some in the west, away from his small Indiana hometown.  He trained as a soldier in Camp Graying, Michigan.

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We had a copy of a letter he wrote to his brother, my grandfather, from France.  It gave a snapshot of a 29 year-old American observing a little air fighting while drawing maps for his commanders, near a stream in the green countryside.  He inquired about the folks on the farm.  He surmised it was about time for cherries to be ripe back home.

The next page in the family history is his obituary from the Steuben Republican.  He’d been gassed on August 12, 1918 and died two days later.  Leo’s body was sent back to Angola for burial in Circle Hill Cemetery.  Also returned were his footlocker and a violin from the trench he was in, which still remain in the family.

The newspaper said that as a boy he spent hours observing nature, and  “always liked birds and animals…they seemed to know him as a friend.  Soon after he enlisted in the army, he made his last visit home.  While here he told his mother that he knew she would want him to do his duty and he did not want it to be said of him that he was a coward.”

One of Leo’s cartoons in the Lansing State Journal, 1917

According to a letter written by Colonel Chester B. McCormick on board the ship returning to America, Uncle Leo’s unit  spent five months in continuous combat.  The 199th Artillery joined another division in the Second Battle of the Marne in July, helping capture the city of Fismes (ironically, just west of Metz, the name of the Indiana village where Leo was born).

When I recently transcribed some of my mother’s family letters, I found one written by an aunt in September 1918.  “Leo Porter, John Porter’s boy, was wounded in action August 12 and died August 14.  The word came here the other day.  Mr. and Mrs. Porter are sure doing their bit.  They have another son in the army and another that will soon go.”

I was interested to know that my mother’s and father’s side of the family were acquainted before the two of them were ever born.  And it gave me another perspective on Leo’s death, which was an exception to the rule:  influenza, not combat, was responsible for most deaths of troops from our county.

Last time I posted about the hundredth anniversary of the death of Quentin Roosevelt, the president’s son.  I write now of another soldier who died close by a month later,  a farmer’s son.  They were different but the same.  They both did what they thought was right.  We honor their ultimate sacrifice a century later.





Losing Quentin

One hundred years ago today in France, an American first lieutenant died in a dogfight.   He was just twenty years old and had been trying hard to pilot his plane into the action of World War 1.  On July 14, 1918, close to the village of Chamery, he did.

Vive Quentin Roosevelt!

He was Theodore and Edith Roosevelt’s son, Quentin.  The youngest of six children, he was said to have been the one most like his father.   They shared the same vitality, originality and sense of humor, according to author Hermann Hagedorn.   Born just before the Spanish-American War, Quentin Roosevelt spent much of his boyhood in Washington.

Quentin’s antics with his friends in the executive mansion were later described in a book called The White House Gang.   They played hide-and-seek in the attic.  They re-enacted famous military battles in unused rooms.  They made faces at the president in his carriage, and threw spitballs at Andrew Jackson’s portrait.  TR joined in many of these (not the spitball episode, though; the “trial” for which he presided over).

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“Quentikins” was three when his father became president and almost twelve when he left.  He attended public school but sometimes his teacher didn’t know what to do with him, as a letter from TR to her reveals.  Charlie Taft, son of the secretary of war and the next president, was his best friend.

His mother called him her “fine little bad boy.”  In the summers on Long Island he competed with his older brothers Ted, Kermit, and Archie, joining in their recklessness.  He loved repairing mechanical things, especially motorcycles.  He was a New York Yankees fan.  And he completed his first year at Harvard before joining the Army Air Corps.

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Before leaving for France, Quentin asked Flora Payne Whitney, of the Vanderbilt family, to marry him.  She wanted desperately to join him there but was refused permission from the Wilson administration.

He and his fiancé wrote many tender letters across the ocean.  “Fouf,” he called her.

Prayer Booklet and Photo

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In his French Nieuport 28 decorated with newspaper comic strip character “Doc Yak” he downed an enemy plane on July 10, and subsequently wrote the news to his parents.  Four mornings later he went up again behind German lines.  A member of his squadron saw a plane shot down, but because of the fog did not realize it was Quentin’s until after he landed.

Theodore and Edith continued receiving letters their son had written before he died.  They requested that he remain buried where he fell, in the place German officers conducted an honor ceremony.  A fence was built around the grave which which stood for many years, creating a pilgrimage opportunity for soldiers and French citizens alike.

His mother had a memorial fountain and stone marker made for the site, which she visited later.  Not so for his father, who died six  months after Quentin, partly from a broken heart.  Flora, who was devastated, eventually married and took over leadership of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York founded by her mother.

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In the 1950s, the family requested that Quentin’s body be moved to the American cemetery in Normandy adjoining his brother, Ted, who suffered a heart attack in the Second World War.  Ted, a general, had been the oldest soldier on Utah Beach in the invasion.

In late 1918 the name Quentin Roosevelt II had been given to Ted’s newborn son.  He would also tragically die in a plane crash, over Hong Kong in 1948.  He had had a family  —  one of his daughters, Susan, married former Massachusetts governor William Weld.  One of their sons is named Quentin, while several other members of the Roosevelt family have been given Quentin for a middle name.

Losing Quentin is still hard to read about a century later.  The “big, bright boy” will always be so in our memories.  Who knows where his career might have led, or what his family-to-be might have accomplished?  The same may be asked of the other sixteen million military personnel and civilians who lost their lives in the Great War.

~    ~    ~

Recommended reading: Quentin and Flora by Chip Bishop, CreateSpace Publishing, 2014.  I met this author at a gathering of the Theodore Roosevelt Association before his untimely death.  It is a masterful book.  Chip was the great-nephew of Joseph Buckland Bishop, whom Theodore Roosevelt authorized to write his biography.





Looking for the Great War

What do you remember about World War I?  Obviously you weren’t there, but what comes to mind from earlier studying or reading?  Are there stories about someone in your family who was a soldier?

A century ago Great Britain and France were in a stalemate with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  After a year’s combat, trenches zigzagged across France from Belgium to Switzerland. “No Man’s Land” waited ominously between the fences of barbed wire for men to try to break through the enemy’s line.  They were mowed down by machine guns, time after time.

The United States was officially neutral at the time, but many were involved in a preparedness campaign.  We joined the Allied Powers in April 1917.

When I looked for resources about it, I found few in comparison to those of the Civil War and World War II.  Why is that?

Probably the best recent book I’ve seen is The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin (Mariner Books, 2012).  A dozen or so years ago, he searched for remaining American veterans of the “Great War”  and interviewed them.  They all had lived past the age of 100, and all had remarkable reminiscences. The result is a treasure of information uncovered in a sliver of time which is now gone.

Maybe, with the centennial of the United States’s entrance into the First World War coming up, there will be more books, articles and TV documentaries.  I know of one book, which I’m just about finished proofreading, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found here.