Foundations & Legacy: General John J. Pershing
LTC Kevin M. Upton, USA (Ret), member of Greater Boston, MA,
chapter of MOWW
Reproduced with permission from The Officer Review® magazine, 2019, Military Order of the World Wars
To the fresh-faced and somewhat
naive cadets at the University of Nebraska,
he was “The Loot.” Some 25 years later, he was “The General” to battle-hardened
officers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) at the end of World War I.
His vision, initiative, talents and example provided the inspiration behind
two time-honored organizations—the Pershing Rifles Group (PRG) and
the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW)—that, respectively,
now celebrate their 125th and 100th anniversaries.
John J. Pershing (center) appears with his staff in 1892
at the University of Nebraska. Source: Lincoln Journal
If the fact that these two organizations inspired by the same man are
simultaneously celebrating signature anniversaries is not noteworthy enough,
the qualities of Pershing’s personality that imparted vision and inspiration to
two very disparate groups some 25 years apart is compelling in and of itself.
Indeed, hints of World War I’s General Pershing can be seen in 19th
century’s Second Lieutenant Pershing.
As a young lieutenant, Pershing
inspired the Nebraska cadets to
evolve an elite unit into what became later known as the Pershing
Rifles. Twenty-five years later, the now General Pershing provided
the inspiration that led his AEF officers to establish The Military
Order of the World War (MOWW) in 1919.
Notably, Pershing showed a
knack for making something out of almost
nothing. The cadet unit he inherited at Nebraska in 1891 was little more
than a rag-tag group of mostly farm boys who endured military drill only
because it was mandated for students attending land grant colleges.
On a far grander scale a
quarter-century later, Pershing would grow an
Army of barely 300,000 (including National Guard) into a force of some
two million men while also finding ways to feed and clothe it, train it,
and transport it before he could even think of fighting it—
which he also did to great success.
[May 20, 1919] General John J. Pershing inspecting troops
of the 89th Division at Trier, Germany.
Motivation among the Nebraska
cadets was lacking. There were no standard
uniforms, very little equipment and no provisions for earning an officer’s
commission. That wouldn’t come until the Reserve Officer Training
Corps (ROTC) was established in 1920. Much the same could be
said about the nascent American Expeditionary Force.
However, in 1891 in Lincoln,
NE, the newly-assigned lieutenant looked resplendent
in his immaculately cared-for uniform. He walked ramrod straight, spoke clearly
and directly, and barked his drill commands with precision. He led by example.
These qualities turned some
heretofore indifferent heads. The lieutenant
gradually got his cadets’ attention. They named him “The Loot.”
The General Pershing of 1917
hadn’t lost any of those qualities. His ability to
communicate his vision for organizing, training and sustaining the AEF, and his
ability to quickly achieve results, also turned heads—on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1895, Nebraska Chancellor James H. Canfield described the special “something”
Pershing had as a lieutenant at Nebraska that was to be much in evidence as an American
general in France. Canfield wrote, “...by some spiritual quality, by a wordless, soundless
something that radiated from him, he gradually turned the current and made it flow with him.”
Pershing Rifles Group
Next, Pershing showed personal initiative and a penchant for going well beyond what
was expected—a lesson for us all, even today. Cadet uniforms at the time were locally
produced and were of a questionable quality. Hardly impressed with the Nebraska
uniforms, the Loot took the initiative to persuade the Army to issue regulation Army
blues to the cadet corps, along with 65 Springfield rifles and 50 cavalry sabers.
Now that they at least looked
like soldiers, the Nebraska cadets began to act like soldiers.
Buttons and shoes were polished and uniforms were kept clean. Many cadets tried to
pattern themselves after the Loot—to walk as he walked and to carry their shoulders
as he carried his. The Loot was winning them over just as he later won over an American
field army and skeptical Allied nations more than two decades later.
Part of General Pershing’s
success as the AEF commander stemmed from his insistence
on setting ambitious (some said unrealistic and even foolhardy) objectives during both
the long logistical and organizational buildup and the forty-seven days of actual
AEF combat. It was no different for Lieutenant Pershing.
Now that his cadets at least looked like soldiers, the time had come to set lofty
objectives and accomplish a seemingly impossible mission.
The Omaha Cup
The objective the Loot set for
the Nebraska cadets was to win a prize at the
National Competitive Drills in Omaha, NE, in June 1892. The objective
was ambitious, to say the least. In terms of popular interest and prestige,
the National Competitive Drills were to college cadets what the Rose Bowl
is to college football and “March Madness” is to college basketball.
All of the best known and most accomplished drill units would be there:
the Texas Tigers, the Washington Fusiliers, and even a team from the
United States Military Academy. As was to be the case in France
during WWI, many at Nebraska thought the objective of even
entering the competition—let alone winning a prize—was unrealistic.
However, the Loot thought otherwise, and the Loot prevailed.
The grand objective set for the
AEF—with the fate of western
Europe at stake—was to fight as an American army under American
commanders and then to leave the trenches and carry the war into
Germany. Many highly placed military and civilian officials decided
that objective was unrealistic and foolhardy. However, the general
thought otherwise, and the general prevailed.
Another trait that set Pershing apart both at Nebraska and as the
Commander of the AEF was his ability to find, develop and assign
especially-talented officers to key positions not only on the AEF
staff but also in the field. Some of those important AEF staff
officers and field commanders would later become early MOWW
The same trait was evident in
Nebraska. Although the size of the
cadet corps had grown from 92 to 192 as the National Competitive
Drills approached, Pershing personally knew every cadet in the
battalion—to include their abilities and potential.
In fact, as he did on a much
bigger stage years later, Pershing
reorganized the Nebraska Corps of Cadets and assigned the
best and brightest to Company A, which would represent the
university in the upcoming national competition. Just as many
early MOWW Companions had distinguished themselves in the
AEF, several of the Company A cadets would go on to distinguish
themselves as combat leaders in the Spanish American War,
the Philippine Insurrection and World War I.
General Pershing with members of his staff.
Back in Nebraska and now a
first lieutenant but still the Loot,
Pershing drove his handpicked cadet unit hard, just as he did
the AEF during intensive training in the US and after its arrival
in France. In Nebraska, Company A drilled from 0700 until classes
started and from the end of classes until it was too dark to continue.
Perhaps the earliest example of
Pershing’s innate ability to find the
right officers for critical commands occurred when he tapped
Cadet George Sheldon, Class of 1892, to command Company A.
Tall and strong, Sheldon cut an imposing figure in his own right
and led the company to a virtually perfect performance of exacting
maneuvers before a large crowd that included several governors
and prominent military and civilian leaders.
Company A was declared winner
of the competition’s Maiden
Category, which carried a $1,500 prize and an ornate sterling
silver pitcher called the Omaha Cup, which is prominently
displayed at the General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State
Historic Site & Museum, in Laclede, MO, more than a century later.
Fast forward to France as the
American buildup started in earnest.
It would still be many months before the AEF would be combat-ready
but combat readiness would never come unless the French ports could
be organized and operated so that the near-continuous arrivals of
thousands of US troops could quickly be disembarked and smoothly
transported onward to their units or in-country training bases.
Logistical leadership largely
fell to two early MOWW Companions,
one of which was then-Brigadier General George H. Harries
(The Officer Review®, May-June, 2019), who commanded the
Port of Brest while Brigadier General Nathaniel F. McClure
commanded the Port of St. Nazaire.
General Harries, of course, became the first MOWW
Commander-in-Chief (CINC) and served as such for an
amazing six years. Still another early MOWW Companion
who served in a critical logistical role was Brigadier General
William E. Horton, who was the AEF Chief Quartermaster.
Military Order of the World
Harries’ successor as MOWW CINC was Major General Mark
L. Hersey, who commanded both the 155th Infantry Brigade
of the 78th Division and, later, the 4th Division during the
climactic Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918. Meanwhile,
Colonel William Hayward, an original Pershing Rifles member,
commanded the African-American 369th Infantry, the fabled
“Harlem Hellfighters,” which spent 191 days in combat and
never lost a battle.
At the same time, Colonel (later Brigadier General) Perry Miles,
an early MOWW Companion, commanded the 371st Infantry—
a sister regiment of the 369th—during ferocious fighting around
Champagne. Both regiments had earlier been attached to a
decimated French Army and fought with distinction.
With the Maiden Prize won by
the Company A and the AEF
victorious in The Great War decades later, the foundations for
what would become the lasting legacies of both organizations
had been laid down and remain firmly cemented to this day.
The Pershing Rif les evolved from Company A to become the
nation’s foremost military honor society for Army, Air Force
and Navy ROTC cadets and midshipmen. MOWW became
and remains the preeminent patriotic and educational
organization dedicated to building future generations of
young leaders shaped by the inspiration and experiences of
its present and past Companions including, notably, Pershing.
Members of the Allied Prison Commission,
engaged in getting prisoners out of Germany. (L-R):
BG George H. Harries;
Brigadier General Charles DuPont (France);
Major General Sir Spencer Ewart (Britain);
Brigadier General Ugo Bassi (Italy).
Source: National Archives Identifier (NAID) 55248492
Not only do both organizations
share a common founding vision
and more than a century’s worth of service to the nation, both
are also partnered in a Memorandum of Mutual Support that
draws on the shared inspiration behind the two to enable
each to contribute to the ongoing success of the other
(The Officer Review®, Nov 2015).
Today, the PRG contributes by
giving MOWW visibility
to undergraduate cadets and encouraging eligible alumni
to become MOWW Companions.
For its part, MOWW supports by
mentoring local Pershing
Rifles cadet units, helping identify “lost” Pershing Rifles
alumni who may be active MOWW Companions and,
through its local chapters, providing a practical means
of continuing the camaraderie and fellowship woven
into the fabric of military and naval service.
To carry on this legacy of
service, on 2 October 2019,
the PRG established the John J. Pershing Memorial Foundation
(JJPMF), a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity, to promote the ideals
of selflessness, perseverance and devotion to duty.
It also honors General Pershing’s legacy by furthering the
development of leadership, academic scholarship and service of
11th and 12th grade high school students, with a primary focus on
supporting at-risk and under-resourced youth. Brigadier General
Arthur B. Morrill III, USAF (Ret), also MOWW’s Chief of Staff and
Chief Operating Officer, is an inaugural foundation board member.
In short, General Pershing’s legacy lives on today through
members of the Pershing Rifles, the Military Order of the
World Wars and the John J. Pershing Memorial Foundation.
Pershing Rifles, founded 1894 at the University of Nebraska-
Lincoln. A military-oriented, national honor society,
with fraternal origins.
founding CINC, General Harries wrote, “...
there [is] an increasing desire for fine comradeship,
which will make double sure that foundation upon
which we build shall be a great and powerful organization.”
That worthy effort continues to today with the MOWW-PRG
partnership, both jointly serving youth, community and nation. •
On 13 JUN 1917, the day General of the Armies John J. Pershing
arrived in France, he paid tribute to Major General (US)
Marquis de Lafayette, at Picpus Cemetery, Paris.
General Pershing’s address, in part:
“America has joined forces with the allied powers,
and what we have of blood and treasure are yours.
Therefore, it is with loving pride that we drape the colors
in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great Republic,
and here and now, in the shadow of the illustrious dead,
we pledge our heart and our honor in carrying this war
to a successful issue. La Fayette, we are here!”