PERSONAL GLIMPSES OF GENERAL PERSHING

By First Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., Cavalry

1924

 

When one attempts to recite personal reminiscences of the great of this earth, there is a very real danger that the recounter will use his subject simply as a foil or an excuse for self glorification.

Knowing this tendency, I shall strive to sin as little as possible, giving as my excuse for the frequent use of the first personal pronoun, the fact that I am telling only what I personally know.

My service with General Pershing began in this way. On the day after the Columbus, New Mexico raid in March, 1916, I was Officer of the Day at Fort Bliss, Texas. I learned by grapevine methods and good eyesight that a Punitive Expedition was in progress of formation, gleaning at the same time the knowledge that my regiment was not to form a part of it. Being, however, determined to participate, I got permission to speak to the General and asked him to take me to Mexico in any capacity. He replied, "Everyone wants to go; why should I favor you"? "Because," I replied, "I want to go more than anyone else." This modest reply failed to get any answer except a curt, "That will do."

Fortune in the form of an alleged wire tapper, whom I apprehended, favored me so that I saw him again and renewed my request, with similar results. Undiscouraged, I then went home and packed my bedding roll and saddle. At five o'clock next morning the telephone rang and on answering it, the General's voice inquired, "Lieutenant Patton, how long will it take you to get ready?" When he heard that I was ready, he exclaimed, "I'll be Goddamned. You are appointed aide."

It was three years before I learned from him why he took me. It seems that in 1898, Lieutenant Pershing was an instructor at West Point. The policy was that no instructors would go to the war. Lieutenant Pershing used every normal means to secure an exception and finally went AWOL to Washington where, by a line of talk similar to the one I employed on him in 1916, he secured the detail to Cuba

The malicious have spoken of General Pershing as the "Tailor Made" general. On reaching Columbus, New Mexico, his first order was to reduce all officer's baggage to fifty pounds, and fearing that the zeal of his aides might unduly form his own, he personally weighed it entering the campaign with but thirty-nine pounds.

From March until the end of May he slept on the ground without a tent, doubling up with one of his aides for the additional warmth secured by the two blankets, but no frost nor snow prevented his daily shave so that by personal example he prevented the morale destroying growth of facial herbage which hard campaigns so frequently produce.

On the first march from Culverson's Ranch, New Mexico, to Colonia Dublan, Mexico, the General rode a borrowed artillery horse (his own was marching with the Infantry on the Columbus route), one hundred and twenty miles in thirty hours, elapsed time. It is interesting to note that on this march our first halt, thirty miles into Mexico, was at a pile of huge rocks, where Lieutenant Pershing, commanding a troop of Indian Scouts, had fought the Apaches.

During our first stay at Dublan, March 1916, the General made frequent motor, or better, Ford trips to our advanced detachments thirty to fifty miles in the front and never carried anything except one blanket and his toilet articles.

When he moved forward to a place called San Herinomo Ranch, the American Punitive Expedition Headquarters consisted of the General, Colonel J. Ryan (Intelligence Officer), myself, a stenographer, a cook, three drivers, and four soldiers. For days at a time there were no other troops within miles. The office consisted of a box in front of the Dodge car which now carried the General and whose headlight formed his only reading lamp. Shortly after the battle of Guerrero, I was sent to find General Dodd and failed to locate him. Two days later, it was requisite to send orders to the 11th Cavalry located somewhere in Mexico to the south of us. Almost a needle in a haystack. As I started, the General shook me warmly by the hand saying, "Be careful, there are lots of Villiastas." Then still holding my hand he said, "But remember, Patton, if you don't deliver that message, don't come back." It was delivered! There are some soft-headed and softer-hearted people who would consider this hard treatment. Neither then nor since, have I so thought of it. The first duty of a commander is to his troops. The life of an officer, even a warm, personal friend, cannot and must not be counted. He would have hesitated as little to send his own son on such an errand with a similar warning. All honor to him for his courage.

The evening of the Paral fight (of which we then knew nothing) the General decided to move to a place called Satavo, four hundred and eighty miles south of the border. We knew that the 11th Cavalry, a squadron of the 13th, and another of the 10th were in that direction, but could get no reports. The move was for the purpose of getting closer to them and of gaining touch by means of airplanes which were to fly to, and join us in the morning.

The trip was made in three open cars and our force all told was fifteen men with nine rifles. The country to be traversed consisted of ninety miles of unmapped and semi-hostile mountain and desert. Night came on, when suddenly the headlights of the leading car in which I rode as guide showed an armed Mexican, blocking our way, while in the bushes on either side a veritable army seemed to lurk. The leading car stopped while, according to previously issued orders, the second car with the General, came up on it's right; the third car on the right of the second, thus sandwiching the General's car between the other two. The eight soldiers sprang out and took their allotted places to cover all avenues of attack. With halting Spanish and beating heart, I rushed forward to solve the problem, always most difficult, as to the friendliness or hostility of the Mexicans. I had just prejudiced my hope of eternal salvation by a valuable description of ourselves as the advance guard of an automobile regiment when the General appeared at my side and frustrated my efforts at deception by declaring himself to be General Pershing, and demanding, "Why in Hell," these people dared to stop him. For a moment I had visions of a second Mountain Meadow Massacre with ourselves in the role of victims, but the commanding presence of the General and his utter disregard of danger overawed the Mexicans and we went on, though personally it was more than a mile before I ceased feeling bullets entering my back. Two hours later a convoy of three trucks with airplane spare parts and gas was attacked by these same Mexicans. The incident inspires the statement attributed to Caesar that, "Fortune favors the brave."

Some months later, while returning from an antelope hunt, the car broke down and the General decided to walk to camp four miles distant. I dare not state the incredibly short time in which he covered the distance, but I know that the guide and myself who accompanied him were lame for three days, due to our efforts to keep up. (Four miles in fifty minutes).

As a soldier, I have always regretted that the regiments of the Punitive Expedition which marched out of Mexico in February, 1917, were not sent as a unit into the World War. They were the finest body of men I have ever seen and trained to the minute. The months of "watchful waiting" at Dublan and Namaquipa from June, 1916, to February, 1917, had little waiting so far as we were concerned. Under the personal supervision of the General, every unit went through a complete course in range and combat firing, marches, maneuvers, entrenching, and combating exercises with ball ammunition. Every horse and man was fit; weaklings had gone; baggage was still at the minimum and discipline was perfect. When I speak of supervision I do not mean that nebulous staff control so frequently connected with the work. By constant study, General Pershing knew to the most minute detail each of the subjects in which he demanded practice, and by his physical presence and personal example and explanation, insured himself that they were correctly carried out.

When the Baltic sailed from New York on May 28, 1917, the thoroughness of the General's nature again came to evidence. The second day out all officers were divided into sections for the study of French. The more fluent and the interpreters acting as instructors; the General himself joining regularly in the lessons.

Of his arrival in England on June 7th, and in France on June 13th, much has been written. Perhaps I may be pardoned if I insert here an incident of my own experience.

I commanded the Headquarters Troop, A.E.F., then consisting of forty-six enlisted men. We were quartered in the Tower of London, attached to a battalion of the Honorable Artillery Company, and by them treated in every way as friends and brothers. Our entry into that historic fortress; marking as it did the only occasion on which foreign troops have ever marched through that venerable portal save in the guise of prisoners, was impressive in the extreme. The stability of the British race was impressed on me when one evening, after dinner, their Officer of the Day, called "Pickett Officer," asked me, "If I wished to take the keys." Presuming that it was some sort of drink I at once assented, but was soon disillusioned. We proceeded with due solemnity to the vicinity of the guardhouse, where we saw the guard lined up under an ancient colonnade with No.1 sentinel stalking up and down before them. Presently a lantern appeared approaching the guardhouse. No.1 challenged, "Halt! Who comes there?" to which the lantern replied, "The keys." No.1 answered, "Whose keys?" The lantern replied, "King George's keys." To which No.1 exclaimed, "God bless King George." The guard then presented, and the officer of the day called, "Amen." No.1 then called, "Advance keys, all's well." So the incident ended. On inquiry I discovered that this same ceremony of locking the Tower at ten o'clock and placing the keys in the guardhouse had been in effect since the time of Henry II, nearly one thousand years.

Arriving in France, General Pershing was so occupied that I was him only at meals and occasionally when I accompanied him on visits of inspection, such as that to the British front in July, 1917.

There never was a man more worked upon by all the arts of flattery and persuasion than was he during those early months, yet it effected him not a bit. No adulation could persuade him to countenance the placing of American men in French and British units. It is to his iron resolution to form an American Army that we owe the great heritage of a victorious America, victorious in her own right, and by her own means. But for him, her manpower would have been bled white to fill the depleted ranks of Allied units, where their valor would have been unmarked and their achievements unheralded.

To those who have known General Pershing, only by his pictures or by an occasional distant view, he appears as a grave, austere man of fine presence, but cold and almost frigid in his loneliness. Just so it is with Mount Washington. Viewed from afar, it rises in cold and isolated majesty; in, but not of, our universe. It takes the more intimate personal knowledge of a ramble on it's craggy sides to discover the warmth, beauty, and latent grandeur of it's very self. All great men suffer from this fact. Of American generals, none has suffered more than General Pershing, because none have commanded such hosts or risen so high.

In his office or on his inspections, an unnatural severity, most unlike and distasteful to him, seemed of necessity to invest him. But, in his quarters he was no whit changed from the man of Mexico. Displacing worry by marvelous control of the will, he laughed and talked of casual, simple things interluding from time to time his conversation by some incisive question of momentous decision.

No matter how late he worked, and he usually did work well into the night, he always took a violent (no other word describes it) walk for half an hour before retiring. In the morning he took twenty minutes of setting up exercises before breakfast. In his mess, no wine was served save for the benefit of an occasional French visitor. His smoking was confined to one or two cigarettes after dinner.

The immense responsibilities of his position were impotent to remove his human interest. In October, 1917, two of his junior staff officers were in the hospital while he was at St. Nasairre inspecting, yet each day he had a telephone report of their condition sent to him.

Despite the mournful croaking of the Allies to the effect that war of movement and successful offensive was impossible, he never deviated from his belief that the Germans could be evicted from their trenches by a vigorous attack. During the winter of 1917 and 1918, all the world talked of bombs and trench war; the American Divisions in France practiced the open warfare offensive tactics, which were to receive their glorious vindication in the St. Mihiel and Argonne. His correct operation of tactics was equaled by his genius for organization and his just conception of the magnitude of our task. In the very teeth of combat he devised and built a great Supply System and Zone of the Interior organization unequaled by any in Europe, so that at the Armistice the American Army was the only Allied Force so situated as to be capable of a continued offensive.

The size of modern armies prevents the personal contact of the leaders and the led, which in our earlier wars caused the hero worship associated with the names of Grant, Scott, or Washington. Due to having entered the Tank Corps in November, 1917, I saw little of the General, yet I personally know of one occasion when the presence of the commander received a spontaneous tribute. Just at dark on September 25th, many of us were lying in the ditches bordering the Flury Varennes road, waiting for a German concentration to cease. Suddenly, General Pershing's big car with it's four stars came up the road going to the front. Moved by a single impulse we all arose, and regardless of the shells, stood at salute until he had passed us.

I have saved for the last picture an incident of the Mexican Campaign, which, to my mind, gives the best index of General Pershing's ability as a commander.

On the night of the Battle of Guerrero in March, 1916, the General sent me from St. Heronomo to Dublan with a report of the battle to be forwarded from there by radio to General Funston. On reaching Dublan, at dawn, I found the radio wrecked by a hurricane. Over impressed, perhaps, with the importance of a prompt report of our first fight, I asked the Air Officer there, a classmate of mine, to send a plane to Columbus, New Mexico with the message. Though a man of proven courage, he demurred on the ground that it was unduly hazardous on account of the wind. He stated, however, that if I would give him a written order he would risk it. I presumed on my position and wrote the order. When I reported this to the General, he said, "You have made a mistake. I would not have ordered such a dangerous flight, but I know you did what you thought was right and I assume the full responsibility." The ability to support one's juniors, no matter how humble, is the rarest and greatest of military virtues.

I have tried this evening to give you a picture of the man, John J. Pershing; strong, virile, kindly and human; alive to his responsibilities; and unswerving in his adherence to duty. To me the motto of West Point, "Duty, Honor, Country," finds in him a perfect exemplification.