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May 10, 1917: Pershing Appointed to Lead the AEF

After the death of Frederick Funston on February 19, 1917, it was inevitable that the newly promoted Major General John J. (Blackjack) Pershing would command the American Expeditionary Force that would be sent to France.  It must have seemed somewhat dizzying to him.  Nineteen years before he had been an overage thirty-eight year old First Lieutenant who would be lucky to make Major before retirement.  In 1893 he obtained a law degree in case he decided to leave the Army, fed up by the slow promotions offered by the minuscule peace time Army.

The Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt made him.  At the battle of San Juan Hill he made a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.  Under fire he was as “cool as a bowl of cracked ice”, as one observer noted.  Rising to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers he gained a reputation as a good combat officer in both Cuba and the Philippines and would serve as Adjutant General of the Philippines Department.

After the Spanish-American War he reverted to the regular army rank of Captain.  In 1905 Captain Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General Pershing by President Roosevelt over the heads of 835 officers more senior than him.  Surprisingly there was not much animosity over this, Pershing enjoying a reputation of extreme professional competence in the Army, a soldier’s soldier. Continue Reading

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Fearless Freddie Dies

Frederick_Funston_001

All but forgotten today, Major General Frederick Funston would almost certainly would have led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I if he had not died at age 51 of a heart attack on February 19, 1917.  Nicknamed “Fearless Freddie” he was perhaps the most famous American soldier between the Civil War and World War I.  He had a very unique career.  Always in ill health, he was a physically small man, 5 foot, 5 inches, and throughout his life never weighed more than 120 pounds.  After failing an admissions test to West Point in 1884 he pursued a career in botany.  Tiring of the quiet life he enlisted in the Cuban Revolutionary Army fighting against Spain.  Contracting malaria his weight fell to an alarming 95 pounds and he was granted medical leave in the United States.

After the declaration of war against Spain he was commissioned colonel of the 20th Kansas Infantry.  Fighting against the Filipino Insurrection, he became a national hero by capturing the Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo.  A separate action earned him a Medal of Honor.  Playing a leading role in putting down the Insurrection, Funston came under attack by critics for the severe measures he took.  The pen of Mark Twain was enlisted against him:

If this Funstonian boom continues, Funstonism will presently affect the army. In fact, this has already happened. There are weak-headed and weak-principled officers in all armies, and these

are always ready to imitate successful notoriety-breeding methods, let them be good or bad. The fact that Funston has achieved notoriety by paralyzing the universe with a fresh and hideous

idea, is sufficient for this kind—they will call that hand if they can, and go it one better when the chance offers. Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to

our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful “watercure,” for instance, to make them confess—^what? Truth? Or lies ? How can one know which it is they are telling ? For under

unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually—but you know about

those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two; and about General Smith’s now world-celebrated order of massacre—thus summarized by the press from Major Waller’s

testimony:

“Kill and burn—this is no time to take prisoners—the more you kill and burn, the better—Kill all above the age of ten—make Samar a howling

wilderness!

Funston was completely unrepentant:

I personally strung up thirty-five Filipinos without trial, so what was all the fuss over Waller’s ‘dispatching’ a few ‘treacherous savages’? If there had been more Smiths and Wallers, the war would have been over long ago. Impromptu domestic hanging might also hasten the end of the war. For starters, all Americans who had recently petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Philippines should be dragged out of their homes and lynched. Continue Reading