Black Jack Pershing: Love and War

The award-winning documentary “Black Jack Pershing: Love and War,” tells the story of World War I General John J. Pershing’s life and the personal tragedy so painful Pershing could never speak of it.

Black Jack Pershing: Love and War – is an important, dynamic, entertaining documentary featuring a man and his life which was pivotal to America’s successful campaigns during World War 1. The story and history as developed by Barney McCoy adds to our understanding of American history accurately and poignantly, and exemplifies the power of filmmaking.  -Ron Hull, Nebraska Public Broadcasting

When America entered WWI in April of 1917 its military was hardly prepared for war. There were roughly 220,000 U.S. soldiers and officers. America’s troops initially lacked the training needed to effectively fight a veteran German army that used modern warfare tactics.

US Infantry In The Argonne Forest
In the fall of 1918, more than a million U.S troops fought German forces in the deciding WWI battle of the Meuse-Argonne in France. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

Germany’s high-powered artillery, poison gas, machine guns, fortified defensive positions and fighter planes exacted a heavy toll on U.S. troops. The Americans fought German troops with French, British, Canadian, Australian and other allied forces in deadly combat along 400 miles that comprised the Western Front.

General John J. Pershing was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to command the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. His nickname was “Black Jack.”

Commanding U.S. troops against overwhelming odds would be the greatest challenge of Pershing’s military career. Twenty months after America joined the fight, Pershing and two million troops helped turn the battle tide. Germany was forced to surrender on November 11, 1918.

Pershing June 1917 Library of France
General John J. Pershing arrived in France and is greeted by French Army officers in June of 1917. Photo: Library of France.

Black Jack_ John Pershing LW2018 (Promo) from CoJMC on Vimeo.

All rights reserved, 2017 Painted Rock Productions, LLC


Black Jack Pershing: Love and War honored with Broadcast Education Association’s Excellence Award

Pershing BEA award

Black Jack Pershing: Love and War,” has been honored with an Award of Excellence by judges in the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts documentary division competition.

Here’s what the BEA judges said:

Judge 1: “This is to me an excellent historical account of the life of General Pershing. It is both factual and personal. To get both a sense of the drive and motivation that made him great and a sense of the person, the source of his values, the loves of his life and the heartbreaks he overcame was a delight. The director has created a valuable document detailing Pershing’s history that is both significantly deep but also approachable.“

Judge 2:Very professionally produced. Good story, very engaging. I enjoyed the entire film.”

Judge 3: “Great introduction, short and straight to the point. Leaving you with the feeling of wanting to learn more about the topic/subject. Amazing Archival footage and pictures with good quality. Narrator’s voice was clear and as a viewer was able to follow and understand and very clearly.”  

The competitive BEA festival received a record 1,541 entries in 15 competitions this year. BEA is the premier international academic media organization, driving insights, excellence in media production, and career advancement for educators, students, and professionals.

“Black Jack Pershing: Love and War” chronicle’s the life of World War I General John J. Pershing. It was directed by Bernard “Barney” McCoy, a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. CoJMC professor of practice Luis Peon-Casanova was the documentary’s primary videographer.

“Black Jack Pershing: Love and War,” is a co-production of Painted Rock Productions and NET, Nebraska’s PBS station. Production support for the documentary was provided by CoJMC, Humanities Nebraska, UNL’s Research Council, Lowell Vestal, Sandra Pershing, and the Hitchcock Foundation.

Through Pershing’s fatherly eyes

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WWI General John J. Pershing with his son Warren circa 1916-1917. Photo: Library of Congress

WWI General John J. Pershing deeply loved his son Warren. The proof, as we discovered, rests among letters written more than a century ago and preserved in Pershing’s personal papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Warren was the only survivor of the 1915 Presidio fire in San Francisco, California that killed his mother and three sisters. Warren wasn’t simply John Pershing’s son. He was the only remaining link to Pershing’s deceased wife Frankie and daughters Mary, Anne and Helen. General Pershing was so stunned by their deaths he would never speak or write publicly about them for the rest of his life.


Helen Frances (Frankie) Pershing with three of her and John Pershing’s children shortly before the 1915 Presidio fire that killed Frankie and the couple’s three daughters. Photo: Library of Congress

Twenty months after the Presidio tragedy, America entered WWI. General Pershing sailed to France as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. Some 4,500 miles away, Warren stayed with his aunts in Lincoln, Nebraska where the 7-year-old boy frequently received letters from his father who was now charged with the enormous task of directing what would soon become more than 2-million U.S. troops fighting a veteran German army in Europe.

The all-consuming danger and demands of the war meant it would be two years before Pershing would see his son again. To fill the void of distance, loneliness, and love for his son, Pershing frequently wrote Warren.

Pershingletter to warren 1In one letter, Pershing described his morning horseback ride to his son along the banks of the Marne River in France. “It is a beautiful river, and has a canal along its entire course,” Pershing wrote. “The banks of the canal are level and grassy, and frequently lined with trees,“ continued Pershing, who liked riding horses along the canal because of its beauty and soft soil that was easy on the horses’ “feet.”

The general ended his letter with words of tender longing: “The only thing that was lacking this morning in making my ride a complete joy was that you were not here to go with me. I often wish you were with me when I see beautiful things as I travel around the country. I would also like to have you with me always under all circumstances. I especially miss you at night…. With much love, Papa”

In March of 1918, Pershing encouraged Warren to practice his penmanship so his handwriting would become easier when he was a grown man. “There are lots of things I wish I had learned better when I was a little boy, as I might not have to work now.” wrote Pershing.

Pershingletter to warren 2In the letter, Pershing seemed wistful yet encouraging. “You know little boys’ school days pass very quickly. They do not seem to pass very quickly, but the first thing you know they are gone, then you are a man and you cannot go to school anymore because you have to work, and maybe you have a lot of other things to think about and do not get much time to study and learn to write. I think if you wrote letters oftener it would soon come quite easy for you. Try it and see,” Pershing wrote.

A few days later Germany launched “Operation Michael,” a massive spring offensive that sent besieged French and British troops into a hasty retreat and forced Pershing to commit ill-prepared American troops into major battle for the first time in the Great War. Germany gambled that its troops could smash through Allied lines, separate the French and British, seize the English Channel seaports, and drive the British army into the sea before rapidly growing American forces could help Allies reverse the battle tide against Germany.

In July, Pershing described to Warren the 4th of July celebration at his headquarters in Chaumont, France. “… the French soldiers and American soldiers joined in the celebration. We had a French band and an American band, and the park was just packed with people,” wrote Pershing.

Weeks earlier, there had been important but costly American victories in the battles of Belleau Wood and Cantigny. U.S. troops were now heavily involved in major combat operations against German troops with any Allied victory, much less an end to the fighting, was far from assured.

Perhaps Pershing remembered his own deceased daughters Mary, Anne, and Helen as he continued his description of the 4th of July celebration.

Pershing little girl2
General John J. Pershing visits with a young French girl during WWI. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

“I received three beautiful bouquets. One was presented by the school children, one by the city and the other one by the army. Each bouquet was carried by a little boy and a little girl and when they gave me the flowers, I kissed each little boy and each little girl on both cheeks, according to the French custom.”

Pershingletter to warren 3

Pershing wrote that the men in the trenches did not celebrate much on this holiday, because a good deal of fighting was taking place. “I hope the next 4th of July will find us near a victory. I know how much this would mean to you and me,” Pershing wrote, “because it would bring you and me together, maybe.”

Pershingletter to warren 4aOn October 10th, with American troops locked into the 47-day Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Pershing wrote Warren to describe the enormous efforts American troops were putting forth in France. “I want you to know while you are still a boy something of the fine patriotism that inspires the American soldiers who are fighting over here for the cause of liberty. They are fighting, as you know, against Germany and her Allies to prevent the rulers of Germany from seizing territory that does not belong to them and from extending their rule over the people of other governments who do not wish to be ruled by Germany.”

More than 1.5-million U.S. troops fought German forces in the 47-day Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.  The combined offensive pushes by U.S., British and French troops forced a German surrender and end to WWI. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Pershing added that German troops had committed serious crimes “and for that we are also fighting in order to punish them.”

Warren PershingLJS
General Pershing with son Warren and sisters May and Mary circa 1920 outside their home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo: Lincoln Journal Star

As he wrote his only son, perhaps Pershing reminded himself too why he believed it was important for American troops to be fighting in France.

Pershing hoped his son would someday visit the battlefields where war still raged. “It will enable you to realize later in life just what sacrifice means and just what degree of sacrifice our army is called upon to make and which they have made and are making bravely and courageously,” Pershing wrote.

General Pershing was music to many American’s ears

Songs honoring WWI General John J. Pershing were among the top sellers in America in 1918.
After John J. Pershing rose to international prominence as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI, many musical compositions bearing Pershing’s name flooded the American marketplace. Pershing songs were sold as sheet music for piano, phonograph records, wax cylinders, and player piano rolls.

Here are two examples:

Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware, General Pershing Will Cross the Rhine was a very popular song composed by George W. Meyer in 1918. Its lyrics were written by Howard Johnson and published by Leo Feist, Inc.
According to Music, it’s estimated that “Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware, General Pershing Will Cross the Rhine” would have reached number four on the top 100 songs list of 1918 with a recording by the Peerless Quartet. A later recording by Prince’s Orchestra would have been number seven of the top 100 songs of 1918.

 Image and wax cylinder music: University of California, Santa Barbara Library


According to authors Paas and Watkins*, the 1918 publication featured a cover illustration by Rosenbaum Studios of a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River with a picture of General Pershing below it. The song describes the American effort in Germany during World War I and draws a direct parallel to the American Revolution. It describes the hope that General Pershing will have the same success against the Germans as George Washington had against Great Britain in the late 1700’s.

General Pershing: One Step or Two Step was a march composed by Carl D. Vandersloot and published by Vandersloot Music Publishing Company in 1918. The song honors John J. Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I in 1917–18. *Thanks to Lincoln’s Sharon Schwartz for providing the “General Pershing One Step” sheet music.

 *Sources: Paas, John Roger (2014). America Sings of War: American Sheet Music from World War I. Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 204, ISBN 9783447102780.
Jump up ^ Watkins, Glenn (2002). Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War. University of California Press. p. 256. ISBN 9780520927896.

General John J. Pershing’s Nebraska connection

Today, WWI General John J. Pershing’s name is recognized by few Americans, even in Nebraska where an important part of Pershing’s life unfolded.

In 1891, Pershing arrived at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where he led the cadet training program while attending law school until 1895.

York College history associate professor Tim McNeese says John Pershing had the challenge of rebuilding a failing cadet corps when he arrived at the University of Nebraska in 1891.

York College history professor Tim McNeese  has written a book about Pershing’s life. McNeese said  when Pershing arrived at the University of Nebraska he found a cadet training program that was a mess.

By Nebraska state law, the university was required to have a cadet training program. But the university’s cadet program struggled- It had less than 100 members. Few of the cadets regularly attended cadet training sessions or drills.

“But it was just such an underrated, secondhand, nobody gave two hoots about the program. Students didn’t take it seriously, faculty couldn’t care less,” McNeese said.

Under Pershing’s command, McNeese said that changed. Pershing brought discipline to the cadets and helped turn the program around. “We’re going to take it seriously.” He starts getting the discipline required, “You better button up that coat. Why are your shoes not polished?,” said McNeese. “And all these farm boys were kind of, “Wait, wait, wait. Who’s this guy and what?” But they take to it, and they take to him.”

Within a year, 350 students joined Pershing’s UNL’s cadet corps. And in June of 1892, Pershing’s cadets were put to the test at a national drill competition in Omaha. The packed parade crowd included governors from several states, including Nebraska.


Pershing 1892 Great Photo at UNL with staff
First Lieutenant John Pershing with officers of the University of Nebraska Cadet Corps in 1892. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star Archives

When it was announced Pershing’s UNL cadets had won their maiden division and national competition, hundreds of UNL students and faculty charged the field to celebrate, and they were led by University of Nebraska Chancellor James Canfield.

Pershing UNL Commander
An 1892 photo of John Pershing when he commanded the Cadet Corps at the University of Nebraska. Photo: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library Archives

In 1895, Pershing’s time at UNL came to an end. Fueled by the friendships he formed in Lincoln, Pershing re-committed himself to the military. In honor of their recently departed Lieutenant, UNL’s elite drill team renamed itself “Pershing’s Rifles.”  Today 50 co-ed Pershing Rifles units exist across the United States and are known as the National Society of Pershing Rifles.

Images of U.S. troops in World War I

Pershing standing w injured soldier
General John J. Pershing visits with a wounded soldier in France. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Burying Americans
More than 50,000 Americans were killed and 206,000 wounded in the decisive WWI battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Rickenbacker with plane
WWI American ace Eddie Rickenbacker. With 26 aerial victories, he was America’s most successful fighter ace in the war. He was also considered to have won the most awards for valor by an American during the war. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Meuse Argonne soldiers on wet road
The 47-day Battle of the Meuse-Argonne involved more than 1.2- million U.S. troops who fought German forces in France and helped force a German surrender on November 11, 1918. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Pershing WS US troops
When the fighting ended in WWI, General Pershing commanded more than 2 million American troops who were fighting on European soil. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Meuse Argonne soldiers reading mail and newspapers
U.S. troops line up to collect their mail and read newspapers in France during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Motorcycle US soldiers
A U.S. Army motorcycle messenger in France in 1918. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
General John J. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces who joined fighting in WWI in 1917. Photo: Library of Congress
General John J. Pershing during a visit to the front lines in France during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Pershing pins medal on US soldier
General John J. Pershing pins a battle medal on an American soldier during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Soldiers carry wounded through town
U.S. troops carry a wounded soldier through a battle-scarred French town during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
US soldier with mortar shell
Millions of artillery and mortar shells were fired and claimed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the fighting in WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
US soldiers tank portrait
U.S. Army Signal Corps cameramen ride a tank in France in WWI. Signal Corps members risked their lives shooting film and photos during the war. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Medical soldiers portrait
Medical Corps members in France during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
US troops portrait captured town
American troops pose for a photo after capturing a French city from enemy German forces in WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
1 Breaking Point evening_world_aug_1_1914
World War I, also called the Great War, broke out in 1914 between the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the original Allied forces of France, Russia and the United Kingdom. More than 70 million troops fought in the war.
Soldiers portrait in the field
U.S. soldiers during WWI combat operations along the Western Front in France in 1918. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
US Troops in recaptured French town
U.S. troops march into a recaptured French town during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Soldiers artillery portrait
Members of a U.S. Army artillery battalion in France during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Combat US soldiers in field
Many of the American troops who fought in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne faced harsh weather conditions and German defensive positions that caused heavy casualties in the opening weeks of the 47-day battle. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
War loot US soldiers
American soldiers with captured war loot in France during WWI. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Wounded US troops good photo
Wounded U.S. troops await transport to a field hospital during fighting in France in WWI. An estimated 323,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the war. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
WWI Soldiers NARA getting smokes
U.S. soldiers line up for free cigarettes in France during WWI. Tobacco’s association with the United States military started in World War I when tobacco companies began to target military personnel through the distribution of cigarettes to servicemen and the eventual inclusion of cigarettes into their rations. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
Writing letters US soldiers home
American soldiers write home during a lull in combat during WWI in France. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
US nurses and soldiers portrait
U.S. nurses and soldiers pose for a photo at a field hospital in France in 1918. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration