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