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.