By Tom Morrow
World War II produced a handful of “five-star” flag officers, with “general of the army” or “fleet admiral” designations but preceding them was a lone “six-star” officer: John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, “General of the Armies.” He was the only officer in modern history elevated to that high rank.
Pershing was born Sept. 13, 1860, in Laclede, Missouri. He became famous during World War I, serving as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) on the Western Front of Belgium and France in 1917-18.
On Dec. 20, 1913, Pershing received orders to take command of the 8th Brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. With tensions running high on the border between the United States and Mexico, the brigade was deployed to Fort Bliss, Texas.
On March 15, 1916, Pershing led an expedition into Mexico to capture the revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. This expedition was ill-equipped and hampered by a lack of supplies due to the breakdown of the Quartermaster Corps and failed to capture Villa.
At the start of the United States’ involvement in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson considered mobilizing an army to join the fight. Pershing was the most likely candidate to lead the AEF.
On Oct. 6, 1917, Pershing, then a major general, was promoted to full general in the U.S. Army. He bypassed the three-star rank of lieutenant general and was the first four-star general since Philip Sheridan in 1888. George Marshall served as one of Pershing’s top assistants during and after World War I.
American forces first saw serious action during the summer of 1918, contributing eight large divisions, alongside 24 French ones, at the Second Battle of the Marne. Along with the British Fourth Army’s victory at Amiens, the Allied victory at the Second Battle of the Marne marked the turning point of World War I on the Western Front.
When he arrived in Europe, Pershing had openly scorned the slow trench warfare of the previous three years on the Western Front, believing that American soldiers’ skill with the rifle would enable them to avoid costly and senseless fighting over a small area of no-man’s land. This was regarded as unrealistic by British and French commanders.
Pershing’s soldiers first saw serious fighting at Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Soissons. In September 1918, at St. Mihiel, the First Army was directly under Pershing’s command. It overwhelmed the encroachment into Allied territory that the German Army had held for three years.
The Allied Hundred Days Offensive contributed to Germany calling for an armistice. Pershing was of the opinion the war should continue and all of Germany should be occupied in an effort to permanently destroy German militarism. If that advice had been taken, World War II may not have occurred.
Pershing is the only American to be promoted in his own lifetime to General of the Armies rank. After the creation of the five-star General of the Army rank during World War II, his rank of General of the Armies could unofficially be considered that of a six-star general, but he died before the proposed insignia could be considered and acted on by Congress.
Pershing notably served as a mentor to many in the generation of generals who led the United States Army during World War II, including George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Lesley J. McNair, George S. Patton, and Douglas MacArthur.
In 1944, with Congress’ creation of the five-star rank of General of the Army, Pershing was still considered to be the highest-ranking officer of the United States military as his rank was General of the Armies.
In 1799, Congress created for George Washington the rank of General of the Armies. General Ulysses S. Grant received the title of General of the Army in 1866. Congress wrote a bill to revive the rank of Washington’s General of the Armies for General Pershing alone to hold during his lifetime. The rank would cease to exist upon Pershing’s death.
On July 15, 1948, Pershing died of coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. Following a state funeral, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave sites of the soldiers he commanded in Europe.
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