As the centennial of America’s entry into the Great War nears, consider Sandra Sinclair Pershing an ambassador of sorts for its star general. She never knew John “Black Jack” Pershing, but as the wife of his grandson, the late Col. John W. “Jack” Pershing, she has one of the most famous names in U.S. military history.
The family’s story is one of glory and tragedy. In August 1915, months before his expedition into Mexico, Gen. Pershing lost his wife and three daughters in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco. Ever the soldier, he swallowed his grief and went on to lead the American Expeditionary Forces to victory in World War I. He is the only American promoted in his lifetime to general of the armies.
Pershing’s only surviving child, Francis, enlisted in the Army during World War II and later became a stockbroker. Francis, in turn, had two sons: Jack, who helped shape ROTC programs as special assistant to the Army chief of staff, and Richard, a second lieutenant in the 101st Airborne who was killed in action in Vietnam on Feb. 17, 1968.
Sandra and Jack married in 1995, but just four years later he died of vascular disease. “We had some time together, but not enough,” she says.
After a career in real estate, Sandra now volunteers with Phoenix House New York, which helps veterans struggling with PTSD and other issues. She is director emeritus of the Pershing Foundation, which provides support for Pershing Rifles, the oldest continuously operating U.S. collegiate organization dedicated to military drill.
She also serves as a special adviser to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, which plans to build a memorial in the nation’s capital – something she thinks Pershing would appreciate. “He valued the service of all: African-Americans, women, countless immigrants who wore our country’s uniform, the volunteer ambulance drivers, the support staffs, the nurses,” she told the Chicago Tribune last year. “History required something from everyone.”
She recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine about Pershing and the centennial.
What brought you and Jack together?
I met Jack late in life. I was in my 50s and so was he. His cousin, Joy Ingham, who is a good friend of mine, insisted he come to New York and buy an apartment from me because I was a broker at Brown Harris Stevens. That’s how we got to know each other. We quickly realized we had many friends in common, we started going out for dinner, and that was it. We just got along well.
I really didn’t know much about the Army at all, and I think that’s one of the things he liked about me. I thought it was great that he had just gone back to the Army War College and gotten his degree, and I loved meeting his friends. It was just a very interesting time because I had been in the regular world of New York, and he had been all over.
What did Jack remember of his grandfather?
He adored him. He used to go by train to visit the general at Walter Reed, because that’s where he had an apartment in his retirement. They used to play soldiers. Jack had an amazing collection. He would take some of his favorites and play soldiers with the general. Later he remembered that the general always let him win, which I think is kind of funny.
He remembered the funeral. He said he’d never seen such crowds and that everybody was crying. That stuck in his mind – so many men with their handkerchiefs out of their pockets and ladies, too.
How did he feel about being a Pershing?
He had loved his grandfather and read a lot of the books that had been written, but he really didn’t like walking in his shadow. Jack had some ups and downs. He’d been on Wall Street after his brother was killed in Vietnam because his father needed him, and he really didn’t want to go to Wall Street. He wanted to make a career of the Army. So by the time he got to the War College it was late. He loved what he did afterward, in Washington, and was very happy with it, but he didn’t always want to talk about Pershing. I think that often happens when you’re in a famous family, unless you’re a publicity seeker.
What qualities did the Pershing men share?
They were all honest and straightforward, and had a sense of humor. They loved athletics – swimming, skiing, tennis, golf. They were involved in their communities. They were all very generous. The general didn’t really have much money because, as Jack used to say, they only get medals and ribbons. They don’t get cold cash. But he always gave of his time and would lend his name wherever he could.
After the war, Pershing endorsed the creation of The American Legion. Why did he believe it to be important?
He was always very concerned that veterans didn’t have enough public support or funding for their pensions – they were fine to go fight and be wounded, and then were kind of dumped. He used the Civil War as an example of just how terrible it was for the men when they returned and how it hadn’t gotten any better. He felt the Legion really did help former soldiers and gave them a place to go, a place to talk and a place to get medical advice. It even helped them financially if they needed something. It was like a special club for people who understood war and had given so much. I think he felt that what they did was such a great thing for their country. I don’t know if the country always appreciated everything they did, but we should have.
You’re involved with the Pershing Project, a documentary film. What is it about?
It’s for public schools, for students in eighth grade and up, so they will have some information about World War I. They know about World War II, but they don’t study World War I anymore. The film is about what happened leading up to and during the war, and about the expeditionary forces that saved France – and the world, really – from the Germans. It’s got cadets from Pershing Rifles in it. It also has blackjacks, who are the high school kids – young men and young women. It’s a nice story of knowledge and respect and learning about our relatives who fought.
The film has some biography. It talks about how Pershing was a great influence on everyone who served under him, and how his name has kept its brilliance among people who are literate about history but has lost its way in this new world. They filmed in France and were supposed to go to Laclede, Mo., which was the general’s home as a boy, and the University of Nebraska, where he led an elite drill team.
You’re also a big supporter of the proposed World War I memorial in Washington.
I think America needs to know about all the regular people who served and were injured and died. So many of them went voluntarily, and it was such an act of kindness to go help the French and the Brits and the Belgians. Again, schoolchildren in America don’t know about World War I, and they’re the ones who need to know. It’s not my world anymore. If they don’t know what happened in Europe and in America as a result of our going over to help, they can’t understand everything else that’s going wrong now.
In fact, a lot of my friends don’t know there’s no World War I memorial in Washington. They say, “Sandy, of course there’s one.” And I say, “No. There are individual monuments, but there’s not a memorial. It got lost between the Depression and World War II.” It’s time we had one. And since we have Pershing Park, which is a perfect location these days because people can walk to the White House or any other place, let’s use it to thank everybody who served.
The memorial will keep an existing statue of Pershing while adding more sculptures and green space. Do you like that concept?
The general wouldn’t want to be there alone. He loved his troops. He especially loved the black soldiers, the Buffalo soldiers. They were his favorites. We’re going to see them honored. The young designer who created this vision for the park, Joseph Weisharr, is going to have a bas-relief wall that will try to depict every type of person who was involved in the war – even mules and horses, because they were still used a lot. People will be able to walk around and look at the wall, or just sit and have a picnic, enjoying themselves.
As an adviser to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, what is your role?
I’m doing exactly what I’m comfortable doing, which is to meet people and tell them what I feel – that we really need to honor all of those who haven’t really been mentioned. People talk about the gassings and the trenches and the horrible parts of the war, but not about the fact that a lot of immigrants came here and then turned around and volunteered to go to France. There was such dedication. And America was pulled together emotionally more than it is now. We’re separated by a lot of things that really shouldn’t separate us. We need to be cohesive.
How has the centennial helped you connect, or reconnect, with Pershing’s legacy?
I’m so interested in him now because I didn’t know much before. In this quest to make people aware of the soldiers and officers and others who served in World War I – there were millions – I’ve learned so much about the man. I respect him.
The Presidio fire affected Pershing tremendously. He had married late, and having a family was very important to him. I think he threw himself into his soldier life to try to forget what had happened, and Teddy Roosevelt and others thought he was so good they just pushed him to the head of the line, which made a lot of people unhappy. But he took it very seriously and thought he could help save Europe. It’s just too bad I wasn’t alive to meet him. He must have been terrific.
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.
Learn how to support the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park: www.ww1cc.org/memorial
Read more about the Pershing Project online: www.thepershingproject.com