My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War Andrew Carroll (Penguin Press, 2017, 383 pp.)
By Rona Simmons
Andrew Carroll tells General John Pershing’s story perhaps in the best way it should be told and as the general himself might have approved. Told, not as a traditional biography with a tight focus and strict chronology, but through glimpses of Pershing in the eyes of his contemporaries, some who knew him well and others who only knew of the legend of the man.
In the opening pages, Carroll slyly reveals his intent, sharing a 1914 photo of Pershing surrounded by a few “fellow soldiers.” The soldiers include Mexican General Álvaro Obregón, General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and over Pershing’s left shoulder, a young George S. Patton, Jr. And, just as the first Americans are deploying to Europe, Carroll has us gallop on horseback across the American southwest and the Mexican border along with Pershing and Patton as they hunt for but fail to capture Pancho Villa.
Still months before Pershing arrives in Europe to command the American Expeditionary Force, Carroll provides a vivid and brutal account of trench warfare, the ill-equipped soldiers, and the lack of communication and coordination across the battlefield. During this aside, while the US observes from its position of neutrality, we meet a few of the first Americans on the European continent. Well-bred young men from America’s upper crust like Kiffin Rockwell and Victor Chapman. Wounded through the thigh but eager to continue fighting, Rockwell joins the fledgling air force. Victor, a “wealthy and idealistic Harvard graduate who had been studying in Paris when the war broke had joined the Foreign Legion,” then later joined Rockwell as a pilot. These two fought alongside ranchers like Maury Maverick and young black men like Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts of the 369th Infantry Regiment, a group later known as the Hellcats and under Pershing’s Command. The soldiers’ stories are woven together with that of Pershing, in a style reminiscent of Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, who moved through life in a series of encounters with famous personages. Pershing brushes up against the likes of Rockwell, Chapman, Maverick, Johnson, and Roberts, as well as Patton, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Eddie Rickenbacker, Harry Truman, and George Marshall.
Carroll says Pershing “seemed destined to become a soldier since childhood.” He was a disciplined man, dedicated to his pursuits, and standing fast on his principles, but wounded emotionally after the deaths of his wife and three of his children early in his career. More Bradley or Marshall than Patton, he “vented his frustrations privately and kept his cool in public and with the press.” And, in one telling, full-on description, Carroll says: “In person he was magnetic. With his ramrod straight posture, sharp blue eyes, and square jaw … he emanated strength and had the bearing of a true leader, someone who could inspire millions of troops.” Fittingly, we learn that after Pershing died in 1948, he was buried as he preferred, not in a grand memorial but in Arlington next to his troops.
Pershing was a model of a leader, one we could use today and someone we should know better than we do. Carroll’s book helps us immensely in that pursuit.
Rona Simmons’s first published works were novels, primarily works of historical fiction. Then, in 2017 she co-authored and published Images from World War II, celebrating the art of a local WWII veteran and artist Jack Smith.
The gratifying response and the experience of compiling Jack’s paintings into a lasting tribute rekindled Rona’s interest in World War II. She combined this passion with her love of telling stories to produce The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines (Kent State University Press, April 2020), featuring profiles of World War II veterans. The daughter of a World War II fighter pilot, herself, she is proud to honor veterans and their stories and to help preserve this corner of history through her work.
Rona is a frequent speaker on topics ranging from blogging, writing, editing, marketing, and publishing to choosing a second career. When not planning to write, writing, or talking about writing, Rona writes about military history and related topics on her blog “Gone for a Soldier,” women in the creative arts on “Women at Word” and local authors and bookstores on “From Acworth to Zebulon.” Her stories, articles, and interviews have been published in regional and national literary journals and online magazines.