By David Vergun, Army News ServiceAugust 9, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Gen. John J. Pershing, World War I, and the critical role First Army played in that war are largely forgotten by Americans today, Maj. Gen. Erik C. Peterson lamented.
Peterson spoke at a wreath-laying ceremony at Pershing's grave in Arlington National Cemetery, Aug. 10, marking the centennial of First Army.
On Aug. 10, 1918, First Army was established in France during World War I, under the command of Pershing. Pershing also commanded the American Expeditionary Forces.
Peterson summarized the significance of that period when First Army entered the fray in major campaigns like Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, which lasted from September until the armistice, Nov. 11, 1918.
Pershing's intrepid doughboys swung into action and helped turn the tide.
Despite allied protests, Pershing ordered each American Soldier and unit be painstakingly trained and validated before entering the lethal fight., he said. The French, desperate for relief of their war-weary soldiers, wanted the Americans rolled into action sooner. But Pershing was steadfast in his refusal to send untrained troops into harm's way.
Once Pershing was assured that the troops were properly trained and equipped, "they wiped out the supposedly impenetrable salient at Saint Mihiel in just two weeks," Peterson said.
They then "subsequently accomplished one of the most spectacular covert troop movements of all time to join the Meuse-Argonne offensive -- a brutal fight where 40 of the best German combat divisions had been fortifying their positions for nearly four years," Peterson continued.
"And when progress in the Argonne Forest began to drag and American losses climbed, Pershing made the bold decision to stand down his units for nearly two weeks to retrain them. When First Army returned to the fight, confident in their newly acquired skills, they crushed the Germans in just over a week," Peterson said, explaining that Pershing recognized the character of war had changed and new tactics were required; under his brilliant leadership, America began executing the first battles in Army history to coordinate infantry, artillery, tanks and air support..
As Pershing readied his Soldiers for battle a century ago -- some of them active duty, the vast majority from the Reserve components -- "he said something that still resonates in our First Army headquarters today," Peterson said.
"We no longer differentiate in an ultimate sense between Army, National Guard and Reserve forces," Peterson said. "Every energy is bent to the development of the Army of the United States. Our purpose is to think only of the American citizen and to prepare him for the duties of war."
You might say Pershing was the inspiration for our contemporary Army Total Force Policy -- which directs that we organize, man, train and equip our active and reserve components as an integrated force, Peterson said.
"Our First Army Mission is Readiness -- and our method is the Total Force. As Pershing long advocated, we partner with every single Army National Guard and Army Reserve unit in the continental United States and two U.S. territories, providing advice, assistance and training support to ensure our Army's reserve component is ready when called," he said.
Peterson looked out over the hillside where Pershing is buried and commented: "One detail on this serene and beautiful hill has changed since the morning of Pershing's funeral. You see beside me not one, but two, grave markers. Below the second headstone lie Pershing's grandsons."
Colonel John Pershing III spent a career in the Army his grandfather loved, retiring in 1999 and dying not long after, Peterson said.
2nd Lt. Richard Pershing was killed in Vietnam's Tet Offensive in 1968., his flag-draped casket carried up the hill by the very same caisson that had carried his grandfather 20 years before, Peterson noted.
"That second headstone should remind us our Army is continually evolving -- shaped by new leaders devoted to building the most lethal fighting force in the world, populated by new patriots willing to give their last full measures of devotion," Peterson concluded.
"We are a force built -- quite literally -- on the shoulders of John J. Pershing," he said.