Friday, January 4, 2013

A Forgotten Man Remembered

I just finished a great read for any of you history buffs, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, by Robert M. Poole. Lots of wonderful stories of the honored soldiers and statesmen who rest on those quiet Virginia hills.

I was touched to read about one famous old soldier, General John J. Pershing, who had led American forces to victory in World War I. Poole tells the sad and moving story of how this forgotten man was well-remembered:

He watched from the sidelines as the next great conflict ran its course, suffering from ill health when the Japanese surrender brought peace back to Washington. Seemingly forgotten by the public, lonely in his rooms at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the old hero had been relegated to the shadows, a relic of old wars and old ways. In better times, when the memory of his exploits was green in the public mind, he had been bombarded with hundreds of telegrams each Armistice Day. On his last one, in 1947, only ten arrived.
  
Pershing began to contemplate his own funeral at Arlington, where he had seen so many comrades buried. It was a place as familiar to him as any home he ever knew. Always a stickler for details, Pershing took care of the particulars. Instead of erecting a lavish monument to himself, as so many officers had done since Civil War days, Pershing asked for the simple white government issue tombstone available to any private. And, unlike officers who routinely commanded better real estate than those who fought under them, Pershing chose a burial site among the enlisted men from the Great War. "Here let me rest among the World War veterans," Pershing is supposed to have told an officer who helped him select his gravesite. "When the last bugle call is sounded, I want to stand up with my soldiers."

Age eighty-seven when he died in his sleep on July 15, 1948. Forgotten in life, he was remembered in death as few others are. Thousands of mourners, including President Truman and General Marshall, filed by his casket in the Capitol Rotunda, where the old general lay in state for twenty-four hours. Both Truman and Marshall had served under him; both had revered him; both solemnly marked his passing, as did some 300,000 ordinary citizens who crowded the sidewalks to watch Black Jack's caisson make its slow, stately progress to Arlington on July 19. The skies opened and the rains came down; the wet streets fell utterly, eerily silent, a sign of respect for the man crossing the brown Potomac on his last journey.

Dutifully sloshing behind Pershing's cassion, two soldiers who had served under him debated whether to seek cover or get soaked that day.

"Brad, what do you think?" Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Gen. Omar Bradley, as they marched along.

"For Black Jack Pershing I think it would be proper if we walked in the rain," said Bradley.

They marched on. Drenched by the time they arrived at Arlington, they joined a sodden khaki tide, which flowed unbroken down the crest of a hill on Grant Avenue, accompanied by the dull thunder of artillery, the thump of muffled drums, and the memories of comrades sleeping in long rows all around.

"The march of another soldier is ended," said Maj. Gen. Luther D. Miller, chief of Army chaplains: A few more words, a barking of rifles, the solace of Taps, and they lowered General Pershing into the ground, where he was surrounded by the simple tombstones of regular soldiers who still keep him company on the prominence now known as Pershing's Hill.

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