Service to your country often requires you to make sacrifices. Sacrifice comes in many forms, however, not just in dying for your country. Sometimes the things a patriot is called to sacrifice are not so obvious. In the early years of the twentieth century, there was an American general who was ordered to put down a revolt in the Philippines. He had served in the region for years and had come to love the Filipino inhabitants. His love of them, however, did not keep him from putting aside his personal feelings and doing his duty. His name was John J. Pershing. This is the story of how he put down the rebellion among the Moros, a people he knew and loved.
Nicknamed “Jack” by his family, John Joseph Pershing often served alongside those on the fringe of American society. Born in Missouri in September 1860, he took an early interest in military affairs and entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1882. He performed poorly in academics but excelled in military discipline. He graduated in 1886 as first captain of the Corps of Cadets. As a second lieutenant in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry in New Mexico, he came to understand Indian culture and ended standoffs through diplomacy rather than war. In 1891 he was transferred to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as commander of Indian scouts patrolling the reservation. Two years later he was promoted to first lieutenant and assigned to the Tenth Cavalry, largely made up of African-Americans who were known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” His association with the Tenth eventually earned him the nickname “Black Jack.” In 1898 he led the Tenth Cavalry into battle in the Spanish-American War, even charging alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. After the war, Pershing was promoted to the rank of captain and assigned to the new American territory of the Philippines where he was to play a critical role.
Arriving in Manila at the end of 1899, Captain Pershing soon learned rebels were waging a guerilla war against American forces. Most of the rebels were Moros, Philippine Muslims. He was posted to Mindanao, the second-largest Philippine island, on January 1, 1900 with orders to monitor those Moros living on the island. Over the next two years he led several attacks against recalcitrant Moros. Most Moro leaders, however, were willing to negotiate with the forty-three-year-old officer. Just as he had with the Indians, Pershing dedicated himself to understanding the native culture and language. He invited Moro leaders to his command post and prided himself on asking them about their families and daily lives. He also made visits himself to Moroland, most of which he made unarmed. He eventually came to feel just as at home in the jungle as they did. He saw the Moros as the ones “we serve down here,” and the feeling was mutual. According to one American officer, Pershing was “the one great American to the Moro mind,” bordering on “supernatural.” The Moros even honored him by naming him a datto, or Moro priest. As he was monitoring the Moros, he learned that he had been promoted to brigadier general ahead of hundreds of senior officers. In that capacity, he was directed to help “civilize” the Moro inhabitants.
Brigadier General Pershing soon discovered his new rank carried civil responsibilities with it. He was named governor of the Moro province, overseeing a half-million Moros and other natives. In an attempt to improve each village, he constructed various buildings, such as warehouses, and introduced transportation and communication innovations, such as railroads and telephone lines. He established a medical corps and a school specifically designed for girls’ education. His efforts earned the support of the Moros, and many worked on each project. He thought his efforts to make the island economically profitable were reaping huge rewards, and he took pride in showing off these accomplishments at the February 1911 Moro Province Fair. At the fair, he had tears in his eyes as he watched warlords who had fought one another for years embrace in friendship. It was a proud moment for Pershing, but boiling beneath the surface were tensions that endangered all the progress he had made.
John Pershing may have thought peace was at hand, but he soon learned elements of the Philippine population were still a threat. A group of Moros and native tribesmen, called “Wild Men,” joined together to raid nearby settlements and steal cattle. Many of them carried weapons that could be used against American forces. The U.S. government realized the weapons had to be confiscated. As military commander of the Department of Mindanao, he received orders to that effect. After announcing his orders to Moro leaders, he watched as some Moros willingly turned in their weapons and accepted monetary compensation. Unfortunately, there were some hard cases who refused to comply with Pershing’s demands. One group even attacked an American fort to show their resolve. With the mandate to disarm the troublemakers, Pershing realized he had no choice but to lead a military expedition against those Moros opposed to him.
In early summer 1913 General “Black Jack” Pershing gathered his soldiers and launched a campaign to force Moro compliance. Hoping “to end this business without much fighting,” he wrote a letter to several Moro chiefs expressing his affection saying, “All Moros are the same to me as my children and no father wants to kill his own children.” He begged them to give up their weapons and not to lead their women and children against the American army. The Moros refused to listen, and they took up position on a mountain known as Bud Dajo. Pershing decided to take the mountain by maneuver rather than assault. He ordered a thousand troops to surround the mountain and cut off the entrenched Moros from supplies and reinforcements. Only a dozen Moros died before they surrendered. Pershing accepted their capitulation and then moved on to an extinct volcano known as Bud Bagsak where ten thousand Moros were barricaded along with numerous women and children. He did not wish to kill innocents, so he departed from the region and returned after the women and children had gone home. On June 11, 1913 he and twelve hundred soldiers attacked the Moro fortifications. The Moros met them and appeared poised to break the American lines when Pershing dashed forward and rallied his troops. He led the men in an attack that pushed through the bamboo entanglements and into the Moro lines. He watched in awe as the Moros fought to the last man. He returned from the expedition with the grim satisfaction of knowing that peace had finally come to the Philippines. He left in December 1913 after spending nearly fifteen years there.
John J. Pershing spent the rest of his life serving wherever his country needed him. In 1916 he commanded the expedition sent into Mexico against Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. The U.S. forces moved swiftly through northern Mexico as they engaged Villa’s bandits. By summer the mission was accomplished and Pershing was promoted to major general. Less than a year later, in May 1917, he commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Arriving in France, he set to work training his soldiers and despite repeated requests from French and British commanders, refused to attack the Germans until his troops were ready. Finally in late May 1918 he ordered the army to attack the enemy at Cantigny and Chateau-Thierry. After defeating the Germans both times, Pershing ordered his forces to move against the Germans at St. Mihiel and in the Argonne Forrest. The American attacks ultimately forced the Germans to sign an armistice on November 11, 1918. With the war over, Pershing returned to the United States where he was a national hero. He was rewarded for his service with a promotion to the four-star rank of General of the Armies and thereafter spent most of his time inspecting military sites around the country. He also assisted in placing memorials to American soldiers in France in tribute to the sacrifices made by the “doughboys.” When World War II erupted in Europe in 1939, he was stunned by the news. Having fought and won “the war to end all wars,” he had believed “such a thing was not within the range of reasonable possibilities.” By August 1940, however, he had come to fully appreciate the perilous situation and delivered a radio address urging his fellow countrymen to confront the danger Hitler posed. He offered his services to his country, but now, more than eighty-years-old, he could do little but watch as others took up the fight. On September 13, 1945 he turned eighty-five, content in the knowledge that America had won both World Wars. Three years later in 1948, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing’s life of national service finally came to an end. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and a nation mourned the loss of one of its greatest warriors.
John Pershing’s life was spent in dutiful service to his country. He, more than anyone, understood what his sixty-six years of service cost. During those years, he occasionally found himself called upon to oppose those he had come to respect and admire, such as the Moros of Mindanao. He had lived among them, done his best to improve their lives and even considered them friends. No matter his admiration though, he understood he had to subordinate his personal feelings in order to accomplish the mission. It was an act of sacrifice, though certainly not the only example of it, for the country he devotedly served. The message he sent his soldiers, indeed all citizens, was clear — service requires sacrifice.