looking back

‘Looking Back’: Gen. John Pershing

By Kinen Carvala

Visitors to the SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park should check out the nearby monument of General John Pershing that has a connection to the 1918 pandemic.

According to the National Park Service, John J. Pershing was born in Missouri in 1860 and enrolled at West Point in 1882. He graduated in 1886. 

Pershing fought in various Indian battles in the American Midwest and did some teaching before the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. The fighting would take Pershing to Cuba and the Philippines. 

Pershing married Frances Warren, the daughter of a U.S. senator, in 1905, according to Truman State University, where Pershing earned a two-year degree before attending West Point.

Statue in Golden Gate Park dedicated to Gen. John Pershing. Photos by Michael Durand.

Pershing lived in the San Francisco Presidio in 1914, when he had the rank of brigadier general (one-star). On Aug. 27, 1915, Pershing’s wife and three of their four children perished in a Presidio house fire; Pershing was in Texas, due to instability of the Mexican Revolution. 

After Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and a few hundred followers raided the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916, Pershing was tapped to head an expedition into Mexico to capture Villa and prevent further raids, according to the National Park Service. Although Pershing failed to capture Villa, Prologue Magazine wrote that his troops were able to meet the logistical challenge of maintaining supply lines hundreds of miles into Mexico and leverage their experience when these soldiers served under Pershing again in Europe during World War I.

His statue on the eastern end of the Music Concourse is eight-feet-tall and  stands atop a five-foot-tall base, according to an article by Executive Director Nicole Meldahl of the Western Neighborhoods Project. 

The inscription on the base reads: “In tribute to General Pershing and the victorious armies of the United States and her co-belligerents during the World War 1914-1918. Presented by Dr. Morris Herzstein 1922.”

“Co-belligerents” refers to the U.S.’s allies, such as the United Kingdom, France and Russia.

According to a PBS American Experience article, the 1918 pandemic hit San Francisco in the fall: with more than 4,000 reported cases in the City by mid-October. There were more than 23,000 cases by the end of November and 5,000 more in December. 

San Francisco had a total of nearly 45,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths during the pandemic, according to the Influenza Encyclopedia. The monument’s sculptor, Haig Patigian, was hospitalized with symptoms of the flu in late December 1918, according to Meldahl. 

Troops crowded in trenches in European and American training camps during World War I easily caught and spread the disease, according to Carol R. Byerly in the journal Public Health Reports.

Congress specifically created “general of the armies” rank for Pershing in 1919 so that no other living American would outrank him – though Pershing continued to wear only four stars on his uniform. Likewise, George Washington was posthumously made general of the armies, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

The San Francisco Examiner reported that the monument’s dedication ceremony on Nov. 11, 1922, Armistice Day, included:

• U.S. Representative Julius Kahn, chairman of House Committee on Military Affairs;

• San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Jr.;

• Dr. Morris Herzstein, monument donor (the only monument in the park with its own endowment fund for maintenance, according to Christopher Pollock, the author of a historical essay titled “Golden Gate Park History”), and;

• M. H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dr. Herzstein gave a speech reminding the audience of the importance of military preparedness and how long it takes to produce military equipment, referencing a military readiness proposal Kahn made in the House of Representatives. Pershing was not present at the San Francisco dedication because he was in New York speaking before the National Civic Federation about military preparedness and the importance of being aware of world events, according to the New York Times. Pershing did send a telegram for reading at the San Francisco dedication which conveyed his thanks and mindfulness of American sacrifices on the battlefield.

When Dr. Herzstein died in 1927, The Morning Union newspaper in Grass Valley, California reported that he disinherited his German relatives because they held allegiance to an enemy of his adoptive country – the United States.

Pershing retired from the Army in 1924, according to the National Park Service. He died in 1948 at the age of 87 at Walter Reed Army Hospital, according to his obituary in The Pittsburg Press.

The Pershing monument is located at the eastern end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, right behind the SkyStar Observation Wheel.

Pershing statue as seen from the SkyStar Observation Wheel.

To read more “Looking Back’ columns, click HERE.

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