Sunday, April 08, 2018

This isn’t the first time that National Guard units have been sent to the border

1916 cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman, via National Archive Berryman collection. Not sure if the Uncle Sam of 2018 can jump the massive wall that soon will be built at the border. 

Guys in white pajamas shot at my grandfather. That’s the way he told it, anyway. Or maybe it’s just the way I remember his stories. For a few months in 1916-17, Grandpa and his troop of Iowa National Guardsmen faced Pancho Villa’s irregulars across the Rio Grande. He told us that the white-clad Mexican fighters couldn’t shoot straight but Iowans in their spiffy regulation uniforms weren’t much better. They didn’t know it yet, but they were practicing for the big show in France. The U.S. entered the war about a month after Grandpa and his unit returned to Iowa.

Trump isn’t the first commander-in-chief to send National Guard units to the U.S./Mexican border. It’s different this time because Trump is in a snit about not getting enough funding from Congress for his stupid border wall. During the campaign, Trump promised rabid rally crowds that he would build a wall and by gum, he will get his wall, or else your husband or cousin or daughter from the Iowa National Guard will spend the next year trying to snag the caravans of Mexicans that Trump imagines are invading the U.S.

Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa did invade the U.S. in 1916. His seasoned troops invaded Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 18. Villa lost almost 100 men due to the shiny new machine guns employed by U.S. troops. Villa fled back across the border, leaving Americans in a panic. Pershing’s troops, aided by the first airplanes used by the U.S. in combat, pursued Villa through northern Mexico. They killed a few of his lieutenants but never snagged Villa.

Trooper Raymond Arthur Shay, Iowa National Guard, Iowa City. He and his farm-boy cohorts knew how to ride and care for their horses. They spent most of that southwestern winter dismounted, swatting flies, and taking pot shots at insurgents. Prior to this border expedition, the farthest Grandpa had been from home was basic training at Camp Dodge outside Des Moines. He was a farm boy, oldest of nine kids. Now here he was, hunkered down on the banks of The Big Muddy and the big fool told him to push on – or at least to keep firing at the tiny men in pajamas he could barely see. Their horses weren’t much good either, as this guerilla war was unsuited to cavalry charges. Horses did come in handy for the U.S. Army patrols sent into enemy territory to find Villa. As far as I know, Grandpa never made it across the border.

Four years before, General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, commander of this Mexican Punitive Expedition had wrapped up another war like this. In 1911-13, he waged what most considered a successful campaign against the Muslim Moros in the Philippines. In Pershing’s view, the Moros were pajama-clad insurgents worth fighting. But not these poor, undisciplined Mexicans. Pershing grew increasingly frustrated. His hands were tied by Congress. Politicians -- always coming to the border on their junkets. Reporters in tow asking stupid questions. There was no winning under these circumstances. This refrain would be echoed decades later by other U.S. generals in other wars. You know, Vietnam.

At the end of January 1917, Pershing abandoned the border foray. The following winter, Grandpa, now a newly minted second lieutenant, found himself in France eyeballing German trenches across a bombed-out moonscape. World War I trench warfare, with its machine guns and barbed wire, rendered obsolete any “Charge of the Light Brigade” operations. Still, the Iowans had shipped over with their horses as cavalry looked fine on parade days. One spring morning, a resurgent General Pershing staged an inspection and picked the unit’s best mount to ride. It belonged to Lieutenant Shay. That was the high point of the war for him, his favorite story, and ours.

Other stories weren’t quite as romantic. Dismounted, in the trenches, poison gas washing over doughboys as they struggled to don their gas masks. Never enough time. Enough of the gas seeped into Grandpa’s lungs to cause some harm, but not enough to get him sent home before the Armistice.

Grandpa’s gas mask and helmet rest in a box in my basement. Photos, too, of him and his troopers in France. Photos of Grandma – his wife -- and her nursing school graduating class. I think about them and their war when I drive down Cheyenne’s Pershing Avenue, as I do almost every day. Cheyenne, a military town, became the adopted home for the globetrotting General Pershing. He married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Wyoming’s first U.S. Senator, and served at Fort D.A. Russell, now F.E. Warren AFB. Their home is now a living museum, preserved for future generations. The base itself is a national historic site, home to war trophies from the Philippines and the old airfield where World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker cracked up his biplane and almost died. It also was the training site for Spaatz’s Flying Circus and the U.S. Army’s airmail service -- Charles Lindbergh was one of its first pilots.

The Pershing family experienced its share of tragedy. If you take a stroll through Cheyenne’s historic Lakeview Cemetery, you will come across a large grave marker for Frances E. Warren and her three daughters, ages 3, 7 and 8. In 1914, Gen. Pershing left his wife and four children at the Presidio in San Francisco to take over command of a brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas. Things were heating up at the border and the general was there to plan for the inevitable. In August of 1915, Pershing received a telegram that his wife and daughters died of smoke inhalation at a Presidio fire. Only his 6-year-old son survived.

Pershing Avenue starts at F.E. Warren AFB and runs straight through town past the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center where the aging Lieutenant Raymond Shay spent some of his last days. The road ends on the east side of town. If you know where to look, you can see Minuteman III missile sites out on the prairie.
Combat casualties were minimal in my grandfather’s World War I unit. They were surpassed by deaths from infection and disease, especially from the Spanish flu. Grandpa’s lungs deteriorated from gas attacks. After he returned to the States, he recuperated for months in an Iowa Army hospital. When he took a turn for the worse, the Army transferred him to Army Hospital Number 21 – soon to be renamed Fitzsimons Army Medical Hospital after a hero of the Great War. The dry Denver climate, famous for its healing properties, may have helped his recovery. He really took a turn for the better when he met my grandmother, an Army nurse. He and Florence Green married in 1921, stayed in Denver, raised a family, and lived a good long time.

Now Grandpa and Grandma share a plot at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Wonder what they would make of our boy Trump.

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