Many people think it was General John J. Pershing, overall commander of American troops in Europe during World War I, who said, on arriving in France, “Lafayette, we are here.”
Alas, for the romance of history it was Col. Charles A Stanton of the quartermaster corps who first uttered the words. But perhaps because of his every-inch-a-soldier demeanor and attitude, it was easy to see how they came to be attributed to Pershing.
And thanks to a series of circumstances that involved a combination of salesmanship and luck, Pershing, the ultimate American hero of the day, came to the Lehigh Valley to celebrate Flag Day on June 14, 1922.
It began with a magazine article. Joe Hart, Allentown’s primary booster of Flag Day with the Allentown Flag Day Association, was reading about an obscure Army officer, a then-Captain Pershing, who was making a name for himself fighting against tribesmen in the Philippines. Pershing had issued an order on the importance of displaying the flag. Hart, liking Pershing’s patriotic spunk, requested a copy of the flag order and sent off an application for membership in the association.
About a month later Pershing’s letter arrived in Allentown. There was a copy of the order, a completed membership form and a $10 check to cover any expenses. Pershing was duly enrolled in the Allentown Flag Day Association.
History moved on. Pershing, known as “Black Jack” for having commanded the 10th Cavalry- a black regiment- was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt, over the heads of 800 other more senior officers, to the rank of brigadier general. In 1916, while in charge of an effort to capture Mexican bandit leader Poncho Villa, he met General C.T. O’Neil of Allentown in El Paso, Texas. Pershing told O’Neil that he knew all about Allentown and the Flag Day Association. “Someday I am going to come to Allentown,” he said.
By February of 1922, Pershing was among the best known Americans in the world. His success against the Germans in World War I catapulted him to the front page of every newspaper. Requests for visits poured in from towns and cities across the country. Among those who made the request in person was Joe Hart. Along with him was the Lehigh Valley’s congressman, Fred B. Gernerd.
Pershing said it was too early to make a commitment but he would let them know later. On May 4, 1922 a telegram arrived from Gernerd. Pershing had said yes. With only a little over a month to go, the Lehigh Valley had to prepare to welcome one of the greatest living Americans. A frenzy of preparations griped Allentown.
On the morning of June 14th Pershing’s train arrived at Bethlehem’s Union Station. With him was his aide, Lt. J.T. Schneider and the Gernerd family. At the personal request of Bethlehem’s mayor, the Flag Day Association had agreed to allow Pershing to be greeted by throngs of that city’s school children along the route. Walking up from the station to the Allentown-Bethlehem city line, Pershing, apparently enjoying every minute of it, waved and marched past the yelling, flag-waving children.
A big Packard automobile awaiting the general and his party carried them into Allentown. What greeted him as his car got into parade position at 5th and Hamilton was a patriotic tornado.
Every possible space on every building was hung with red, white and blue bunting. Flags, flags and more flags were waving from windows and in the hands of thousands who lined the sidewalk five and six people deep. When a group of schoolboys hailed him from the sidewalk, Pershing removed his cap and gave them a smart salute. “We’ve gone through many demonstrations,” said Pershing, who had been hailed in parades in Paris, London and New York, “but this beats them all.”
But the events of the day were far from over. At the corner of 15th and Turner the assembled school children of Allentown pelted Pershing with rose petals as he and his aide walked under its shower. The male students were a little too vigorous and roses with thorns thrown his way scratched the general’s nose, causing it to bleed. Pershing responded by playfully throwing some back at the young men, often finding his mark.
Pershing returned to his car and was driven to the Allentown Fairgrounds, where a huge crowd awaited him. “There must be close to 100,000 people here,” said Pershing to a local official, “I thought you said Allentown only had 70,000 people?”
An estimated 1,660 elementary school students were on hand. In the center of the grandstand field, each school spelled out in living letters the name P-E-R-S-H-I-N-G.
General Harry C. Trexler, who had known Pershing from the war, was taking a rest cure in Battle Creek, Michigan and sent his regrets. Mary Trexler was there to represent him. In his speech Pershing noted that “the flag really imposes honesty and unselfishness on us all,” and added that these virtues needed to be taught to America’s children.
Perhaps the most emotional moment personally for Pershing came with his brief visit to the Herbert Paul Lentz VFW Post. Shouting his name three times, the veterans asked him to autograph a picture of him they had on the wall.
Pershing looked at it but was not happy with its quality. “Put your foot through it,” he said. “I’ll send you a new one and it will be autographed.” The Lentz Post was Pershing’s last stop in Allentown. He spent that evening with a family member in Pineville, Bucks County and returned to Washington by train the next day.
On July 15, 1948 the 87-year-old soldier “faded away” at Walter Reed Army Hospital. In its editorial the Morning Call noted, “his visit will never be forgotten by those who participated.”