A brief history of the highest decorated U.S. General and the auditorium that still holds his name.
General John J. Pershing was born in 1860 on a farm near Laclede, Missouri, to John Fletcher Pershing and Ann Elizabeth Thompson. After completing high school in 1878, Pershing pursued a teaching career at State Normal School (now Truman University) in Kirksville, Michigan. Two years after his college graduation, he applied to the United States Military Academy. And in the fall of 1882 at the age of 22, Pershing was sworn in as a West Point Cadet.
Pershing graduated from West Point in 1886 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. He led a decorated military career and received his famous nickname— “Black Jack”—from his frontier service with the African-American Tenth Cavalry in the Spanish American War. General Black Jack Pershing led his troops with iron discipline, shaped by strictness and rigidity. This reputation with troops held true as he transitioned from service in the Wild West to West Point as an instructor in 1897. His war service was far from over, though. Pershing was stationed in the Philippines from 1899 to 1903 and during his tour led American forces against the Philippine resistance. He serviced two more tours of duty in the Philippines during his military career.
Well known for his military leadership, General Pershing was chosen to lead the Punitive Expedition in 1916, pursuing Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa along the American border near the Rio Grande. And, even though Villa was never captured, however, General Pershing’s tactics thoroughly disrupted Villa’s operations, and Black Jack was again chosen again to lead American military war efforts when a year later President Woodrow Wilson selected Pershing to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as the U.S. entered World War I. General Pershing’s iron discipline served the allies well throughout his time in France ensuring the AEF troops were always up to West Point standards. After WWI, he served as Army Chief of Staff from 1921-1924.
Following his military service, General Pershing settled into a much quieter life. Although he never obtained the five-star general ranking—a ranking created by Congress in 1944 during World War II— ”Black Jack” is still considered the most decorated officer of the United States. In fact, he is only one of two generals to be awarded the title General of the Armies—the highest rank in the United States Army. He received it for his command of AEF troops, which helped end World War I. (George Washington is the other, receiving the honor posthumously in 1976 during Bicentennial celebrations.)
General Pershing died in July 1948. His legacy is a lasting one, both across the U.S. and locally in Indianapolis for his mark on the Indiana War Memorial.
Pershing Auditorium at the Indiana War Memorial
General Pershing laid the first cornerstone of the Indiana War Memorial on July 4, 1927. In addition, Pershing Auditorium, located in the heart of the Indiana War Memorial, bears his name. Now nearly 100 years old, it remains mostly unchanged to its state when it first opened in 1933. Even the 500 seats are original—with only new coverings.
Acoustically perfect, Pershing Auditorium has no corners and a ceiling made of cork. The grand room is filled with patriotic symbolism and accents, including 48 stars located throughout the room—each representing a state at the time of the dedication. The eagles on the columns are called Rising Eagles, named after a program where the Army encouraged soldiers to reach their maximum potential. For the past 88 years, Pershing Auditorium has hosted countless events, including concerts, naturalization ceremonies, enlistment events, weddings and more. Most of all, it’s a remarkable part of Indiana history.
Learn more about General “Black Jack” Pershing and visit Pershing Auditorium at the Indiana War Memorial. With free admission, the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.