Reuniting the Pershing and Patton Families: Sandra S. Pershing and Helen A. Patton

Published: 3 June 2024

By Jeffrey A. Lowdermilk
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website


Mid-September 2016, left to right: Helen Patton, Jeff Lowdermilk, and Sandra Pershing while at a Commemorative ceremony in the town of Souilly, France, which had been a temporary Headquarters for General Pershing.

Two of the greatest legends in American military history rose from the swirling desert dust of Columbus, New Mexico – John J. Pershing and George S. Patton, Jr.

The story begins with Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s raid on Columbus on March 9, 1916. Villa and members of his army of northern Mexico, known as Villistas, attacked the tiny border town in the pre-dawn hours; they shot and killed civilians and military personnel from U. S. Army Camp Furlong (in Columbus), burned numerous buildings, and rode back into Mexico before sunrise. Villa fought for the presidency in the ten-year-long Mexican Revolution, and raided Columbus because he felt betrayed by President Woodrow Wilson.

News of the raid rapidly reached the White House, where President Wilson ordered the pursuit of Villa into northern Mexico and brought to justice. Fifty-six-year-old Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was then in command of Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, and the closest major military base to Columbus.[i] He was rapidly charged to command the Punitive Expedition. In the hurried preparations for the pursuit of Villa, one of a host of planning issues was the general had to choose an Aide-de-Camp. Stationed on the base, thirty-one-year-old Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., was selected from a pool of eager officers because of his persistence and determination.

Living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, early in 2016, I learned there would be a 100th anniversary of Villa’s infamous raid on the exact day, March 9, 2016. Immediately, I called my friend Helen Patton, who lives in Reims, France, and she excitedly said, “There is no way I would not be there!” She is the granddaughter of the great World War II General George S. Patton, Jr.  She and I first met in France at the 90th anniversary of the American World War I Saint Mihiel Offensive in 2008. Then, I asked her if she knew any descendants of General Pershing. She said no, but we agreed to have a Patton and a Pershing together in Columbus, would be “Way off the Charts!”

Helen Patton and Sandra Pershing together at the In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace: Centennial Commemoration of the U.S. Entry into World War I, hosted by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO on April 6, 2017.

I thought, “The game’s afoot!”  My first call was to Jonathan Casey, Archivist with the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. He did not know of any Pershing descendants but suggested I call the Pershing Museum in Laclede, Missouri, where the general was born. I called the museum and talked with the Director, Denzil Heaney. He said there was one living descendant, Sandra S. Pershing, who was the widow of the great general’s oldest grandson, Colonel John Warren Pershing, U.S. Army. He said they did not have any children. He had no idea how to reach her; however, he suggested contacting the National Society of Pershing Rifles, an elite middle, high school, and college military drill team founded by Lieutenant John J. Pershing in 1894 at the University of Nebraska. At every step, Helen and I were in contact.

Next, I called the Pershing Rifles Society headquarters in North Carolina. I received the contact information for the National Commander, Major General Timothy Whisenand, P/R, and emailed him explaining why Helen and I wanted to contact Sandra Pershing. I also asked him if the Pershing Rifles could send a representative to the Columbus ceremonies. He quickly responded and said he did not have her contact information; however, Society members Captain (CPT) David Poe and Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Kevin Upton did. He copied both as well as Helen in his return email.

LTC Upton soon sent me an email explaining he would act as an intermediary between Mrs. Pershing and myself to protect her privacy, and he sent her my email to Commander Whisenand. Sandra lived in New York City. How exciting as initial contact had been made! His next email stated she could not attend the Columbus ceremonies, but she would write a letter to read at the opening ceremony. The back and forth with emails continued for a brief while until LTC Upton wrote and let me know she wanted to talk with me directly; he included her phone number.

I called, and she answered. I was in awe, careful to be formal, and addressed her as Sandra. She warmly replied, “Jeff, please call me Sandy.”  All pretenses vanished. I told her Helen was anxious to talk with her, and she said she felt the same. She asked me to give Helen her phone number. We talked a while longer and said goodbye. I felt as though I had been visiting with an old friend.

The historic call that reunited the two great American families happened soon after I said goodbye to Sandy.

The last known contact between the two families was during World War II after Major General George S. Patton Jr. was assigned as a task force commander in the North African invasion in 1942. Therefore, the two families had had a seventy-four-year hiatus. 

Jeff Lowdermilk and Sandra Pershing at the In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace: Centennial Commemoration of the U.S. Entry into World War I, hosted by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO on April 6, 2017.

Historian Carlo D’Este captures the emotional moment in his book, Patton, A Genius for War, on page 424.

One of Patton’s final acts before leaving for North Africa was a visit with his mentor, eighty-one-year-old Black Jack Pershing, who was in ill health in Walter Reed Army Hospital. “He did not recognize me until I spoke. Then his mind seemed quite clear. He looks very old. It is probably the last time I shall see him but he may outlive me.”

When Patton thanked him for giving him a chance in Mexico, the old general replied, “I can always pick a fighting man and God knows there are few of them. I am happy they are sending you to the front at once. I like Generals so bold that they are dangerous. I hope they give you a free hand . . . he said at the start of the war he was hurt because no one consulted him, but was now resigned to [it]. . . . He almost cried. It is pathetic how little he knows of the war.”

In a final gesture of respect, Patton dropped to his knees to ask for Pershing’s blessing, “which he gave me with great emotion. I kissed his hand; then put on my cape and gave him a salute. Twenty years dropped from him.” Pershing “squeezed my hand and said, ‘Goodbye, George, God bless and keep you and give you victory.’”

The code name for the North African campaign was Operation Torch. Indeed, the torch had been passed. Patton’s line above, “It is probably the last time I shall see him but he may outlive me.”, is highly prophetic as Pershing did outlive him by three years. Patton died in Heidelberg, Germany, on December 21, 1945, and Pershing in Walter Reed Hospital on July 15, 1948.

The centennial events in Columbus, New Mexico, were grand yet solemn. Sandy’s letter highlighted the general’s foresight and determination to create a modern army. Helen and I called Sandy that evening and told her about the incredible day.

After returning home from Columbus, Sandy called and explained she was underwriting a documentary about General Pershing’s life and would leave for France in early September (2016.)  She had talked with Helen, who would join the effort. She then invited me to join the trip. Thrilled, I said, “Absolutely!”

Helen and Sandy first met in person in early September at the Pershing Hall Hotel in Paris. They instantly formed a bond more profound than friendship. I loved to listen to them talk about their shared history. I was mesmerized.

The documentary Pershing’s Paths of Glory (skip ads) is outstanding, and features six Black Jacks, the Pershing Rifles’ middle and high school members. CPT Poe served as the teacher for the young cadets in the film.

I also joined Sandy and her companion, Marc Keller, on another trip to France for the centennial of the great American World War I Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September 2018. I asked Sandy how I should introduce Marc to my friends in France, and she replied with a twinkle, “As my beau!”


A Tribute to Sandra Sinclair Pershing

November 11, 1941 – August 14, 2023

When I learned of Sandra’s passing, I called Helen with the sad news. We had lost a dear friend.

Sandra wore the mantle of one of the most illustrious names in American history with dignity and grace. She was strong, determined, and always had a cheerful smile. Her kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity were legendary. Overarching was her steadfast support for completing the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, DC.

[i] During the frontier Indian Wars, Pershing commanded a troop in the all-black Tenth Cavalry Regiment and was thus given the nickname “Black Jack.”

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