Who is the man with "Black Jack" Pershing and Pancho Villa in this famous 1914 photo? An historical mystery solved.
By Ken Emery
General John "Black Jack" Pershing assumed command at Fort Bliss, Texas, on April 27, 1914. He brought with him the 8th Brigade from the Presidio near San Francisco. The Mexican Revolution was in progress and his brigade patrolled and guarded the border between Sierra Blanca, Texas, and Columbus, NM.
On August 26 of that year, Pershing hosted Mexican Constitutionalist Generals Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon. They met on a Rio Grande bridge, after which Pershing escorted his guests to a review at Fort Bliss, then to socialize at his home. A well-known photo was taken while they were on the bridge. The three generals are easily identified — but who is the American officer behind Pershing?
Many books have included this picture. Herbert Molloy Mason's The Great Pursuit, Frank McLynn's Villa and Zapata, Eileen Welsome's The General and the Jaguar, John S. D. Eisenhower's Intervention, Frank E. Vandiver's Black Jack, Leon C. Metz' Desert Army and Fred Morales' Francisco Villa are a few. Most don't identify the young officer — but when they do, there is a dispute.
Welsome says that the officer is none other than the later-famous Lt. George Patton, as does Wikipedia's online Patton biography. Metz and Morales identify him as Lt. James L. Collins. The prevailing wisdom among history buffs in Columbus leans toward Patton. A review of the careers of the two may resolve the issue.
Everyone knows George Patton, one of the most successful, flamboyant and sometime controversial generals of World War II. It isn't necessary to elaborate on his later career other than to remark that as a young officer, he was both flamboyant and successful. The controversy would come later.
Patton graduated from West Point in 1909. An accomplished athlete, he finished fifth in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics. He was accepted into the Mounted School at Fort Riley, Kansas, in September 1913, a two-year course graduating in June 1915.
On August 15, 1915, Patton was ordered to the 8th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss. He was assigned to guard the railroad at Hot Wells, Texas, 23 miles east of Sierra Blanca. It was after he arrived in Texas that he met Pershing for the first time.
Pancho Villa raided Columbus on March 9, 1916, after which General Pershing was ordered to lead a force into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. Patton's unit, the 8th Cavalry, wasn't scheduled to participate in the "Punitive Expedition," so he petitioned Pershing to be reassigned. Pershing hesitated, then agreed. (Pershing recently had started seeing Patton's sister, Nita, which probably didn't hurt George's cause.) Although the assignment was supposed to be temporary, Patton remained with Pershing throughout the Punitive Expedition and then on to France. There, Pershing assigned him to the US Tank Corps where Patton was to gain his renown.
Patton went on to become a four-star general, one of the US's more successful and famous personages of World War II. Then, shortly after the war in Europe ended, he died in an auto accident in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1945.
James Lawton Collins graduated from West Point in 1907. He was posted to the Philippines with the 8th Cavalry during the Moro Insurrection and there became Pershing's aide-de-camp. When Pershing returned to the US as commander at the Presidio, Collins came with him and remained his aide throughout the time there, at Fort Bliss and with the Punitive Expedition. Finally, he served as Pershing's aide-de-camp in France during World War I.
There are many references to Collins in Pershing's biographies, suggesting that he was his general's constant companion as one would expect a trusted aide to be. When Norman Walker of the Associated Press called Fort Bliss early on the morning of August 27, 1915, to inquire about the fire that had killed most of Pershing's family, he expected to talk to Collins. Only belatedly did he realize that the man he had on the phone was Pershing. Thus he became the person who gave the general the dreadful news. Collins accompanied Pershing to California to make the necessary arrangements and then back to their duty station at Fort Bliss. He likely was a close confidante of the very private general.
James Collins went on to become a major general. He commanded the Puerto Rico Division and the 5th Service Command in World War II, retiring in 1946.
His two sons and his younger brother, J. Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins, also had sterling military careers. All became generals and Michael, the younger son, became an astronaut. Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 command module during the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, six years after his father died.
The assumption that the "unknown" officer was George Patton may have been made by some because he did serve with Pershing in Mexico and was a well-known figure. He was, however, stationed at Fort Riley at the time and didn't meet Pershing until after he was stationed in Texas late in 1915. There is no reason to believe that Patton could have been on that bridge.
James Collins, on the other had, had served as Pershing's aide since the Philippines campaign and was known to be close to the general. It is unlikely that General Pershing would have welcomed Villa and Obregon without his closest aide in attendance. The officer standing behind General Pershing on the bridge in the famous 1914 photo is Lt. James L. Collins.
Columbus amateur historian Ken Emery wrote
about the First Aero Squadron in the April 2010 issue.