(Photo: US Department of Defense)
John J. Pershing (1860-1948) was one of America’s greatest military leaders. He began in humble conditions in Missouri. Pershing was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1886 after graduating from West Point. His first commands were in the west in the final years of the Indian Wars. In 1896, he was given command of the Tenth Cavalry, an all-black unit in America’s racially segregated military. Pershing led that regiment into battle in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was unflinching in his praise and respect for his men. Some white officers nicknamed him “Black Jack” in reference to his defense of his black troops. Others used a somewhat different nickname that rhymes with “jigger.”
Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. It was a monumental task, for Pershing had to organize, train, and equip an army of 4 million men almost from scratch, then lead it into battle on the other side of the planet.
Pershing was successful, for which was rightfully promoted to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States in 1919. This is an honor held by only one other person: George Washington.
(Photo: Troop A, Tenth Cavalry Regiment, c. 1902)
But “Black Jack” Pershing is not often remembered for one of his most practical, everyday innovations. While he was a senior cadet at West Point, he invented an exercise used by people around the world to this day: the jumping jack. It was a means that Pershing used to haze a cadet named Charles D. Rhodes. Frank Everson Vandiver writes about it in Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing:
Worst of all, Pershing invented an almost foolproof method of hazing, and Rhodes suffered directly. The scheme got the name “jumping Jack” for obvious reasons, and few treatments seem to have affected plebes more lastingly. Origins of the technique are obscure, but Pershing’s plan had simplicity and adaptability. He would line up a group of plebes, order them to count off to identify odds and evens, and when he pulled on an imaginary string, all the odds threw their arms stiffly out at right angles to their bodies; then Jack pulled the string in the opposite direction, and the odds dropped their arms and evens jumped their legs out to make a V. Back and forth went the string, arms flapped, legs splayed, while upperclassmen howled at the marionettes in action.
And since that time more than a century ago, gym teachers and trainers have hazed people with General Pershing’s invention.
So it is appropriate that on May 1, Pershing’s home state of Missouri declared the jumping jack the official state exercise.