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Richard Warren Pershing

Died: February 17, 1968

Dick Pershing (Persh) was a nearly mythical figure to many, and remained so after his death in Vietnam. He came to Yale from Exeter and Lawrenceville, son of Francis Warren and Muriel Richards Pershing, grandson of General of the Armies John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.

Persh had a brilliant career at Yale as an athlete, playing hockey for Pierson, and winning major Y all three years in varsity soccer and lacrosse. His social life was also legendary, and featured membership in Fence Club, Pundits, and Skull and Bones, as well as many memorable parties at Pierson. He is remembered as a good and loyal friend by many.

David Schlossberg, Persh’s roommate, reports in his “Persh: A Memoir” that as senior year progressed Persh was not sure what to do after graduation, and finally deciding to follow the family tradition and join the Army. He was accepted into OCS, and ultimately completed training at Fort Benning just before his deployment. He also became engaged at that time to Shirley Hildreth Gay, then on the editorial staff of Vogue magazine. They decided to delay the wedding until after Dick returned from Vietnam, where he was about to be sent.

He was commissioned and deployed to Vietnam in Company A, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division December 13, 1967. While searching for a missing member of his unit, Persh and the men he commanded came under hostile small arms and rocket fire, and he was killed in action on February 17, 1968. He is buried next to his grandfather and older brother, Colonel Jack Pershing (d. 1999) in Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery. He received the following decorations: Combat Infantryman Badge: December 1967; National Defense Service Medal; Parachutist Wings, Basic; Purple Heart: 17 Feb 1968; RVN Campaign Service Medal; RVN Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm; and the Vietnam Service Medal with two Battle Stars.

With deep gratitude for Persh’s service and sacrifice, we nevertheless wish he had survived to write more chapters in his personal and personable history. Be sure to see the Newsweek story about Persh in Section 7, and the remembrances that follow.

Timothy Bradford remembers:

It was September 1964, just outside the Old Campus when I heard, “Hey, Mouse, you miserable little runt!” It was Persh, shouting a first hello after summer vacation. Though Dick was often sarcastic, sometimes scathing, his greeting that day was music to my ears. When talking to friends, he could convey warmth and affection with even the harshest greeting.

Dick was older than us in ways specific and symbolic. Having spent an extra year at prep school, he had almost two full years on many of us. And his Park Avenue upbringing, his sports car, and his devil-may-care, debonair attitude made him of a world glamorous and foreign to the rest of us. After all, how many of us got a personal greeting at the 21 Club?

So Dick conveyed sophistication and charm that most of us lacked and many of us admired. In his interactions, he showed quick wit, passion, and a confident swagger. In a group, he evoked radiance and transferred humor to those of us more serious souls.

He was also the master of the risqué comment, somehow expressed with enough panache to make his ribaldry acceptable. After defeating Johns Hopkins in lacrosse, we were in a celebratory mood, so a few of us went to a more upscale restaurant than usual. When the waiter arrived, Persh said, “I’m so hungry, I could eat the balls off a snake.” When his girlfriend jokingly asked, “When are you going to grow hair on your chest?” he replied, “When you grow dugs on yours.”

Dick carried his style to the athletic fields as well. He had a fluidity and grace about him that mirrored his suave manner at the bar. Wiry and angular, he glided across the field, dodging others with a natural, skillful ease. And he could run forever, sometimes in surprising ways given his irreverence for training rules.

And then sadness arrived. Dick, the grandson of General “Black Jack” Pershing, went to Vietnam based on family history and obligation, and he died there less than two years after graduation. As might be expected, he had died searching for a fallen comrade. It all seemed impossible because Persh had a magical aura we thought would protect him no matter how dangerous the situation.

Who knows what might have been if he had lived? I do know my life would have been brighter, more joyful, more profane. In response to a remembrance like this, he might have said, “Shut up, and let’s go drink.”

Forrest Laidley remembers:

Persh is my lighthearted Prince of Dazzle and Mirth. A dear, dear friend, whom I think of often. As Michael Dalby said at his funeral, “He left us the gift of his youth, for he will never get older in our eyes than today.” This is indeed a precious gift. When life fills my day with challenges that feel crushing, I think of Persh and that impish grin and I smile and remember his legacy: “Laugh, don’t take this life too seriously.”

Robert Anderson remembers:

(While doing research for my unpublished manuscript “The Class of ’66,” I received the following email:)

Hi,

I was a medic assigned to A company with Lt. Pershing, while viewing the wall I noticed he had received none of his awards, so I got in touch with the Army and had his bronze star on his head stone at Arlington.

Arden Riggle

I emailed Arden Riggle back, telling him I was a classmate of Richard Pershing’s at Yale and would like to know more about his time in Vietnam.

The next day I received:

Hi Robert,

It is a good thing to meet a friend of Lt. Pershing whom I first met at Ft. Campbell in 1967, at that time he taught me about getting the most out of today, he was a very positive person that believed that no matter what to take care of today, your friends and yourself.

…The Army made me show proof that Lt. Pershing was a courageous person, so I got all the records and maps to show proof of the facts. I no longer need them and can mail them to you when you are settled.

*

(From “Index to Daily Staff Journal for Hqs. 2d Brigade 101st Airborne Division”)

February 15, 1968

Item number 12

Lt. Pershing’s Platoon ambushes a Viet Cong Sapper force at 3:25 AM. Sappers are specially trained commandos who sneak up on the enemy at night and kill them, causing severe moral[e] problems. Lt. Pershing’s unit received no casualties. The Viet Cong Sapper Platoons were regarded as the best of the Communist soldiers and Lt. Pershing was held in high esteem by his subordinates for his ability to ambush them. He spent the rest of the day patrolling around the mountain foothills west of Quang Tri in a “jungle like” area looking for the Viet Cong who had escaped. This area was known as the Hai Lang Forest and it was dreaded even by the U.S. Marine Corps. Lt. Pershing always stayed calm and in good spirits. Enemy weapons and ammunition are discovered all day.

*

(From “Statement of Arden Riggle”)

…The enemy fire was intense from the moment we disembarked off the helicopters. We began moving south to the location of the missing trooper and …came under fire from a hedgerow to the east. The most intense fire was coming from the corner of the village and Lieutenant Pershing headed right for it so as to engage the enemy and to relieve the rifle and rocket grenade fire upon the group that I was with. Advancing without hesitation and firing, Lieutenant Pershing fearlessly assaulted the enemy position killing some of the enemy and forcing the others to withdraw. This allowed the squad of men I was with to move to the area of the missing trooper… Lieutenant Pershing’s gallant attack at the cost of his life saved my life and those of the squad I was with and made possible the accomplishment of our mission.

(Note: Lieutenant Pershing was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.)

Michael Dalby remembers:

Richard Warren Pershing

One February afternoon forty-seven years ago, like many other young men, I lost my innocence. Not the loving kind, but my sense of life and death.

In my South End apartment in Boston, I got a phone call from David Laidley. “Persh,” he said, and I knew.

I have never been able to come to terms with Dick’s death, so early, so wrong. I like to make people laugh, but Dick was the master. His view of life, silly at times, Zen at others, is just irreplaceable. How could you not love him?

A year ago I translated a sonnet from Cántico (1950) by Jorge Guillén, one of the great masters of modern Spanish literature.

Don Jorge captures my bleak February of 1968.

*

NOW THE AFTERNOONS GROW LONG
(Ya se alargan las tardes)

*

Now the afternoons grow long,
slowing to escort the dwindling sun
as in the February sky its glow
drags the city’s reflection to the river,

*

whose flow is my companion
as I wander beside the water,
lagging behind a rower.
I want to feel as fleet as he, with no regrets,

*

and watch the sun that slowly fades,
caroling huge beauty’s end,
ecstatic when most fiery

*

beneath the scarlet sundown and
against the fir-trees’ clinging green,
it hastens the slow retreat of afternoon.

*

— Michael Dalby, Berkeley, September 2015

Denis Tippo remembers:

Dick was a “natural athlete”. Probably the best athlete on the Yale 1965-66 lacrosse team. He was fast, had a quick-stick shot, and was crafty. I know. I had to guard him many times in lacrosse practices. Playing Dick got me ready for any competition I had to face as a defenseman. Dick’s friendly smile and fun-loving nature were endearing and helped ease tensions in games and practices. Persh was, indeed, a natural. He was taken from life much too early. He died in Vietnam. We remember and honor him for his ultimate sacrifice for his country.