Wantagh, N.Y.: U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds fly practice routines at Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York for a preview of the Bethpage Air Show on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Photo by John Paraskevas/Newsday RM via Getty Images)


Steve's annual Fourth of July thoughts come from visiting his old haunts at Sheppard Air Force Base, looking forward to a flyover, and reminding himself about the promise of America

Old Haunts

For the past several years, M’Lissa and I have used the July 4th weekend to advance our quest to visit each of Texas’ 254 counties. Today I find myself in Wichita Falls, seat for the county of Wichita and home to Sheppard Air Force Base. Although not intended, the site of our fireworks watching this year is a bit of a bookend. Forty years ago today, I was one month into my short Air Force career, training at Sheppard Air Force Base.

Steve Back at Sheppard

My military career was insignificant and served totally in peace, but being back at Sheppard has me thinking about the millions who made today’s celebration possible. One of those millions is a Chicagoan named Thomas Pope. In particular, I wonder what his experience over a century ago says about our Republic today.

Born at the Right Time

Thomas Pope was born in 1894. I know nothing about his life until he joined the Illinois National Guard a short time before President Wilson asked for declaration of war. It is no small coincidence to today’s story that Thomas joined the world at that place and time. Chicago had just exploded onto the international scene the year before. Officially titled “The World’s Columbian Exposition” the city had hosted visitors from all over the world to an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus bringing the old world to the new. Thomas’ parents probably attended the greatest world’s fair ever held. If they did, they drank in the dizzying progress of the human race. The architecture and music were overwhelming, but Thomas’ mom may have gone home dreaming about the first all electric kitchen inclusive of that height of frivolity, a mechanical “dishwasher.” Maybe they snacked on a brownie or a bag of cracker jacks, both introduced at the fair.

The Ferris Wheel made its debut in Chicago. Like everything else at the Fair it caused a sensation. Used by permission from Getty Images

Whatever caught the Popes’ fancy, their son was born into an America that was something different than its founders imagined. The industrial revolution was in full swing, the Civil War had established the supremacy of the federal government, and America’s many advantages whispered promises of riches and comfort no one imagined a mere fifty years before. Forty-six countries occupied their own pavilions at the Fair. It is likely that they all reported to their capitals about the colossus that was forming in North America. The Fair accelerated that sentiment; Americans began to think of themselves as captains of their own destiny rather than passengers on the world stage.

Return to the Old World

At the end of May 1918, Corporal Pope found himself thousands of miles away from home as one of almost a million American doughboys temporarily inhabiting France. Until this point America’s place in the forefront of nations had been hypothetical; more predicted than real. While America had become increasingly aggressive about asserting its will on the Western Hemisphere, the Earth’s axis still seemed to run through Europe.

Corporal Thomas Pope of Chicago, Illinois. Image from the Public Domain

The war was not something many Americans worried about when it started. As time wore on, however, it was hard to avoid the weight of the carnage from even an ocean away. The Krupp company had been a German representative at the Chicago Fair, advertising its arms as the ultimate peacemakers. “Ultimate” turned out to be an overstatement, now the arms from Krupp and its English and French counterparts were used daily to inflict more death and dismemberment than in all the wars of human history combined.

Sometimes the world just goes mad and the middle teens of the 20th century may illustrate that point best. The new technology possessed overwhelming power to kill and maim. The only answer either side could come up with was to provide more and more young men to be killed and maimed. Advances and retreats were measured in feet. The even strength of the opposing armies prevented either side from gaining enough advantage to force the “statesmen” to compromise. So it dragged on, a new highwater mark for man’s humanity to man.

America’s first and logical reaction was to stay out of it. Wilson won the White House on the back of a promise to keep the boys home. Boys yes, but maybe not technology of our own. As the war drug on, Uncle Sam and the Kaiser engaged in an increasingly ragged dance in which each wished to take the lead but neither wished to say it. The Germans suspected us of oversupplying their adversaries. We were insulted at not having the freedom of the seas due a neutral.

The battered French and English prayed for the infusion of fresh American blood-literally. In a continent suffering the tragedy of stalemate, their last best hope was interjection of materials and manpower from the new world. The Germans bet that unfettered submarine attacks on the allies’ shipping, including trade with and on United States merchant marine ships, would end the war before the Americans could enter it.

Thomas Pope’s arrival in Europe meant the Germans had miscalculated. Wilson asked for and received a Declaration of War in April 1917. Within months the doughboys started to arrive in France. July 4th 1917, was a celebration unlike any in the history of the City of Lights, such was the ardor for their new American allies. And they just kept coming. The harbors and then the countryside were full of fresh-faced Americans. Almost 150 years had passed since the French had helped the colonists separate themselves from the King. And here they were to repay that historical debt, hopefully saving the former subjects of both King George III and Louis XVI.

Foreign Entanglements as an Occupational Hazard.

Although we are more apt to remember the Greatest Generation and the greatest war, the United States’ entry into World War I serves as the Rosetta Stone for modern history. Until Wilson’s request for a war declaration, America had confined its armed disputes to controversies over its own borders, or in the case of the Spanish-American War, events virtually within sight of American borders. World War I marked the arrival of the United States as an empire, willing to protect or advance its interests anywhere on the globe and, if necessary, through the use of force.

WASHINGTON D.C. – APRIL 2: President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to send U.S. troops into battle against Germany in World War I, in his address to Congress in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1917. (Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images)

Our founders were unanimous in their their warnings against “foreign entanglements.” Wilson and his supportive countrymen decided that we had outgrown the need for that type of national shyness. Maybe the lesson did not stick immediately, as “America First” delayed our entry into WWII. But Wilson’s failed attempt at creating and joining the League of Nations, Truman’s re-creation of that concept with the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, two wars in Iraq and the almost never- ending misadventure in Afghanistan all trace their roots to the 1917 decision that America could ship its people and goods where it wanted and when it wanted. Any country that tried to stop it would do so at the risk of American military might.

Thomas Pope’s Month in France.

By July 4, 1918, Corporal Pope had not been in France for long. Many other doughboys got there first. But few had seen action. The American commander, General Blackjack Pershing, resisted with all his might the entreaties of the allies to attach his men to their forces. Pershing was convinced that for the American Army to have its full and intended impact, it needed to be just that: an American Army. Pershing also knew that America would not tolerate their boys being just more cannon fodder; they were there to win the war, not prolong it.

circa 1917: US Soldier, John Joseph Pershing (1860 – 1948), known as ‘Black Jack’. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in 1917 and chief of staff of the US Army 1921-24. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In little more than a year, Pershing built an Army capable of doing that. The size of the overall force grew from 130,000 men to 2,000,000. They trained incessantly. One good example was the bespectacled captain of a Missouri artillery battalion who worked day and night to understand the Army’s new weaponry man and teach his troops to use it to maximum effect. Captain Harry S. Truman arrived in- country in June 2018 and would soon put his leadership to good use.

Candid of Harry S Truman, who served as the President of the United States from 1945 to 1953, in military uniform and talking to an unidentified soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas, July, 1926. Image courtesy National Archives. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

This Army was to be professional, which is why President Wilson had to intervene to keep an aging but still boisterous predecessor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Teddy Roosevelt, off the battlefield. For the sense of professionalism, Wilson also kept Teddy’s cousin Franklin out of uniform and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In the end it worked, the “American Expeditionary Force” under General Pershing provided the vital difference.

circa 1917: American officers inspect the pistols of recruits standing at attention, at a training camp in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, World War I. (Photo by Newman-Schmidt Studios/Getty Images)

In a matter of months from the United States bringing its full force to the battlefield, there was an armistice that marked the end of four empires stretching back centuries: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, and the Romanov. There was a new world order and the Americans had been the cause of the dramatic shift.

But on July 4, 1918, Thomas Pope did not know that yet-nobody did. In one of Pershing’s few minor capitulations to the Allies’ demands, Pope and his Illinois comrades had been attached to an Australian group. Pope had been in country for 33 days but he had not seen action.

At Hamel, France his company was following a line of tanks while most of his countrymen were enjoying Paris. Without warning deadly fire erupted from nearby machine gun nests. American power to reshape the world, to be the nation others either looked to for hope or feared would halt their aims, was still hypothetical or just predicted. Industrial might is important, a trained force is essential, but in the mayhem of war, it is courage that carries the day.

The 1st Lancashire Fusiliers fixing bayonets prior to the assault on Beaumont Hamel (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pope charged at the machine gun nest-it seems like it is always machine gun nests with Medal of Honor recipients-and threaded his way through withering fire. On reaching his destination he engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat, killing the gunner and his crew with his bayonet. The men from Australia and from Illinois continued their march. For his heroism, Thomas Pope became the sixteenth Medal of Honor winner in World War I. Unlike so many Medal of Honor winners, Corporal Pope emerged unscathed from his fight. The next day, however, Corporal Pope was severely injured in a gas attack. He was evacuated and his time in Europe ended abruptly. By the time he recovered the war was over.

Our Republic

One hundred and five years later we take the day off to celebrate our republic. What we are has changed over the years and changes daily still. American history-the real history that seems to be slipping out of circulation-reveals that time and again, what we are is less than what we should be. At times, we have misused our power and perpetuated injustice. Progress comes only in fits and starts. Freedoms and opportunities we believe secure-both at home and abroad-we find at risk. Despair and vitriol fill our discourse.

After the war Wilson was on the verge of being a statesman who would be remembered eternally for advancing the cause of human peace, but his beloved League of Nations could not survive our nationalist fervor. We allowed fascism to rise because it was somebody else’s problem. We wanted to impeach Truman for protecting civilian control over the military, a bedrock principle of democracy. We tolerated the slander of McCarthyism because our leaders preferred power over truth and we encouraged them in that pursuit. When the Supreme Court finally had the courage to recognize the separate was not equal, we fought the idea instead of embracing it. With one breath we argue that our system is the product of genius because it rests on the idea that all are created equal and with our next breath we say the system cannot provide the same opportunities to those who do not look like us. Today we occupy ourselves with political and cultural division like it is a second job, while the work of maintaining the very environment in which we live becomes more difficult by the day. It is maddening and disheartening.

And yet. And yet, there is Thomas Pope and millions more like him. The battle belongs to the brave, to the ones willing to risk their well-being for a brighter future. Those men and women are not just battlefield heroes. They can be found in classrooms, reaching tomorrow’s citizens through the tumult we insist on creating for them. They can be doctors and nurses, ignoring hate and voluntary medical illiteracy to end a pandemic. They can be found walking the beat or answering the alarm. They can be found in the pulpit and on the streets demonstrating that love conquers hate. Thomas Pope lives on in each of them.


America has not cornered the market on heroes; our “national stock” is no more brave, kind, or intelligent than the peoples of of other nations. But what we have is what we celebrate tomorrow: a system of governance that pursues dignity for all even when human imperfection causes our reach to exceed our grasp.

Today at 6:00 p.m. the Wichita Falls July 4th Celebration will begin with the singing of our National Anthem. As the song’s crescendo arrives, four jets of Sheppard’s 80th Training Wing will streak above us, all sound and fury. My first thought will be as the same thought I have with every flyover-how in the hell does something moving that fast manage to time it so perfectly?

My second thought will be that military power is all well and good, but the essential question is what does the power protect; what is it supposed to achieve for us? Not us as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. Not us as native born Americans. Not even us as Americans at all. But us as human beings. At times during the year it is hard to be proud of what we are doing.

But Thomas Pope helped end the carnage of World War I and the deaths and suffering of millions. We rallied and defeated fascism once and will do so again if necessary. McCarthy died an embarrassed alcoholic. South Korea is a prosperous and free nation because we protected it. Berlin has no wall and millions in the former Eastern block live free lives their recent ancestors could not even discuss without fear of reprisal. We suffer from racism at home, but at least one of the leading voices opposing it is an African-American we elected president. Sexual preference interests us way too much, but we can marry who we love. We have beaten back the AIDS virus, the Corona virus, and a million other viruses.

In the century or so since President Wilson decided that the time had come for America to assume its place as the leading actor on the world stage and Thomas Pope of Chicago, Illinois helped make that so, the world has prospered. We move haltingly and unsure of our course towards a more just and perfect union, but we do make progress. As those jets streak across the sky, their sound and fury will tell me that it is this painfully slow progress, the promise that tomorrow can be better for all of us, that they protect. And that is good enough for me.

Enjoy your Fourth! And always remember: “Nothing can stop the US Air Force!”

Wantagh, N.Y.: U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds fly practice routines at Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York for a preview of the Bethpage Air Show on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Photo by John Paraskevas/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

July Fourth From Previous Years.

Ben Franklin’s Toast 2022

In the Divided States of America (Medal of Honor Winners) 2021

Clark Griswold and the March of History (Race in America) 2020

A Breath of Fresh Air (The Bicentennial) 2019

The Fight of Our Lives (The Reason America Exists) 2018

Destiny Manifested (Texas Joins the Union) 2017

Promises Kept (America at its Best) 2016

Four Score and Seven: A Nation Reborn (Gettysburg and Vicksburg) 2015

Founding Fathers (Jefferson and Adams) 2014

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