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Site Seeing:Colonel McCormick's dirty little secret



A group of fourth-graders from Downers Grove sidesteps a regiment of flower beds and winds past the American tanks planted outside Colonel Robert R. McCormick's First Division Museum. The legendary Tribune publisher has been the subject of derogatory gossip for almost 80 years. But the kids visiting his Wheaton estate today know nothing of his conduct in the battle for Cantigny, the French village that became the namesake for McCormick's country home.

Once inside, the children halt in their tracks. They're on a dark street in 1917 France, surrounded by the sounds and flashes of exploding bombs. A guide explains that the exhibit re-creates a part of Cantigny, where the American army won its first battle on European soil. A hand goes up. "Did we win World War I?"

"Oh yes, absolutely," the guide answers.

War may be hell, but in McCormick's museum Cantigny is where the fun begins. The museum tells the history of the First Armored Division (known throughout the world as the "Big Red One") from World War I to Desert Storm. There are videos to watch and buttons to push, fake beaches to storm and jungles to file through. But for McCormick himself, Cantigny was where the fun ended. It was his last military battle. Afterward he received the Distinguished Service Medal and was promoted to colonel. But it was also the battle detractors used to insinuate that he was a coward, a liar, and incompetent. Strangely, though McCormick usually had an answer for everything, he never answered these critics, or their charges.

The stories against him contradict each other. One, told by a Paris Tribune editor, claims McCormick was never even at Cantigny, while another, spread early on by a disgruntled ex-employee, says that McCormick fled the scene. A third account intimates that he mistakenly shelled more Americans than Germans. The first story is certainly wrong--First Division documents prove McCormick was there--and the second is probably a malicious lie. There is strong evidence, however, that the third story could be true.

The first two rumors are credibly debunked in Richard Norton Smith's The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, a new biography to be released in June. Then a major, McCormick was a volunteer who'd achieved his rank the old-fashioned way--he got his commission in the Illinois National Guard from a Chicago alderman, Milton Foreman. But McCormick had seen plenty of action in France by the time Americans dug in for an assault on the German position at Cantigny in April 1918.

McCormick commanded a battery of 155-millimeter howitzers, the biggest guns in the American army. But he spent most of April taking cover. The Germans were on a hill, and the shells flew mercilessly down on the Americans digging in below.

In early May, McCormick went to Paris, where he'd established an army edition of the Chicago Tribune in an unsubtle bid for influence and, some suggest, an unsuccessful attempt to get promoted to general. He threw a dinner for a General Aultman and was subsequently awarded a transfer from the front on May 7, 1918. But McCormick went back to Cantigny the next day. And though he came down with a bad case of flu, he stayed into the morning of the assault, which began on May 28. McCormick aimed his guns in several directions to cover advancing infantry during the battle, but after six hours he was too sick to continue. While the Americans captured Cantigny and fought three days to hold it, McCormick was in a hospital outside Paris. He was later sent back to the U.S. to supervise training at Fort Sheridan. He never saw action again.

So yes, McCormick was there, and then he was not. He'd already been sick with the flu for two weeks, so the timing of his evacuation might seem odd. Did he, in the fever of flu and battle, aim those big guns a bit short? The new biography says no, but an earlier biography, The Colonel of Chicago by Joseph Gies, says "The lines were so close together that McCormick realized that some short rounds from his guns would inevitably fall in American trenches." And a diary written on the scene noted, "There have undoubtedly been shorts--one 155 shell killed 12 of our men." But the shells did not have McCormick's name on them.

The value of the victory at Cantigny was more symbolic than strategic. For McCormick it held a private symbolism he displayed publicly, not only in the naming of his estate but by referring to his war record whenever he had a chance. Aspersions were cast, sometimes to his face. Journalist Waverly Root describes a dinner party in his book The Paris Edition: 1927-1934 at which a sports editor committed a faux pas: "[Herol] Egan was discoursing on the ineptitude of the American High Command, of which the colonel had no high opinion either, since it had proved itself inexcusably obtuse in its choice of officers to elevate to the rank of general. He listened complacently until the fateful moment when Egan, in a voice audible to everyone present, said earnestly: 'And the worst thing, Colonel, the very worst thing that happened in our army was when our artillery shelled its own infantry at Cantigny.' The silence of horror descended over the company. Everybody else in the room knew the colonel had commanded the artillery at Cantigny. He rose from his chair. 'That man has spoiled my evening,' he said, and he walked out."

McCormick didn't fire Egan, though he did give orders, eventually disobeyed, to never give the man a raise. Did McCormick blame himself for the deaths from friendly fire? He gave a clue in a radio address broadcast on WGN in 1953, near the end of his life, when he compared the modern versions of the howitzer with those he'd commanded in World War I: "They can also be maneuvered in battle, which ours could not, and can avoid the terrible casualties which we incurred."

McCormick's personal life was sordid--he had a penchant for having affairs with the wives of men less powerful than he--and his newspaper was slanted beyond belief. If Cantigny is a monument to a guilty conscience, it would be one of his few signs of decency. The military was McCormick's one true love. This was what he wanted on his tombstone: "Buried with Full Military Honors." A wall that shelters the tomb he shares with his first wife Amy (who was his cousin's wife first, but that's another story) bears an inscription of modest praise from General "Black Jack" Pershing. It reads in part: "Colonel McCormick... displayed rare leadership, and organizing ability, unusual executive ability and sound technical judgment."

Cantigny is McCormick's "Rosebud"--what actually happened at that French village went down into the crypt with him. Ultimately, McCormick was not a great or admirable man, merely a rich and influential one who bequeathed this granite enigma ringed by flowers "for the recreation, instruction, and welfare of the people of Illinois." Its instruction to future generations is that the past can be as unknowable as the future.

To get to McCormick's Cantigny, take the Eisenhower (whom McCormick despised) to I-88, the East-West Tollway. Get off at Winfield Road and head north, past the Cantigny Golf Course until you see the sign for the estate--which is on the right, naturally. Admission to the First Division Museum is free, but there's a $5 parking fee. Before Memorial Day, the museum is open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Sunday. From Memorial Day to Labor Day it's open 10 to 5. Call 630-668-5185 for more information.

--Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Colonel Robert R. McCormick courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

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