After several years of various slings and arrows slung in my direction, I am completing a full biography of my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of DC Comics. Recently I’ve been focusing on the chapters about his military career. I’ve noted several of these events in earlier blogs. With the circumstances of the virus Covid 19 and the renewed discussions of the Spanish Flu and the Black Lives Matter protests foremost in my thoughts several aspects of the Major’s career stood out in his military career. History continually repeats itself.
MWN began his career in 1912 after graduating from St. Johns Manlius and subsequently passed the exams to enter the US Army as a 2nd lieutenant cavalry officer. Initially stationed at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas under the command of General John Pershing, he spent 2 years on the border chasing bandits and according to his reports of the time, Pancho Villa.
In early 1914 MWN was transferred to Fort Ethan Allan in Vermont and was an instructor there until late 1915. At the very beginning of his career the Major requested a posting to the 9th Cavalry of the African-American Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were under the command of white officers. These Black soldiers were only allowed to rise in the military to a Sergeant’s grade. A posting to the Buffalo Soldiers for a white officer was usually regarded unfavorably. MWN’s request for the posting was not allowed however he continued to request this posting. My guess is that he was emulating Pershing who rose quickly through the ranks as a result of commanding the Buffalo Soldiers and MWN would have been initially trained in cavalry horsemanship most likely by a skilled Buffalo Soldier. From his command of the Buffalo Soldiers Pershing garnered the sobriquet “Black Jack” Pershing and other akas that are racial slurs. In December of 1915 MWN finally got his wish and was on his way to San Francisco to command the 1st Squadron Machine Gun Troop of the 9th Cavalry. They departed January 5th on the USAT Sheridan for the Philippines.
While in the Philippines, the Major observed first-hand the prejudice his troops endured. He challenged his superior officer Colonel Dugan to a match between his men and Dugan’s men on machine gun readiness. Machine gun readiness is the ability of machine gun troops to ride at a gallop, jump off their horses and in teamwork organize the component parts of the machine guns into battle readiness. Dugan promptly took the challenge as the Major’s troops were thought to be the worst in Camp Stotsenberg. They were constantly thrown into the brig for the smallest infraction and often demoralized. Sound familiar?
The Major was determined to prove that his Black troops were the equal to any troop of white soldiers. Not only did the Major transform his troops into excellent soldiers but in contest with Dugan’s men they broke all world records for machine gun readiness. The event was observed by the upper echelon of commanding officers in the Philippines and subsequently written up in newspapers and later a book on machine guns by Julian Hatcher. Hatcher, in an odd coincidence, served on the jury of the Major’s court martial in 1922. Besting his superior officer in front of the high brass did not endear MWN to Colonel Dugan whose command and men were made to look insufficient. The incident would follow MWN through the rest of his career and may have influenced General Sladen’s harassment forcing MWN into Class B and finally into a court martial.
There is some mystery about the Major’s career following the Philippines possibly because he was listed in Military Intelligence. From official records I was able to piece together some of his movements. While World War I raged in Europe, the Major, from approximately late June of 1917 through late October of 1918 was in and out of China, Japan, Hong Kong and eventually with the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia during the Bolshevik revolution. He was there at that pivotal moment of the global political foundation which continues to affect our lives. When MWN began his career writing adventure stories in 1924 he based many of those stories on his own adventures from his military career. Off-Trail Publications published a reprint of a sampling of those stories in The Texas-Siberia Trail.
Going over the timeline, something I had been looking at for years jumped out at me after the Major departed from Siberia in late October 1918. According to official MID records (Military Intelligence Department) on November 11, 1918 MWN was in San Francisco sick with the flu and in hospital for about 2 to 3 weeks. It had never registered that of course, he was ill with the Spanish Flu. Checking newspapers of the day and several other historical documents established that San Francisco was in the midst of a flu epidemic throughout this period. I can’t say for sure that the Major had the Spanish flu but I can’t imagine it would have been anything other than that to have been in the hospital for that length of time in that period of time. Much like today there was some reluctance to designate the illness in official records.
It is a testament to his physical strength and his discipline that MWN recovered. However, that may have been one of the causes of his eventual heart attack and death in 1965 at the age of 75. Preliminary research revealed medical studies that link the deaths from heart disease of males during the 1960s as possibly deriving from the results of contracting Spanish flu.
Covering up, covering over history never ends well. We lose the opportunity to learn from the events of the past. Simply from a personal point of view regarding the Major and the efforts of Donenfeld and more likely Liebowitz to erase the Major from the history of comics, I have strong feelings about efforts to deny the truth of events. Facts matter. Science matters. Black Lives Matter. Let’s learn from the past and perhaps we can stop repeating the worst of it.