Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli was born in Frontenac, and grew up in the Little Balkans — the name variously given to that part of southeast Kansas where Europeans flocked more than a century ago to extract ore from strip mines. Since then he has accomplished much militarily, to the point today Gen. Tafanelli is adjutant general of Kansas.
“As a southeast Kansas boy who grew up hearing stories about the incredible man (Gen. Frederick Funston) we celebrate today, this is a great honor for me,” Tafanelli said Saturday morning at a downtown wreath-laying ceremony.
A goodly crowd attending a 9:30 a.m. event heard Tafanelli recall major events in Funston’s life, before attention turned to wreaths being laid at the base of a life-sized statue of Funston, who a century ago was a national hero several times over. The commemoration was for his 150th birthday anniversary — officially Nov. 9.
Tafanelli chronicled Funston’s achievements without an ounce of syrup — none was needed — and it read as chapter after chapter of American history:
A Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Funston was credited with saving San Francisco, after a devastating earthquake killed 300 and left 300,000 homeless; fought with Cuban rebels against Spain; heroically captured the Filipino insurrection leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, to essentially close that chapter of U.S. warfare; explored Death Valley and, including two years by himself, the Yukon River; and was the commander of WWII generals Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower.
Tafanelli focused on part of Funston’s life.
Emilio Aguinaldo was a thorn in U.S. efforts to quell the Filipino insurgency in the afterglow of the Spanish-American war, he said, “a brilliant rebel leader … (Aguinaldo) was simply impossible to catch in the cover of the thick Philippine jungle … senior (U.S.) leaders honestly thought that no man could catch him.”
After intercepting secret messages, which some historians think came from a double agent, Funston learned of his whereabouts and devised a “dangerous plan and sent it to his boss, Gen. Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas).” MacArthur deemed it “a desperate undertaking. I fear that I shall never see you again.”
Funston posed as a prisoner and disguised 90 loyal Filipinos as rebels. “Funston and his team fought through 100 torturous miles of dense jungle” to Aguinaldo’s headquarters, where a forged document claimed the loyalists were bringing high-value prisoners.
The ruse worked, Aguinaldo was captured and Funston was hailed a hero.
In 1906, Funston was cast in another role that propelled him into the national spotlight. After a massive earthquake leveled 80 percent of San Francisco and set ablaze standing building and rubble, Funston, commanding the Department of California, acted quickly and decisively to save the city, without authorization from higher authority.
“… just four days after the initial quake, Funston’s quick thinking and unorthodox strategy contained the vast fire, keeping it from spreading,” Tafanelli related. “He set up efficient local refugee camps, excellent ration systems and a plan for recovery.”
In conclusion, Tafanelli urged his listeners to remember Funston, and “… when you drive past this statue, take a moment and remember the life of this great man and his incredible tenacity. Remember what he can teach all of us about a life of service, a life that matters and a life well lived.”
AFTER LUNCH, several speakers, including Iola attorney and local historian Clyde Toland, spoke at the Gen. Frederick Funston Memorial Armory on North State Street.
Tom Rives, deputy director and archivist of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, touched on how the Philippines helped shape Eisenhower’s military career. He was charged in the 1930s with building a national Filipino army, which led him to understand only a passive defense system was possible for the chain of islands that make up the country — a bird that came home to roost in World War II. But the exercise did give him a firm grasp of the complexities of putting together ground and air forces from scratch.
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mark Calhoun, from Ft. Leavenworth and author of a book on Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, told how as a logistics and ordinance expert he served as Funston’s supply officer during the Mexican-American conflict, shortly after McNair’s 1904 graduation from West Point. McNair died during the WWII Normandy Invasion in 1944.
Charles Hewitt, a historian from St. Louis, delved into fascinating details of Funston’s capture of Aguinaldo, whom he described as “not a nobody, but a somebody in the Philippines.” That made his capture significant and highly important to U.S. efforts to win the minds and bodies of the native population he said.
THE DAY’S capstone was a panel discussion, moderated by Bob Hawk, who grew up a few miles from Funston’s home north of Iola, and with comments from Toland and Jarrett Robinson, a Tennesseean who for 25 years has mined the story of Funston. Robinson’s personal Funston trove has been accumulated from visits to the National Archives, many other public sources and personal memorabilia and letters of families with a connection to the general.
Toland reviewed in detail Funston’s arrival and early years in Allen County, including attending Maple Grove School half a mile south of his home north of Iola and teaching at Stony Lonesome School. He also dove headlong into Funston’s days exploring Death Valley and the Yukon under auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — an aside being when he and his horse toppled off a narrow mountain path in Death Valley Funston lived by grabbing a tree limb, his horse, lacking prehensile abilities, tumbled to its death. His 3,500-mile journey of exploration alone in the Yukon was remarkable to say the very least, Toland observed.
He also discussed Funston’s failed effort with a 5,000 acre coffee plantation in Mexico; how he was a filibuster (name given Americans fighting for Cuba against Spain); and how he lost 19 horses while posing as a journalist but fighting for Cuba — two horses were shot from under Funston.
Robinson illuminated Funston’s border-war involvement — long before illegal immigration created another — and how he commanded 150,000 National Guard troops. A seldom-reported phase of Funston’s life occurred in 1913 when he went to Hawaii to help develop coastal defenses, Robinson said, and came home to be among those prominent in communicating Hawaii’s vulnerability, stoked by fears of a Japanese invasion after its successes over Russia.