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A Fateful Friendship
Eisenhower dreamed of serving under Patton, but history reversed their roles. Their stormy association dramatically shaped the Allied assault on the Third Reich
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Eisenhower, meanwhile, kept begging for assignments with the troops, but his superiors, most notably General Douglas MacArthur, liked to have the hardworking, efficient major around. He lived according to the accepted pattern and was one of the best-liked officers in the Army. While Patton disported himself outside the system, Eisenhower worked from within. In 1940, for example, Patton—who had finally become a colonel in 1938—took command of a tank brigade of the 2nd Armored Division. He found that most of his tanks were not working because of an absence of spare parts. When a mechanic pointed out that many usable parts were available from Sears Roebuck, Patton ordered them and paid out of his own pocket. He kept the bill a secret, but it probably ran into many thousands of dollars. As chief of staff of a division, Eisenhower often faced similar problems. His solution was to write to a friend in the War Department and, with this extra prodding, get the material he needed through proper channels.
When World War II began in Europe, Patton quickly forgot about polo and his active social life. Eisenhower was certain that Patton would go straight to the top when America got into the war, and in September, 1940, he wrote his friend: “I suppose it’s too much to hope that I could have a regiment in your division, because I’m still almost three years away from my colonelcy.” Still, he thought he could do the job.
Patton may have had his doubts, and in any case he had a better idea about what Eisenhower could do for him. Apply for armor, Patton advised, and join up with me as my chief of staff. “He needs a brake to slow him doAvn,” General George C. Marshall once said of Patton, “because he is apt to coast at breakneck speed, propelled by his enthusiasm and exuberance.” Patton himself understood this, and he thought Eisenhower would be the perfect brake.
They did not get together, however, until two years later. Eisenhower, by 1941, had become a temporary colonel and was chief of staff for the Third Army. His son, John, was considering whether to go to West Point or to study law, and he asked his father’s advice. Eisenhower said that the Army had been good to him, although he expected to retire as a colonel and admitted that his hopes had once been higher. Still, he had to be realistic; he warned John that he would never get rich or famous in the Army. He could get instead the satisfaction of knowing he had made a contribution to his country. John took West Point.
Patton, meanwhile, continued to move ahead in armor. He did so because of his abilities, of course, but more to the point because the Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall, was a remarkable man, able to overlook idiosyncrasy and to judge by performance. A rigid soldier and old-fashioned gentleman himself, Marshall had seen the impetuous Patton in action at SaintMihiel in World War I. He had marked him favorably in his famous little black book, a book he used ruthlessly after he became Chief of Staff to weed out the unfit and to jump men like Patton over their superiors. Marshall moved Patton up to temporary brigadier general in 1940 and, in April, 1941, to major general.
When America entered the war in December, 1941, Marshall called Eisenhower to Washington; he did not know Eisenhower, but he had read his efficiency reports and observed his brilliant staff work in maneuvers in Louisiana in 1941. Within three months Eisenhower was head of the Operations Division of the War Department. Marshall was so favorably impressed that three months later he sent Major General Eisenhower to London to take command of the European Theatre of Operations. In July, 1942, Great Britain and America decided that their first joint offensive of the war would be an invasion of French North Africa. Eisenhower had pleased the British as much as he had Marshall, and they agreed that he was the ideal Supreme Commander for the invasion. He could choose his own assault commanders; the first man he picked was Patton. It was an ironic reversal of what Eisenhower had hoped for two years earlier.
Eisenhower gave his old acquaintance the potentially toughest assignment, that of hitting the beach at Casablanca. Shortly after Patton arrived, however, the French quit fighting, as a result of Eisenhower’s deal with Admiral Jean Louis Darlan, Vichy’s chief of state in French Africa. This brought the North African French into the Allied camp, and Patton lost his chance for glory. He compensated by competing with the local sultans in lavish living during three months as head of United States occupation forces in Morocco, and by hobnobbing with upper-echelon Vichy Frenchmen so convivially that it struck some Americans as aid and comfort to the enemy.
In March, 1943, following the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Eisenhower brought Patton to Tunisia to take command of the II Corps, which had been badly battered. He told Patton to restore morale, raise the image of American troops in British eyes by winning a victory or two, and take care of himself. Patton, Eisenhower said, did not have to prove to him that he was courageous.