A Fateful Friendship

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Patton had always been a martinet when it came to morale. He himself indulged in gaudy uniforms, but he insisted that his enlisted men dress meticulously according to regulations, even in the front lines. He worked them hard, subjecting them to twice as many drills and training exercises as most generals. His insistence on spit and polish was so great that he once tried to get Bill Mauldin’s famous “Stars and Stripes” cartoons banned from his area because Mauldin’s G.I.’s always looked like the sloppiest soldiers in the world. (Eisenhower, incidentally, overruled Patton on the issue, after Patton had called Sergeant Mauldin into his headquarters and raked him over.) It is doubtful that Patton’s men ever loved him—that notion was mainly journalists’ copy—but they did respect him, and they respected themselves as a result. He used his techniques with the II Corps, and they worked. He made the men shave regularly and stand straight, and then scored a tactical victory over the great German tank commander, Erwin Rommel. A grateful Eisenhower gave Patton the most coveted combat position in the Army—command of the invasion of Sicily.

Patton did well. His Seventh Army sent the German and Italian opposition reeling across Sicily past Palermo. It was a campaign that left the British, especially General Bernard Montgomery, awe-struck. Patton had proved himself to be a master of pursuit, a general who could keep the troops going under all conditions. He was not so good at a set-piece battle. When he turned his army east for the drive to Messina, across from the Italian toe, the Germans were waiting. Progress was exasperatingly slow. The narrow roads, winding through the mountains, gave the Germans every advantage. Patton was almost beside himself.

On August 3, while he was in this mood, he tried to make himself feel better in a way that had often worked well before: visiting an evacuation hospital near the front and talking to brave soldiers who had recently been wounded in action. This time it backfired. The General had gone around the tent and chatted with a number of bandaged men, asking them how they got hit, where they were from, and so on, when he came to Private C. H. Kuchl, a young infantryman from Mishawaka, Indiana. Kuchl was sitting on a box, and had no visible sign of wounds. To Patton’s query, the soldier said simply, “I guess I can’t take it.” As Patton admitted later, he “flew off the handle.” In his opinion, most cases of “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” were just plain cowardice, and he proceeded to say so to Kuchl in a high, excited voice and with an appropriate selection from his rich lexicon of profanity. Then he slapped Kuchl across the face with his gloves and turned to the medical officer in charge, shouting: “Don’t admit this son of a bitch. I don’t want yellow-bellied bastards like him hiding their lousy cowardice around here, stinking up this place of honor!” Patton then stalked out. Kuchl, who had indeed been admitted to the hospital on a diagnosis of psychoneurotic anxiety, was found upon examination to have chronic diarrhea, malaria, and a temperature of 102.2°F.

This slapping incident, although it shocked those who witnessed it, was not widely reported. Patton felt that he had done the right thing; he dictated a brief account of the episode for inclusion in his diary, and added in his own hand: “One sometimes slaps a baby to bring it to.” He then issued a memorandum to the officers of his command directing that any soldiers pretending to be “nervously incapable of combat” should not be sent to hospitals but, if they refused to fight, should be “tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

Having rehearsed his hospital scene with Private Kuchl, Patton repeated it a week later with added flourishes. Early on the hot Monday afternoon of August 10, while on his way to a military conference with General Omar Bradley (who was then Patton’s subordinate), his command car passed a sign pointing the way to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital. Patton told his driver to turn in. A few minutes later he was going from litter to litter, talking to the battle casualties and commending them for doing a good job against the Germans. Then he came to a man who, like Private Kuchl, was fully dressed, unbandaged, and apparently in good health. “What’s the matter with you?” the General asked.

When the soldier said the trouble was “my nerves” and began to sob, Patton exploded. “Your nerves hell, you are just a goddamn coward, you yellow son of a bitch,” he screamed. He then struck the soldier twice, knocking his helmet liner off so hard that it rolled into the next tent; Patton even pulled out one of his famous pearl-handled revolvers and waved it in the man’s face. “You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot,” one witness reported the General as shouting. “In fact, I ought to shoot you myself right now, goddamn you!”

The commanding officer of the hospital was incensed. Private Paul Bennett, the victim of Patton’s outburst, was a regular-army soldier with a good fighting record; he had begun to show signs of unusual nervous tension only after receiving from his young wife a picture of their newborn baby. Moreover, he had gone to the hospital reluctantly, insisting that he did not want to leave his unit. Within a week a detailed report of the incident had worked its way from the hospital through channels to Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers.