A Fateful Friendship

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It was 10:30 A.M. , August 17, and Patton’s men had just triumphantly entered Messina. Eisenhower was feeling friendly toward Patton, and after reading the report he said mildly, “I guess I’ll have to give General Patton a jacking up.” He then praised Patton for the “swell job” he had done in Sicily. Eisenhower did order Brigadier General Frederick Blessé, his surgeon general, to go to Sicily and conduct a full investigation, but he warned him to keep it quiet. “If this thing ever gets out,” Eisenhower told Blessé, “they’ll be howling for Patton’s scalp, and that will be the end of Georgie’s service in this war. I simply cannot let that happen. Patton is indispensable to the war effort.”

Eisenhower then sat down and wrote a personal letter to Patton. By now he was beginning to feel the seriousness of Patton’s offense and to realize that more than a “jacking up” was required. “I clearly understand that firm and drastic measures are at times necessary in order to secure desired objectives,” Eisenhower wrote, “but this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates.” Eisenhower said he did not intend to institute any formal investigation, or put anything in Patton’s official file; but he did warn that if the reports proved true, he would have to “seriously question your good judgment and your self-discipline.” This would “raise serious doubts … as to your future usefulness.”

In conclusion Eisenhower declared, “No letter that I have been called upon to write in my military career has caused me the mental anguish of this one, not only because of my long and deep personal friendship for you but because of my admiration for your military qualities.” But, Eisenhower warned, “I assure you that conduct such as described in the accompanying report will not be tolerated in this theater no matter who the offender may be.”

But by this time the press corps in Sicily had got hold of the story. The reporters had conducted their own investigation and were prepared to make it public. “If I am correctly informed,” one reporter noted, “General Patton has subjected himself to general courtmartial by striking an enlisted man under his command.” They wanted to know, a committee of correspondents told Eisenhower’s chief of staff, what Eisenhower was going to do to punish Patton.

All of Eisenhower’s famous abilities as a mediator were needed now. He called the reporters into his office and frankly confessed that he was doing all he could to hold on to Patton. He asked them to keep the story quiet so that Patton could be “saved for the great battles facing us in Europe.” The effort worked. The correspondents entered into a gentleman’s agreement to sit on the story.

Patton, meanwhile, tried to make amends. He apologized, although somewhat curtly, to Private Bennett and to the nurses and doctors of the 93rd Evacuation Hospital. He wrote Eisenhower, “I am at a loss to find words with which to express my chagrin and grief at having given you, a man to whom I owe everything and for whom I would gladly lay down my life, cause for displeasure with me.” The incident was closed, or so Eisenhower hoped.

Three months later Drew Pearson learned of the Patton slapping incident and gave it full treatment in a radio broadcast. Eisenhower’s chief of staff made matters worse when, in a press conference, he admitted that Eisenhower had not officially reprimanded Patton. Since there was a shortage of battlefront news at the time, the story received front-page treatment everywhere. Eisenhower, the War Department, and the White House each received hundreds of letters, most of them demanding that any general who would strike a private in a hospital be summarily dismissed from the service. The letter writers were especially upset because Eisenhower apparently had done nothing to censure Patton.

Eisenhower made no public defense of his actions. Nor was he willing to throw Patton to the wolves. He did answer a number of the incoming letters of criticism, carefully pointing out that Patton was too important to lose. In each case he asked that the letter be regarded as strictly personal. He advised Patton to keep quiet, since “it is my judgment that this storm will blow over.” In the end, it did.

In the late fall of 1943 Eisenhower received his appointment as Supreme Commander for OVERLORD, the invasion of France. One major factor in his selection was his ability to get British and American officers to work together, something that would be even more important in OVERLORD than it had been in the Mediterranean. For this reason he was tempted to leave Patton behind. “Géorgie” was something of an Anglophobe and loved to tweak sensitive English noses, especially Montgomery’s; and Montgomery would be one of the chief commanders in OVERLORD. But despite this, and despite the slapping incident, Eisenhower decided to bring Patton along. He told Marshall, who had doubts, that he thought Patton was cured of his temper tantrums, partly because of his “personal loyalty to you and to me,” but mainly because “he is so avid for recognition as a great military commander that he will ruthlessly suppress any habit of his own that will tend to jeopardize it.” Marshall, remembering his own earlier admiration for Patton, and bending to Eisenhower’s insistence, agreed.