Ike's Son Remembers George S. Patton Jr.

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On the morning of December 19, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower strode into the gloomy school building in Verdun that housed the main headquarters of General Omar Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group. He had called a meeting of all the senior commanders under Bradley. More than just the building was gloomy; the weather outside was a dark gray, and the tactical situation facing the American Army in Europe was also dark. Adolf Hitler’s gigantic Ardennes counteroffensive had been launched three days before, and German Gen. Hasso von Manteuffels’s Fifth Panzer Army was about to surround the all-important road junction at Bastogne. The news had reached the United States, and near panic reigned from across the ocean.

This was the first meeting of the commanders since the counteroffensive began, and they had received no news to be optimistic. Perhaps to their surprise, they found the Supreme Commander in an upbeat mood. “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not disaster,” he admonished. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”

Ike’s optimism, which was based on the latest intelligence estimates, gave everyone a lift. His remark was overshadowed, however, by the falsetto voice of an ebullient George S. Patton, commander of Third Army. “This bastard,” he shouted, referring to von Manteuffels, “has put his cock in a meat grinder and I’ve got ahold of the handle!” Everyone chuckled. George fought wars with professional competence and with zest.

Eisenhower and Patton began planning to launch a counterattack northward toward Bastogne. Eisenhower asked how soon Patton could be ready. “Three divisions in two days,” came the reply. Eisenhower was doubtful of Patton’s ability to move so quickly but didn’t press the point. Patton excused himself and went to the telephone. Reaching his Third Army headquarters, he gave a simple code word, representing one of the three anticipated options he had left with his staff that morning. Thus was launched Third Army’s attack to relieve Bastogne, a feat that was completed exactly a week from the meeting at Verdun. This was Patton the tactical genius at his best.

Unfortunately, the average soldier—the GI in the foxhole—did not share Patton’s zest for battle or for military discipline. For the most part, the men saw Patton as more of an oppressor. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin, the noted spokesman for the American infantryman, once depicted Willie and Joe, his two rough-hewn heroes, sitting in a jeep (right) reading an ominous road sign with the headline, “You are now entering Third Army,” and listing fines to be exacted from offenders of regulations. No helmet—$25. No shave—$10. No tie—$25. The sign concluded, “Enforced! Ol’ Blood and Guts.” Below the cartoon was the caption: “Radio the ol’ man we’ll be late on account of 
a thousand-mile detour.”

I can well appreciate the attitude behind Mauldin’s cartoon. Just after the war in Europe ended, the bulletin board at 1st Infantry Division headquarters where I was stationed displayed an order: “Beginning immediately, all personnel will wear a necktie as part of the regular uniform.” We all groaned, hating to add a necktie to our already uncomfortable woolen shirts, and we feared more of the same. We knew that the division had come under the authority of the strictest martinet in the European Theater.

Both pictures of Patton—professional and eccentric—are valid. On one side was the craftsman of battle, a man who could keep the location of every unit and every supply dump of the Third Army in his mind at the same time. On the other side was the fanatic for military punctilio. But behind both sides was the man himself, respected by his peers, but also chuckled at. It is that Patton I would like to throw some light on.

Patton’s complex personality is best understood by realizing that all his facets were governed by total devotion to the military. Hand in hand with that devotion, however, was a burning ambition for personal recognition—which could sometimes have a humorous aspect. His son, George, my friend and contemporary, recounted an incident during the mid-1930s, when his father was commanding the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Myer, Virginia. One day young George heard sobs emanating from his father’s study. He knocked on the door and asked what was the matter. Patton pointed to a book sitting open on his desk. “Napoleon was a general at the age of twenty-six, and here I am, at the age of fifty, only a lieutenant colonel.” The son left, knowing the anguish would soon pass.

There were rumors that Patton actually dreamed he was the reincarnation of various great commanders in history, especially of the Roman Scipio Africanus, who demolished Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.E. I didn’t know the general well enough to offer an opinion on the matter, but frankly I doubt it. 
We were all aware, however, that Patton studied such battles thoroughly. Perhaps his imagination allowed him to relive the experiences of the men of ancient conflicts.

Patton’s adherence to the rigid code of military propriety was evident from his earliest days as a cadet at West Point, though he often added his own embellishments. One day during his senior year, when he was the battalion adjutant, Patton was charged with marching the cadets to the mess for the noonday meal. After they were seated, a young officer came through the door. Instantly, the cadets stopped eating and sat stiffly at attention, faces straight forward. The officer had apparently committed some act they thought merited a gesture called “silencing.” Patton would have none of it: “I felt that the cadets were misinformed upon this officer, and in any case, I was against ‘Silence.’ I therefore called the Corps of Cadets to attention and marched them home without lunch.”