Ike's Son Remembers George S. Patton Jr.


There was nothing self-effacing or stoic about Patton’s view of his own importance. Rather than waiting for others to decide his fate, he made use of anyone who could advance his interests. In 1942, the first year of American involvement in the Second World War, my father, Patton’s onetime junior partner, happened to be assigned to a position in the War Department where he could recommend officers for important commands. Patton’s letters to him could be termed obsequious. To Patton’s credit, he always asked only for the chance to fight. He would gladly accept a lesser position if it involved action. Ike, who knew him well, was pleased but not surprised.

Patton’s career was launched largely through his relationship with Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, future commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), when they were both stationed on the Mexican border in 1915.

Pershing, commanding the 8th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, had recently lost his wife and three of his four children in a tragic fire. As a grieving widower, he was keeping proper company with Patton’s older sister, Nita. Thirty-year-old Lieutenant Patton managed to build an acquaintance with the general.

On March 9, 1916, the bandit Pancho Villa crossed the border from Mexico and raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 Americans. An enraged public demanded that Villa be punished. President Woodrow Wilson ordered Pershing to track Villa down and bring him back, dead or alive. Pershing made up a troop list, but it didn’t include the 8th Cavalry Regiment.

Determined not to miss the battle, Patton was able to get an audience with Pershing and asked the general to take him along. Pershing said, “Everyone wants to go. Why should I favor you?” Patton’s answer was quick: “Because I want to go more than anyone else.” The next morning Patton’s telephone rang early. Pershing was on the line. “Lieutenant Patton, how long will it take you to get ready?”

“Right now,” said Patton.

“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” Pershing muttered. And then: “You are appointed aide.” Thus began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.

Once on Pershing’s staff, Patton made sure his new boss would have no regrets. He performed his missions, some of them hazardous, so boldly and well that Pershing once told a protesting major that whatever Patton ordered were his orders. On one occasion Patton took five men to ambush Villista General Cardenas, a man he knew Pershing wanted. Patton strapped the bodies of Cardenas and two others across the front of his automobile and drove them through Villista territory straight to the general’s tent. Pershing was both surprised and pleased. From then on he referred to Patton as his “bandit.” The episode reached the newspapers, and Patton basked in the public notice.

In early February 1917, President Wilson recalled the Punitive Expedition from Mexico in anticipation of the United States’ entry into the war on Germany. Within a few months Pershing was headed to France as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Patton was at his side, but not for long. From the beginning 
the two men had agreed that his position as aide was a device to get Patton overseas.

Patton joined the fledgling Tank Corps, and he was in his element. Promoted to major, he was given the command of the 1st Tank Brigade, part of the AEF Tank Corps under Brig. Gen. Samuel Rockenbach. In late September 1918, the brigade was assigned the most important tank mission in the Meuse-Argonne, that of supporting Gen. Hunter Liggett’s I Corps for the main effort up the Aire River toward Varennes.

Patton’s service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign was dramatic but brief. His style of command did not conform to Rockenbach’s conception of a commander’s proper role. 
Two weeks earlier, in the two-day Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Rockenbach had reprimanded Patton for taking too many chances. Now he exacted a promise from Patton to stay close to headquarters. It didn’t last. Patton was soon up at the front of the column, helping move a tank that got stuck crossing a stream and was under enemy machine-gun fire. Patton motivated his men by threats and personal example.

The column began advancing again, with Patton on foot. They soon met more heavy fire, and Patton experienced what he later termed a vision:

“Just before I was wounded I felt a great desire to run. I was trembling with fear when suddenly I thought of my progenitors and seemed to see them on a cloud above the German lines looking at me. I became calm at once and saying aloud, ‘It is time for another Patton to die,’ called for volunteers and went forward to what I believed to be certain death. Six men went with me. Five were killed and I was wounded, so I was not much in error.”

Before allowing himself to be carried to the aid station for treatment of his serious leg wound, Patton demanded to be taken to Division Headquarters to report the situation. He had, he announced, placed the brigade under the command of his trusted subordinate Maj. Sereno Brett. Patton’s diary shows more pride in his assessment of the danger than grief for the men who lost their lives. He spent his time in the hospital planning the use of tanks in the next war.