Ike's Son Remembers George S. Patton Jr.

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Patton in person was a likable man. He was the only officer in the Army that the austere George Marshall referred to by any other than his last name. Marshall called him “Georgie.” Patton could laugh at himself—so long as nobody accepted his self-deprecation too readily. Except in times of emergency, he joined his staff every night for a cocktail and dinner at Army headquarters. There he played the genial host, often answering incoming telephone calls himself. One evening, so the story goes, a caller, who obviously didn’t know who was on the line, shouted, “Is that you, you old sonofabitch?” Patton, unperturbed, took a gaze around the room and came back, “Which sonofabitch do you want?”

He was fond of his ugly white bull terrier, Willie. One day when I was one of his guests, he boasted that Willie, in a fight, had bitten off his adversary’s ear. Patton beamed with pride. “When we got in the car,” he crowed, “Willie threw up the bloody ear all over my clean uniform.” In almost the same breath, he gloated over having caught a couple of soldiers speeding in a jeep, and recounted the chewing out he had given them.

In peacetime Patton’s personal wealth set him apart from his fellows. He was allowed, for example, to maintain a string of polo ponies wherever he was stationed. When he attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, he was excused from the required equitation course.

Patton loved being the center of attention. He was notorious for using strong language, which among men was often scatological. In mixed company he confined himself to blasphemy. At parties he would sprinkle his conversation with curses until he discovered that people weren’t listening. Then he ceased swearing. My mother, Mamie Eisenhower, once said she could detect “Georgie” peeking out of the corner of his eye to see how his audience was reacting to his antics.

Ironically, this warrior who risked his life so cheerfully on the battlefield never quite overcame a haunting fear of cowardice. His recklessness on horseback was one manifestation. And he went so far as to buy a sailboat and skipper the 2,500-mile journey from California to Hawaii. As he explained to my father in the early 1930s, “I’m the world’s biggest coward, and I have to prove myself from time to time.”

When most people think of Patton, the image that comes to mind is of the flamboyant uniform he wore in World War II. Yet with the exception of the ivory-handled revolvers he substituted for the regulation Colt .45 automatic, he wore only items the government issued. His helmet liner, though highly polished, was regular issue. His brass-buttoned jacket and riding breeches were standard cavalry uniform. His wide belt was the regular “general officer’s belt.” What made the uniform seem spectacular was his ostentatious display of his general’s stars. He managed to pin 20 on his uniform—four on each of his two shoulder straps, four each on the two tabs on his shirt collar, and four on the helmet liner. And he always wore the ribbons for all his many decorations.

Patton considered proper attire part of being a soldier. He referred to Generals Terry Allen and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. as “no soldiers.” Never mind that they and the 1st Infantry Division had fought grueling, successful battles in Tunisia and Sicily. In uniform and attitude they didn’t conform to his strict standards.

Patton’s mercurial nature contributed both to his success and his near downfall. Just how emotional he could be was driven home to me one evening when I was his houseguest at Bad Tolz in Bavaria just after the fighting ended. During dinner he broke into tears twice over things he himself had just said. When it was time to take my leave, he courteously accompanied me to the door. There, with moist eyes, he expressed gratitude toward my father for making the fulfillment of his military dreams possible. “I owe these four stars to Ike,” he said. I knew, of course, that Georgie Patton had often been critical of General Eisenhower, accusing him of being overly influenced by the British. Eisenhower accepted Patton’s outbursts as simply part of his nature.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, many of Patton’s friends were concerned about how he would fare in the humdrum of a peacetime army. He settled in with his Third Army for occupation duty in Bavaria but within weeks had made headlines, opining to reporters that the Americans and British should have continued the European war—joining the Germans against the Russians. In October 1945 he made a statement that hit a raw nerve at home and abroad. Frustrated by the difficulties of administering Bavaria, he compared Nazis and non-Nazis to Republicans and Democrats.

That was too much. With great regret, General Eisenhower removed him from the command of his beloved Third Army. As my father told me that evening, he did not do so “for what George has done so much as what he will do next.” A gentle way was found to ease the blow. The Fifteenth Army, at Bad Nauheim in Hesse, had recently been converted into a study group officially called the Theater General Board, the mission of which was to evaluate the performance of the Army during the European campaign. Its director was leaving, Patton was eminently qualified, and there would be no demotion in rank.

The whole matter was of some concern to me personally. I felt sorry both for my father and for Patton, and I was also uncomfortable because I was a member of the board, now under the command of the man my father had just fired. I winced when I learned Patton planned a reception to meet the Fifteenth Army officers.