Ike's Son Remembers George S. Patton Jr.

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.”

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.

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.

He had been deeply hurt by my father’s action, but he classily hid his feelings. With his usual delight in surprising an audience, he got up at the reception and declared, “I have looked at your reports and have been SHOCKED.” Then, after a pause, he finished, “by the excellence of your work.” When we went through the receiving line, he pulled me aside for a few moments of pleasantries.

Patton may have been pleased with the work done by the Theater General Board, but that didn’t prevent him from recasting many reports to the distinct advantage of Third Army. 
He also declared he wanted to go back to the U.S. by the turn of the year. It was not to be. In mid-December he was critically injured in a car accident near Darmstadt, on the 
way to a hunting trip.

For a week, paralyzed from a broken neck, he held on to life in the U.S. Army Hospital at Heidelberg. There were heartening reports of his impish humor. At one point he refused to do something the doctor directed until he was given a shot of whiskey. Mrs. Patton arrived on the scene, outwardly the picture of confidence. “I’ve seen Georgie in these scrapes before,” she assured us, “and he’ll pull out of this one.” But on December 21, General George S. Patton died.

Many of us from Fifteenth Army Headquarters attended the funeral in Heidelberg. In a touching gesture that for me represented the Army as a family, Mrs. Patton sought out every army brat she could find so that on her return home, she could report on our well-being to our parents. General Patton was buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery.

Most of the prominent generals of the Second World War have faded from memory, but Patton’s reputation has grown, in part, no doubt, because of the untimeliness of his death. As with other prominent public figures lost at the height of their power—Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy—his mystique was never dulled by the everyday exposure that eventually relegates most heroes to the commonplace.

Yet there can be no question as to Patton’s prowess as a soldier. Military scholars such as Roger Nye and Martin Blumenson tend to see him as something more than merely an outstanding Army commander. 
Carlo D’Este names his biography of Patton, A Genius for War. Blumenson suggests in his book Battle of the Generals that Patton, not Omar 
Bradley, should have commanded Twelfth Army Group in Europe. 
I disagree on that point, but Blumenson’s judgment illustrates how the Patton mystique has grown.

His reputation has also been enhanced through the efforts of his wife and family. In 1947 Houghton Mifflin published a book carrying his byline titled War as I Knew It, based on his diaries. Around the same time, a bronze statue of the general appeared across the street from the Cadet Library at West Point, much to the surprise of many members of the post garrison.

While Patton’s abilities are unquestioned, it is his flamboyance for which he is perhaps best remembered, as evidenced by the lavish 1970 motion picture bearing his name. The film did not portray the real Patton, but it was great entertainment.

Men who once fumed over the discipline of Ol’ Blood and Guts take pride in their service with him. They have often approached me with a swagger. “In World War II,” they whisper proudly, “I wuz wid George Patton in Europe.”