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|George S. Patton
commanding General of U.S. forces during operations in North Africa, Italy, and France
George Smith Patton was born into a wealthy family in San Gabriel, California, on November 11, 1885. He grew up hearing stories about his ancestors, many of whom had earned distinction in the military, and he resolved from an early age to become a war hero in his own right. He began his military career at the Virginia Military Institute in 1904, and then at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated 46th in a class of 103 on June 11, 1909, and was commissioned into the cavalry. He married Beatrice Ayer on May 26, 1910.
From the beginning of his military career Patton showed great skill in both horsemanship and swordsmanship. Those skills led him to a fifth place finish in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. At the time, this event consisted of pistol shooting from 25 meters, sword fencing, a 300-meter free-style swim, an 800-meter horseback riding course, and a 4-kilometer cross-country run. Patton excelled in the fencing and horseback riding, but, ironically, had a disastrous score in the pistol shooting (he claimed his poor results were the result of bad scoring, not bad shooting). In 1913, Patton was ordered to the Mounted Service School in Kansas, where he became the first ever Master of the Sword; he also designed and taught a course in swordsmanship, while still a student.
Early Military Career
Patton got his first taste of combat in 1915, when he led cavalry patrols against Pancho Villa at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1916, he became an aide to General John J. Pershing, then commander of American Expeditionary Forces in Mexico. He gained Pershing's admiration when he personally shot Mexican leader Julio Cardenas during the Battle of Columbus, for which he was rewarded with a promotion to Captain and offered command of Pershing's Headquarters Troop once they left Mexico.
Patton spent most of the first years of World War I serving on the Western Front under General Pershing. In 1917, he was named as the first commander of the 304th Tank Brigade (the first ever U.S. tank corps), which fought with great distinction at the St. Mihiel Offensive. Seriously wounded at Meuse Argonne, Patton was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the war.
After World War I ended, Patton was assigned to the tank center at Camp Meade, Pennsylvania, where he met and became close friends with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was still an up-and-coming officer at the time. Patton's first brush with controversy came in 1932, when he and Eisenhower, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, used tanks, four troops of cavalry with drawn sabers, and infantry with fixed bayonets to disperse the "Bonus Army" demonstration in Washington. On October 1, 1940, Patton was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the 2nd Armed Division at Fort Benning, Georgia. In January of 1942, he was placed in comand of the Desert Training Center at Indio, California.
In mid-1942, Patton helped General Eisenhower plan and organize the Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch). Patton's army landed on the coast of Morocco on November 8. After liberating Morocco, Patton helped General Mark Clark plan an invasion of Sicily, and was then sent to Tunisia as head of the 2nd Corps. A strict disciplinarian, Patton insisted that his men shave every day and wear a tie in battle.
Patton was in command of the 7th Army, under General Harold Alexander, when the Allies invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943. Patton's troops quickly pushed their way across Sicily, taking Gela, Licata, Vittoria, and Palermo before reaching Messina on the northernmost tip of the island. Messina refused to be taken easily, but Patton's troops finally took the city on August 17. Although Patton's troops had generally performed with great distinction during the Italian campaign, one incident almost led to Patton losing his command. During the campaign, 73 Italian prisoners were murdered by soliders in the 45th Division. Upon learning of the incident, General Omar Bradley ordered that two of the soldiers be court-martialed for premeditated murder. The soldiers defended themselves by insisting that General Patton had expressly ordered that no prisoners be taken, and that they were therefore simply following orders when they killed the Italians. Faced with the possibility of having to drag one of his most valuable assets before the court of public opinion and the very real possibility that public reaction would lead to a call for Patton's dismissal, Bradley ultimately chose not to pursue any charges related to the incident.
On August 3, 1943, while visiting the 15th Evacuation Hospital, Patton came across Private Charles H. Kuhl, who did not appear to be suffering from any injuries. When asked why he was lying in a hospital bed, Kuhl said that the combat he had seen had taken a mental toll on him (a condition now commonly known as "combat fatigue"). According to eyewitnesses, Patton responded by slapping Kuhl across the face with his gloves and calling him a coward. Two days later, he sent a memo to all commanders in the 7th Army that said: "It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but are dealt with in their units. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy."
On August 10, 1943, Patton paid a visit to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital to see if any men there were claiming "combat fatigue." When Private Paul G. Bennett admitted to suffering from "shell shock," Patton called him a coward, and then waved his pistol in front of the private's face and threatened to shoot him on the spot himself. After putting his pistol away, Patton hit him twice in the head with his fist. He only stopped his assault when hospital commander Colonel Donald E. Currier intervened. Private Bennett's doctor, Richard T. Arnest, reported the incident to Eisenhower, and also gave the story to four newsmen attached to the 7th Army. Patton could have faced a court-martial for striking an enlisted man, but Eisenhower did not want to lose him and, instead, wrote a letter to Patton insisting that the General apologize for his actions. Although Eisenhower was able to convince the newsmen not to publish their stories about the incident, one of them did send a copy of it back to the United States, and Patton's actions became the subject of a radio broadcast in November.
Despite the public outcry caused by the "slapping incidents," Eisenhower still needed Patton and chose not to reprimand him. Instead, in January 1944, he sent Patton to Britain to succeed General Courtney Hodges as commander of the 3rd Army, and named General Clark to replace Patton as commander of the 7th Army. In Britain, Patton was put in charge of preparing for the planned invasion of Normandy. On April 25, 1944, Patton made a speech using obscene language to an audience that included a large number of women. In that speech, Patton also said that the United States and Great Britain were destined to rule the world. Once again forced to deal with a controversy sparked by Patton, Eisenhower was forced to seriously consider sending him back to the United States. Once again, however, his need of Patton's military skill prevented him from taking any real disciplinary action, but he did make Patton stay in England when the Allies landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Patton's army arrived in France on August 1, quickly overran Brittany, and took Le Mans on August 8. Patton wanted to lead his Army on into Germany, but General Bradley ordered him to return to Brittany and clear the region of all remaining Germans instead. Once this task had been completed, Patton turned his army around and began racing it eastward across France again. On August 30, his army crossed the Meuse River and began assaulting the heavily-defended town of Metz, which did not fall until December 13. After helping to drive the Germans back at the Battle of the Bulge, Patton's army joined up with General Alexander Patch's 7th Army, and the combined force crossed the Rhine River at Oppenheim on March 22, 1945. After liberating the Hammelburg Prison Camp, Patton pushed deep into Germany and on into Czechoslovakia before being forced to withdraw because of protests from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
After World War II ended, Patton was made Governor of Bavaria, in which position he was severely criticized for allowing Nazis to remain in office. At a press conference held on September 22, 1945, Patton responded to the criticism with the statement: "This Nazi thing. It's just like a Democratic-Republican election fight." He was subsequently removed as Governor for that comment and given command of the 15th Army.
On December 9, 1945, Patton and his chief of staff, Major General Hobart R. Gay, were on a day trip to hunt pheasants outside Mannheim, Germany. The men were riding in a 1938 Cadillac Model 75 being driven by Private First Class Horace L. Woodring; Patton was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side, Gay on the driver's side. All of a sudden, a 2½-ton GMC truck driven by Technical Sergeant Robert L. Thompson made a left turn in front of them. Patton's car hit the truck at a speed estimated at less than 30 miles per hour. At first the crash seemed minor, as neither vehicle suffered much damage. Thompson, Woodring, and Gay emerged from their respective vehicles without injury, but it was almost immediately apparent that Patton had been seriously injured. Unprepared for impact, Patton had been thrown violently forward by the crash and his head had hit the partition between the front and back seats, damaging his spinal cord. Paralyzed from the neck down, Patton spent the next twelve days in and out of consciousness in a Heidelberg military hospital before succumbing to an embolism on December 21, 1945. He was buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in Hamm, Luxembourg along with other members of the Third Army, as per Patton's request to "be buried with my men."
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This page was last updated on November 11, 2017.