Writer’s Note: Several people recently shared their “connections” to the late American general, George S. Patton, Jr. They were attending a program at the Franklin Parish Public Library that celebrated Patton’s life and legacy.
Their “connections” were varied — some had relatives who were WWII POW’s freed by Patton’s Third Army. Another’s father had flown P47s who after the war was over, was in charge of an enslavement camp filled with displaced persons, among other duties. I, too, have a “connection” with him – albeit distant. My brother is a proud “Screaming Eagle” – a former paratrooper in the 101st Airborne.
Studying a life of heroism like Patton’s reminds us what it means to be willing to serve one’s country. Too often these days, it seems like a very vocal part of our society just wants to know what’s in it for them. — GP
General George Patton
Recurring dates in history fascinate me. George S. Patton, Jr. was born on November 11, 1885. WWI ended on November 11, 1918, when Patton was 33. November 11th was first celebrated on the first anniversary of WWI’s conclusion to honor veterans. In 1938, November 11th became a national holiday. The following year, when Patton was 54, WWII began and two years after that, in 1941, America entered the conflict.
The WWII years (1941-1945) were a time when Patton’s philosophy was questioned by others who were more cautious. Patton was always direct: “We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of the way.”
A Military Birthright . . .
George Patton’s destiny was determined long before his birth. He believed in Eastern mysticism and reincarnation — but there was something more in play. Before his birth, his family’s legacy of wartime service had been established.
Patton’s ancestors were strong military men and leaders. They fought at Culloden, in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War. Patton’s childhood was peppered with stories of the heroic past, with each ancestor becoming “real” to the boy as he listened. They became his idols, and he wanted to a hero, too.
Patton’s father and grandfather graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and his grandfather commanded the 2nd Virginia Infantry during the Civil War. Stories from that period added realism to the family’s history. Patton had a great uncle who was wounded at 2nd Bull Run and killed at Pickett’s Charge. Clearly, the Patton’s fought for what they believed in.
Beginnings . . .
Although Patton’s childhood was marked by privilege, there was a shadow. He loved books that his father read aloud to him, but he was painfully slow at learning to read himself. Born decades before his condition – dyslexia – would be formally recognized, Patton’s family worried that he might be a “slow learner”, the common description for dyslectics.
Patton’s determination and intellect meant that he never allowed dyslexia to define or defeat him. His family’s wealth meant that he had tutors at VMI and West Point, and that as an officer, he had aides to help him. Even with help, Patton had to repeat his first year at West Point. His struggle was real.
Passions for fencing and polo were ignited at West Point, both of which would inform his future career decisions. He selected the Cavalry as his branch of service primarily because at that time, the horse was an integral part of warfare. Patton was a skilled horseman, and understood the tactics that saber-wielding horse soldiers used in battle. In 1912, Patton participated in the first Olympic Pentathlon at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm. He finished 5th — an astonishing achievement since he had barely 2 months to prepare for the five-sport event (steeplechase, shooting, fencing, swimming, and running).
A Soldier In Search
of A War . . .
For Patton, service meant more than pushing a pencil at a desk. He desperately wanted battle experience – his key to advancement. His chance came when Pancho Villa murdered some Americans in Mexico and President Wilson ordered a return attack. Patton was part of the manhunt. Although he didn’t capture Villa, he did lead men in battle. This earned him his first promotion and the attention of officers above him.
Patton fought this first battle not on horseback, but by automobile. It marked the first time that an Army unit would use motorized vehicles. It was the beginning of an amazing transformation that led Patton to what became his true passion — armored tank warfare.
In WWI, Patton joined the US Tank Corps where he remained until 1920 when it was abolished. He saw battle with the tanks in 1917, and realized their potential. Patton developed tactics and strategies that would best utilize their strength and maneuverability.
After WWI, Patton continued to develop ideas for tanks in warfare, even as he struggled to find his place in peacetime. He was 33 years old at the end of WWI, and had to wait until he was 56 to see battle again.
in WWII . . .
Patton did remarkable things during WWII, but most historians believe that three are most significant — Operation Torch, Operation Husky, and the Battle of the Bulge. The success of each depended on Patton’s resourcefulness, rapid decision-making, and his remarkable ability to inspire men serving under him to do that which others deemed “impossible”.
Operation Torch was the first time that the British and Americans worked together on an invasion plan. Torch’s object was to establish an Allied presence in North Africa from which an invasion of Sicily would be launched. Patton transformed Casablanca into a military supply post that supported the next phase — taking Sicily.
Operation Husky, the invasion plan for Sicily, involved Patton’s 7th Army working with British General Montgomery’s 8th. Although Patton’s role was subordinate to Montgomery’s, Patton’s quick thinking and some deep mud that bogged down the British helped Patton to reach Palermo and Messina before Montgomery. Patton’s reputation for moving men and equipment at lightening speed was made.
Patton’s march across France leading his Third Army following D-Day secured Patton’s reputation for all time. As Patton’s men were moving, the Allies realized that the Germans were also on the move. In what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton’s leadership was put to its most serious test. American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne were trapped within the town of Bastogne, completely surrounded. In the coldest winter in decades and with terrible road conditions, Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower asked Patton if he could turn the entire Third Army 90 degrees and head north toward the German forces. Patton said that he could, and he did. A relief force from his Third Army broke through the German ring and liberated Bastogne in a matter of days.
for Patton . . .
Nine months after Bastogne was freed, WWII was over. Just three months later, Patton was dead — not from a war injury but from an accident. One month after turning 60, Patton was mortally injured when the car he was riding in hit a truck. Patton was paralyzed from a broken neck with spinal cord damage. He lived 13 days.
At Patton’s request, he was buried in Luxembourg at the head of where the fallen from his Third Army lay buried.
Since his death, conspiracy theories have emerged suggesting that Patton’s death was, in fact, murder. His widow’s refusal to allow an autopsy only fueled those rumors. Much has also been made of his “erratic behavior” during WWII, with plenty of theories arising about possible causes.
I prefer to set aside all of the conspiracies and focus on the remarkable man who, according to German Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstet (leader of the Battle of the Bulge offensive), was the best general America had. Field Marshal Joseph Stalin said that his Red Army could never have accomplished the Third Army’s march across France.
It’s worth remembering that Eisenhower recognized Patton’s reputation among the Axis leaders and used that to the Allies’ advantage during the run-up to D-Day. The Germans were convinced that the inevitable invasion of Europe would happen at Pas de Calais — the shortest distance for the Allied forces to travel. Through an elaborate ruse with Patton supposedly having his army positioned at Calais readying for the invasion, the Allies were able to successfully conceal the true landing zone at Normandy.
Was Patton controversial? Yes. Were many of his methods unorthodox? Yes. Did he make mistakes? Of course. Even so, Patton was the right man at the right time to transform the horse cavalry into a mechanized tank force second to none. Without him, many question whether the Allies would have won.