America's Wartime Genius We Love To Hate - And Hate To Love
A Memorial Day Tribute
(May 23, 2008)
Whenever I read or hear unwarranted criticism of wartime President George W. Bush by those that have never seen or been part of war, I remember another famous American that an unfortunate war also brought ridicule-- and greatness as well.
General George S. Patton—Ol' Blood n' Guts-- has been described as everything from an exhibitionist, a ham, and a colorful character to just a nice fellow, a good tactician, and America's greatest General and Commander of World War Two.
And almost certainly, one of the greatest military leaders of all time.
Jack L. Key
|He was a fearless warrior that served alongside some of the nations' finest—MacArthur, Eisenhower, Pershing, Marshall, Arnold and Bradley—and outshone them all. Well might Patton have appraised his life in the words of one of his many historic role models, Alexander the Great: “I count my victories, not my years...and whenever I fight I shall believe myself to be playing the theater of the world.” |
Patton felt at times he was also Hannibal, the great Carthaginian General, reincarnate.
A brilliant career soldier who was the first to shape and lead U.S. Armored Forces, he was an inspiring leader and uniform martinet from the famous six-shooter revolver to his shining Calvary boots, pious and profane and a sometimes embarrassment to Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. But who also said many times he could not do without George Patton.
Asked once why he carried the “pearl-handled pistols” Patton replied, “ They're not pearl handled, stupid, they're Ivory! Only a pimp in a New Orleans Whorehouse would wear pearl handles!”
Those were just some of the facets that made George S. Patton one of the most controversial leaders in military history.
Many Americans, from historians to fellow officers and soldiers who served under him, despised him while others idolized him—and a good many felt the same ways at the same time. His antics behind the lines often made Eisenhower and Bradley angry, but both were Patton's friends, and both appreciated his tactical fighting brilliance.
The unfortunate “soldier slapping” story in which he slapped a soldier that was “shell shocked” that Patton construed as cowardice under fire could not dampen the respect his troops had for him. When he apologized to an assemblage of his troops on orders from Eisenhower to do so, Patton stood on a riser and said into a loudspeaker, “I just wanted you all to see what such a mean sonofabitch looks like.”
One of my uncles was in that group of thousands of soldiers that day, and he told me recently they all broke ranks and burst out laughing uncontrollably.
Even his German adversaries came to rate him as the best General the Allies had, and they feared him and his armored divisions army. So much so that many historians credit Patton with the saving of the D-Day Invasions, even though he did not even actively participate.
He and his “paper” army were the London decoys that made Hitler and his Generals think twice—and too long—before moving their heavy armor and elite troops south to Normandy from northern France where it was thought Patton's forces would land.
Patton's son, George S. Patton IV also rose to Major General, fought bravely in the Vietnam Conflict and commanded his father's old Seventh Army, one of his first commands in WW II. He recently passed away in retirement.
From a military perspective, General Patton's overall achievements remain argumentative.
Fearlessly aggressive, he was at his best when outmaneuvering his opponents, most notably in Sicily in 1943, in France in August, 1944 and in his swift diversion to relieve the surrounded town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944. He played an invaluable role in bringing the Allies to victory in WWII.
While winning his first engagement against German General Irwin Rommel's Afrika Korps tanks and armor in North Africa in early 1943, Patton screamed, “ See that Rommel, you brilliant bastard, I read your book!” referring to Rommel's earlier book on modern tank and armored warfare.
Patton's postwar advocacy is also the subject of much debate.
He wanted President Truman to unleash him on the Soviet Union, and he vowed he would take Moscow and end the Cold War just as it was beginning. Patton did not like the “damn Russians” as he called them, and he just might have succeeded in defeating them. The Red Army was exhausted and hungry and their ranks depleted after crossing Germany and taking Berlin, while the Allies were fresh and flush with victory.
His untimely death left all such matters forever open to speculation, however.
General Patton always spoke his mind—and even his id-- with no beating around the bush. And he did not give a damn what anyone else might think.
The General's legend was revived for new generations by the 1970 film Patton, in which the late actor George C. Scott seemed to capture every aspect of him, good and bad, in compelling balance.
But then, had Patton been alive, he probably would have insisted on playing the role himself—“Hell, he would have said, who can play it better?”
DECEMBER 21, 1945
In Spring, 1945, General George S. Patton remarked to his staff “The best end for an old campaigner is a bullet in the last minute of the last battle.” But he would be denied that end in a tragic way.
On December 8, Patton's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Hobart Gay, persuaded Patton—still bitter at the loss of his Third Army and agitated over his secret resignation plans—to relax for a few hours with some pheasant shooting.
“You've got something there Hap,” Patton said, telling Gay to arrange the car and guns for the next morning, “ we'll see how many birds we can bag.”
On the cold and overcast morning of December 9, Pfc. Horace L. Woodring was driving Patton and Gay when a 2 � ton US Army truck emerged from the haze. Suddenly, its driver, Robert Thompson, made a left-hand turn to get on a side road, and Patton's sedan crashed into the truck. The only man injured was Patton.
His head struck a metal pert of the partition between the front and rear seats. After asking if everyone else was all right, the General told Gay: “What a hell of a way to die. I think I'm paralyzed.”
He was—from the neck down, and his neck was broken.
Taken to the 130th Station Hospital at Heidelberg Germany and placed in a body cast, Patton seemed to improve. But on December 21, 1945, he developed pneumonia and, unknown to the doctors at the time, a lung embolism.
That night he whispered to Beatrice, his wife of 35 years, flown over to his bedside: “It's too dark. I mean too late.”
General Patton died in his sleep several hours later. He was buried with full military honors in the cemetery for soldiers killed in the line of duty in the Battle of the Bulge at Hamm, Luxembourg, on December 23, 1945. He was only 60 years old.
Patton's dog, Willie, mourned him hard until his own death. Many relatives and friends have said the dog never again raised his head high after the General passed away and he died of a simple broken heart.
By Jack L. Key
Jack L. Key, Ph.D. is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and a retired healthcare professional. He is the author of several books and frequently writes features articles and commentary for the Internet and Prints media.
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