Skip to comments.The Patton Legend: How It Started and Grew
Posted on 06/25/2004 8:31:46 PM PDT by xzins
MARTIN ELLJMENSON is a contributing editor of ARMY Magazine. He is the editor of The Patton Papers and the author of Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945.
When George C. Scott, in an Army uniform. bedecked with medals, appeared in front of that enormous American flag at the opening of the movie Patton he sent an immediate message to his audience. He wanted everyone to know that he was portraying a legend. In Scotts depiction from the beginning of the film., Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was a man larger than life, a mythical giant in American folk lore, a hero, almost a god. ] Seeing Scott as Patton made hearts beat faster. It provoked gasps of recognition on the part of viewers who recalled Pattons place in American history and culture. His exploits on the battlefield were magnificent. His leadership was natural and compelling. According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Patton had been indispensable for victory in World War 11.
There is a mystique about Gen. Patton. Part of it comes from the things that Patton actually did. Part of it stems from stories, mostly exaggerated, told about him.
Part of it arises from the overwhelming awe he inspired and still does.
How did the Patton legend start? What nourished it? As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel once said, a commander can work wonders if he has had the wit to create some sort of legend around himself.
There were intimations of greatness, perhaps merely eccentricity, in Pattons performance at West Point. He earned his letter in the hurdles but was better known for his prowess with the broadsword. Working the pits on the firing range, he suddenly stood erect in a hail of bullets to see for himself whether he had overcome the sensation of fear. He played foot ball, never made the varsity, yet was so reckless in practice that he broke both arms. He was always faultlessly dressed, and his exaggerated attention to his attire covered a multitude of character deficiencies that he was certain he suffered. For example, I have always fancied myself a coward, he confessed to his father.
At a lecture on electricity, when the professor demonstrated an induction coil with a 12-inch spark, a student asked whether death would result if the spark passed through someones body The professor invited the young man to experiment, but he refused. Pattons curiosity aroused, he confronted the professor after class and said that he would submit. It hardly hurt, but his arm was stiff for a week.
What struck his fellows most was the seriousness with which he regarded the military profession. When cadets marched from one class to another on campus, there was inevitably subdued joshing and joking. When I am in command, Patton wrote, the foolishness stops. The legend began at his first duty station several months after graduation. At Fort Sheridan, near Chicago, the young lieutenant on stable duty found a horse not tied and after looking up the man at the other end ... I cussed him and then told him to run down and tie the horse and then run back. This makes the other men laugh at him and so is an excellent punishment. The man did not under stand me or thought he would dead be so he started to walk fast. I got mad and yelled, Run, damn you. Run. He did, but then I got to thinking that it was an insult I had put on him, so I called him up before the men who heard me swear and begged his pardon. For an officer to apologize to an enlisted man in public was unheard of, and the soldiers must have discussed the incident at length in the barracks. What sort of person was this lieutenant?
A few months later, the enlisted men saw something even stranger: but this time they had only admiration for Pattons behavior. He was drilling his cavalry soldiers as he rode his horse when something spooked the animal, and he bucked. Patton was thrown. He landed on his hand and knee.
He remounted at once. The horse bucked again, then went down. Patton stayed on him and, as soon as be got his leg out from under the beast, stood across the animal. With Patton in the saddle and leaning forward, the horse arose, reared back his head, and struck Patton on the eyebrow, breaking the skin.
He was unaware of the injury until I saw the blood running down my sleeve. Writing to his mother, he said, I hated to pay any attention to it so kept on drilling for about 20 minutes without even wiping my face. He looked, he said, like a stuck pig. At the end of the session, he dismissed the men, then went to the troop headquarters and washed his face. He taught his scheduled class at the noncommissioned officers school.
After that, he attended his own class. Finally he saw the doctor and had the cut stitched closed.
The witnesses were more than impressed by the officer who carried on stoically despite bleeding like a stuck pig. The story made its rounds as it flashed through the barracks, gaining increasingly lurid details. But the overriding thought was: here was a leader one could count on when the going got rough.
He stayed at Fort Sheridan two years, a shorter than normal tour, for he aspired to be elsewhere, specifically, Washington, DC, where the important people lived, nearer God, as he said. His connections, plus those of his wife, engineered the transfer. They were both happy to be out of the provinces, away from the dust and the mud of a typical Army post.
Arriving in the nations capital in December 1911, Patton quickly learned of the Metropolitan Clubs high social standing and joined. He and his wife became members of the chic Chevy Chase Club. He soon met and rode horses for exercise with the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Leonard Wood and other dignitaries who occupied lofty positions in government and the military.
After four months at Fort Myer across the Potomac River in Virginia, Patton was being considered for a most interesting duty. He was being talked about as a possible participant in the Olympic Games to he held in Stockholm that year, 1912. Athletic, likable, hand some and soldierly in appearance, Patton was selected to compete in the Modern Pentathlon. The contest, created to test the fitness of the man at war, consisted of five events: pistol shooting, swimming, fencing, riding a steeple chase and running cross-country.
He began training at once early in May, went on a diet and abstained from alcohol and tobacco. Accompanied by his wife, his parents and his sister, he sailed from New York in mid-June. They reached Stockholm at the end of the month. The pentathlon started on July 7 and lasted a week. Patton finished fifth among 42 contestants.
Although most of the press coverage in American newspapers went to Jim Thorpe, the great American Indian athlete from Carlisle, Pa., who dominated the track and field events, Patton received publicity in magazines and newspapers. His photograph appeared. His stature in the Army rose.
Patton had asked all the fencers he met who the best one was in Europe. They named Adjutant Clery, master of arts and instructor of fencing at the Cavalry School in Saumur, France, the professional champion of Europe in the foil, the dueling sword and the saber. After several days of sight seeing in Germany, Patton and his wife traveled to Saumur. For two weeks, until they had to board their ship in August to return home, Patton took daily lessons from Clery not only to perfect his fencing but also to learn how Clery taught his students.
Once again in Washington, Patton wrote a report to the Adjutant General and stressed the advantages of Clerys system over the methods used in the U.S. Army. The paper was lucid and well written, and it eventually advanced his career. His superior officers at Fort Myer wanted him to expand his reports on the Olympics and the saber into an article for the Army and Navy Journal. They were talking of adopting a new saber he designed for the cavalry branch.
As his skill and experience as a swordsman gained wider currency, Patton wrote an article published in the Cavalry Journal. In March 1913, as a connoisseur of the sword, he was put on detached service for three days at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts to make certain that the specifications were followed in the manufacture of the new sword named the Patton saber.
On June 25, 1913, four years out of West Point and still a second lieutenant, Patton received a War Department order directing him to go to France for the purpose of perfecting yourself in swordsmanship. His travel was to be at no expense to the government. He was to return to the United States and be at Fort Riley, Kan., no later than October 1.
The campaign he had waged at Fort Myer and the War Department had come to fruition. He had preached the idea of introducing a course in swordsmanship at the Mounted Service School (later renamed the Cavalry School). His published articles on the saber and his work in designing the new model indicated that he should conduct the new course himself.
Patton and his wife sailed in July 1913. They reached Saumur at the end of the month. Patton worked with Clery through August.
They boarded their ship to return home on September 10. For two years at Fort Riley, Patton held the exalted title Master of the Sword. He was the first to be so named. He was still a second lieutenant. He taught swordsmanship at the Cavalry School. He was at the same time a student in the first and second years of the advanced course of study
The outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 excited him. Learning that his regiment was to be sent to the Philippine Islands in 1915, and seeing no reason to be on the other side of the globe, Patton used his pull and worked a transfer to the 8th Cavalry, which was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. In command of the post was Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing.
Several noteworthy events occurred there. Patton passed the promotion tests and became a first lieutenant. His sister Anita visited, and she and Pershing fell in love. Patton came to know Pershing sufficiently well to be appointed an unofficial aide and to accompany Pershing into Mexico on the Punitive Expedition in 1916.
The highlight of what turned out to be a monotonous and boring campaign against Pancho Villa, an endeavor devoid of news worthy items, was Pattons exploit at the Rubio Ranch. Sent to purchase corn, Patton, traveling in command of three automobiles and nine men, trapped and killed three Villista soldiers in a striking gunfight. Pattons men strapped the bodies across the hoods of their cars and returned to camp with their trophies. In the absence of anything else resembling news, the correspondents with Pershing played up the incident. For two weeks, the newspapers across the nation featured Pattons photograph and exuberant remarks, as well as Pershings satisfaction.
Patton traveled with Pershing to France in 1917 after America entered the war. He was the first person to join the Tank Corps, American Expeditionary Forces. In command of the light tanks, Patton headed a school and trained his tankers for combat. His trademarks for soldiers -- cleanliness, discipline and military courtesy -- were more than apparent in camp. His soldiers adored him. With high morale, they were anxious and eager to fight, to move forward aggressively and to close with the enemy. They performed exceptionally well when they were committed to battle.
During the St. Mihiel offensive, Patton contributed to his legend. Walking along the front, making sure that his tankers were attacking, he noticed that enemy shells were keeping some of his tanks from crossing a bridge and entering into the Village of Essey. He hurried there and learned that the Germans had mined the structure, preparing it for demolition. Disregarding the information, Patton walked across. Nothing happened. No explosives detonated. The tankers, who had expected Patton to be blown sky high, quickly followed him into the village where numerous enemy soldiers surrendered. Afterwards, when the men talked about Essey, they always enthused, with great admiration, over Pattons heroism.
At the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Patton again distinguished himself. Together with his orderly and another officer, while machine-gun bullets spattered around them, Patton got soldiers to dig down the sides of two enormous trenches so that five tanks, stopped by the obstacle, could proceed. Miraculously unharmed, they followed the tanks up a small hill. With about 100 infantry soldiers from various units heeding his voice, Patton led them across the top. Incoming machine-gun fire sent them diving to the ground. After a moment, Patton stood. Waving his walking stick and shouting Lets go, he strode forward. Six men were with him, until, one by one, they were wounded or killed. Finally, Patton, too, took a bullet through his thigh. He fell. His orderly, still unhurt, helped him into a shell hole, cut his trousers and bandaged Pattons wound. Patton continued to direct the battle in his vicinity by indicating the locations of nearby enemy machine-gun positions.
Finally, several hours later when the firing died down, four men carried Patton on a stretcher three kilometers to an ambulance station. He insisted on being driven to the headquarters of the division his tankers were supporting so that he could report on the situation as he saw it. Then he was evacuated to a hospital in the rear.
At the end of the war, Patton was a full colonel. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for exceptional bravery in combat. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for excellence in performing duties of high responsibility.
During the interwar period, Patton was little known outside the Army. Among the officers, he was regarded as a polo player, a horseman and a yachtsman. His highjinks, exuberance and grandstanding were the marks of an eccentric, a playboy, a socialite. Yet his dedication to his profession remained firm. He read extensively. He exchanged serious ideas with others similarly motivated. He maintained his ability to inspire those who worked with him.
Finally in June 1940, after the Germans overran Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, with his old friend Henry L. Stimson once again the Secretary of War and his World War I colleague Gen. George C. Marshall the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Patton was called to serve again with tanks.
His rise in command was rapid, from brigade to division to corps. He opened and ran a vast desert training center in the southwestern part of the United States, and, according to the soldiers who passed through, Patton was everywhere at once. During the maneuvers of 1941, he again became prominent. Stories about him as well as his photograph appeared in the press, and the legends arose around him. He supposedly purchased fuel for his tanks from gas stations and bought sparkplugs and spare parts from Sears Roebuck. His profanity became explosive.
His landings in Morocco heightened his fame. His service in Tunisia turned a defeated and demoralized II Corps around and made it proficient for battle in 11 days. He ran wild in Sicily and entered Messina ahead of Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery. He transformed a local breakthrough in Normandy into a theater-wide breakout and pursuit of the enemy almost to the German border. He swung his Third Army 90 degrees to the north, no mean feat, and, without prior reconnaissance, over roads slippery with ice and fields covered with snow, relieved the surrounded and besieged Americans in Bastogne. He slashed into Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Shortly after the end of the war, in December 1945, a freak automobile accident fatally injured him. He lingered for 11 days before dying in the hospital. During that pause before his death, the news media around the world reminded their readers and listeners at length of Pattons achievements, of his personality, of his legendary being.
In August 1944, a radio broadcaster had described Patton in extravagant fashion. A fiction writer couldnt create him. History itself hasnt matched him. Hes colorful, fabulous. Hes dynamite ... hes a warring, roaring comet ... his eyes glare and he roars encouragement, orders, advice and oaths all at once ... Yes, Patton will be a legend.
He was called Blood and Guts, Georgie, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, the Green Hornet, the Man from Mars and Iron Pants.
More significantly his reputation reached the other side of the hill. Patton was the Allied general in World War II whom the Germans feared most. As Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt acknowledged immediately after the war during an interrogation, Patton, he was your best.
A friend assessed him shortly after Patton passed away: He experimented with and cultivated the art of the spectacular just as earnestly and purposefully as he developed his mastery of weapons, tactics, military history and battle psychology ... [He] courted every form of personal danger in order to crush out of his own heart any vestige of the fear which he knew to be the greatest of all enemies in war he was also made for friendship, for kindly affection and for sympathy with the underdog ... [He leaves] a vacancy that cannot be filled except through reflection upon his heroic example.
As a member of his Third Army explained, The true basis of Pattons esteem among the rank and file ... [ the reason why] he was an eagerly followed commander [was] not because of his theatrics, but simply because he had demonstrated beyond question that he knew how to lick the Germans better than anyone else.
He has become, in the final analysis, a man of force and of execution, as well as a myth.
July 2004 ARMY 29
In any case, I scanned it and tried to correct the mistakes made by the text recognition software. Forgive if there are some remaining.
I wonder what Gen Patton would be encouraging about the War on Terror and the Iraqi Campaign within that war?
He was "Monty's" favorite guy?
Answer: His favored 'love it'.
Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
He, of course, bleeped out the "bad words," but his friends were cracking up along with my son at that quote. Then my son said, "Patton was the funniest general ever!" LOL! I didn't even know my son knew anything about him.
Bumpt to read..Thank you for posting this!
It's an awesome thing for a private to realize that his boss doesn't view him as cannon fodder, but acknowledges that he needs him alive to kill the bad guys.
Bumping. Thanks for the post.
God appoints the right people at the right times for a purpose. George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few.
Speaking of whom, I wonder what the three are talking about right now.
Thanks for taking the time to scan, correct, and post this article!
See Larry's #10.
Interestingly, I've believed this same thing for years. Just a note for another day, another thread: "Does God 'groom' some men for certain roles AND directly 'plan' others (Cyrus, Alexander)?
The General left the window, and again seated himself at his desk, leaned back in his swivel chair, toying with a long lead pencil between his index fingers.
Chaplain, I am a strong believer in Prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by Praying. Any great military operation takes careful planning, or thinking. Then you must have well-trained troops to carry it out: that's working. But between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown. That unknown spells defeat or victory, success or failure. It is the reaction of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes. Some people call that getting the breaks; I call it God. God has His part, or margin in everything, That's where prayer comes in. Up to now, in the Third Army, God has been very good to us. We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats, no famine, no epidemics. This is because a lot of people back home are praying for us. We were lucky in Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy. Simply because people prayed. But we have to pray for ourselves, too. A good soldier is not made merely by making him think and work. There is something in every soldier that goes deeper than thinking or working--it's his "guts." It is something that he has built in there: it is a world of truth and power that is higher than himself. Great living is not all output of thought and work. A man has to have intake as well. I don't know what you it, but I call it Religion, Prayer, or God.
He talked about Gideon in the Bible, said that men should pray no matter where they were, in church or out of it, that if they did not pray, sooner or later they would "crack up." To all this I commented agreement, that one of the major training objectives of my office was to help soldiers recover and make their lives effective in this third realm, prayer. It would do no harm to re-impress this training on chaplains. We had about 486 chaplains in the Third Army at that time, representing 32 denominations. Once the Third Army had become operational, my mode of contact with the chaplains had been chiefly through Training Letters issued from time to time to the Chaplains in the four corps and the 22 to 26 divisions comprising the Third Army. Each treated of a variety of subjects of corrective or training value to a chaplain working with troops in the field. [Patton continued:]
I wish you would put out a Training Letter on this subject of Prayer to all the chaplains; write about nothing else, just the importance of prayer. Let me see it before you send it. We've got to get not only the chaplains but every man in the Third Army to pray. We must ask God to stop these rains. These rains are that margin that hold defeat or victory. If we all pray, it will be like what Dr. Carrel said [the allusion was to a press quote some days previously when Dr. Alexis Carrel, one of the foremost scientists, described prayer "as one of the most powerful forms of energy man can generate"], it will be like plugging in on a current whose source is in Heaven. I believe that prayer completes that circuit. It is power.
With that the General arose from his chair, a sign that the interview was ended. I returned to my field desk, typed Training Letter No. 5 while the "copy" was "hot," touching on some or all of the General's reverie on Prayer, and after staff processing, presented it to General Patton on the next day. The General read it and without change directed that it be circulated not only to the 486 chaplains, but to every organization commander down to and including the regimental level. Three thousand two hundred copies were distributed to every unit in the Third Army over my signature as Third Army Chaplain. Strictly speaking, it was the Army Commander's letter, not mine. Due to the fact that the order came directly from General Patton, distribution was completed on December 11 and 12 in advance of its date line, December 14, 1944. Titled "Training Letter No. 5," with the salutary "Chaplains of the Third Army," the letter continued: "At this stage of the operations I would call upon the chaplains and the men of the Third United States Army to focus their attention on the importance of prayer.
"Our glorious march from the Normandy Beach across France to where we stand, before and beyond the Siegfried Line, with the wreckage of the German Army behind us should convince the most skeptical soldier that God has ridden with our banner. Pestilence and famine have not touched us. We have continued in unity of purpose. We have had no quitters; and our leadership has been masterful. The Third Army has no roster of Retreats. None of Defeats. We have no memory of a lost battle to hand on to our children from this great campaign.
"But we are not stopping at the Siegfried Line. Tough days may be ahead of us before we eat our rations in the Chancellery of the Deutsches Reich.
"As chaplains it is our business to pray. We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time is now to intensify our faith in prayer, not alone with ourselves, but with every believing man, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Christian in the ranks of the Third United States Army.
"Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers. 'Hands lifted up,' said Bosuet, 'smash more battalions than hands that strike.' Gideon of Bible fame was least in his father's house. He came from Israel's smallest tribe. But he was a mighty man of valor. His strength lay not in his military might, but in his recognition of God's proper claims upon his life. He reduced his Army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men lest the people of Israel would think that their valor had saved them. We have no intention to reduce our vast striking force. But we must urge, instruct, and indoctrinate every fighting man to pray as well as fight. In Gideon's day, and in our own, spiritually alert minorities carry the burdens and bring the victories.
"Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day. Pray for the cessation of immoderate rains, for good weather for Battle. Pray for the defeat of our wicked enemy whose banner is injustice and whose good is oppression. Pray for victory. Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.
"We must march together, all out for God. The soldier who 'cracks up' does not need sympathy or comfort as much as he needs strength. We are not trying to make the best of these days. It is our job to make the most of them. Now is not the time to follow God from 'afar off.' This Army needs the assurance and the faith that God is with us. With prayer, we cannot fail.
"Be assured that this message on prayer has the approval, the encouragement, and the enthusiastic support of the Third United States Army Commander.
"With every good wish to each of you for a very Happy Christmas, and my personal congratulations for your splendid and courageous work since landing on the beach, I am," etc., etc., signed The Third Army Commander.
As General Patton rushed his divisions north from the Saar Valley to the relief of the beleaguered Bastogne, the prayer was answered. On December 20, to the consternation of the Germans and the delight of the American forecasters who were equally surprised at the turn-about-the rains and the fogs ceased. For the better part of a week came bright clear skies and perfect flying weather. Our planes came over by tens, hundreds, and thousands. They knocked out hundreds of tanks, killed thousands of enemy troops in the Bastogne salient, and harried the enemy as he valiantly tried to bring up reinforcements. The 101st Airborne, with the 4th, 9th, and 10th Armored Divisions, which saved Bastogne, and other divisions which assisted so valiantly in driving the Germans home, will testify to the great support rendered by our air forces. General Patton prayed for fair weather for Battle. He got it.
It was late in January of 1945 when I saw the Army Commander again. This was in the city of Luxembourg. He stood directly in front of me, smiled: "Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would." Then he cracked me on the side of my steel helmet with his riding crop. That was his way of saying, "Well done."
Don't know if it's true, but here it is. I wonder how pilloried a general would be today if such a training order were given.
I appreciate your kind words, Cap Huff.
Sometimes we regain our resolve when reading about the heroes of the past.
One of a kind. They broke the mold with his creation.
Indeed. Thank you so much for this essay!!!
Washington, Charles Martel, Scipio Africanus. The list goes on and on.
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