By Major General Michael Reynolds
The commander of the U.S. Third Army, General George S. Patton, Jr., took no great pleasure in the end of the war in Europe; he already knew that despite his lobbying of many influential figures in Washington, D.C., he had no hope of being reassigned to the Pacific Theater to command combat troops there. As he put it to his III Corps commander, Maj. Gen. James Van Fleet, “There is already a star [MacArthur] in that theater and you can only have one star in a show.”
Patton was also depressed because he knew there would be a rapid reduction in the strength of the U.S. Army in Europe, and he believed this was inviting disaster. On May 7, 1945, he had pleaded with visiting Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson: “Let’s keep our boots polished, bayonets sharpened and present a picture of force and strength to these people [the Russians]. This is the only language they understand and respect. If you fail to do this, then I would like to say to you that we have had a victory over the Germans and have disarmed them, but have lost the war.”
When Patterson told him that he did not understand the “big picture,” but asked Patton what he would do about the Russians, he allegedly replied that he would keep the U.S. Army in Europe intact, delineate the border with the Soviets, and if they did not withdraw behind it, “push them back across it.” He went on: “We did not come over here to acquire jurisdiction over either the people or their countries. We came to give them back the right to govern themselves. We must either finish the job now—while we are here and ready—or later in less favorable circumstances.” Needless to say, such ideas were totally unacceptable to the politicians in Washington—and indeed to most of the American soldiers in Europe; all they wanted to do was to go home.
Stories of Patton’s encounters with the Russians are legendary, and some may well be apocryphal. On May 13, 1945, he reportedly entertained and decorated the commander of the Soviet Fourth Guards Army at a luncheon in Linz, Austria. Patton noted in his diary that after a bout of heavy whiskey drinking during and after the meal, the Russian “went out cold,” while he himself “walked out under my own steam…. They are a scurvy race and simply savages. We could beat hell out of them.”
The following day he in turn was entertained by Marshal F.I. Tolbukhin, a Soviet Army Group commander, who tried to get him drunk and whom he described as “a very inferior man who sweated profusely.” He did admit that the Russian soldiers “put on a tremendous show … [they] passed in review with a very good imitation of the goose step…. The officers with few exceptions gave the appearance of recently civilized Mongolian bandits.”
The most notorious incident allegedly happened toward the end of May when an English-speaking Russian brigadier general arrived at Patton’s headquarters to demand that some river boats on the Danube that had contained Germans who had surrendered to the Third Army be returned to the Russians. Patton opened a drawer, pulled out a pistol, slammed it down on his desk, and raged, “Goddamnit! Get this son-of-a-bitch out of here! Who in hell let him in? Don’t let any more Russian bastards into this headquarters.”
After the shaken Russian was escorted out, Patton is said to have exclaimed, “Sometimes you have to put on an act … That’s the last we’ll hear from those bastards.” And apparently it was.
Three days after VE-Day, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower called a conference of all his U.S. Army commanders and told them that they were not to criticize publicly any of the campaigns that had won the war and of the need for solidarity in the event that any of them were called before any congressional committees. Patton’s version of what Ike said at this conference can be read in his diary. He recorded that the supreme commander “made a speech which had to me the symptoms of political aspirations, on cooperation with the British, Russians and the Chinese, but particularly with the British. It is my opinion that this talking cooperation is for the purpose of covering up probable criticism of strategic blunders which he unquestionably committed during the campaign. Whether or not these were his own or due to too much cooperation with the British I don’t know. I am inclined to think he over-cooperated.”
On his return to Bavaria, Patton, as military governor as well as Third Army commander, moved into his new headquarters, a former Waffen SS officers’ training school at Bad Tölz, 30 miles south of Munich. Patton renamed the barracks Flint Kaserne, after Colonel Paddy Flint, an old friend and one of his regimental commanders who had been killed in Sicily. Patton’s personal residence was a palatial house on nearby Lake Tegernsee. It had a swimming pool, bowling alley, and two boats, and had once been owned by Max Amann, the publisher of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is also of interest that Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler’s wife had lived in another house on the lake, as had the wife of the infamous Waffen SS Kampfgruppe commander Jochen Peiper.
At the beginning of June came the news that Patton had been dreading. He was to return to the States for a 30-day bond sales tour. His plane, escorted by a formation of fighters and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, touched down at an airfield near Boston on June 7, where an honor guard, a 17-gun salute, and the governor of Massachusetts greeted him. The American press had guaranteed him a hero’s welcome. Rather surprisingly, Patton chose to return the governor’s hat-doffing salute by removing his own helmet, complete with its four stars and the emblems of the Third and Seventh Armies and I Armored Corps. Then, with the formalities over, he was finally able to embrace his wife Beatrice—it was their first hug in nearly three years. They were then driven through the suburbs of Boston to a ticker tape reception in the city itself.
The crowd along the 25-mile route was estimated at a million; people wept and girls threw flowers. Then, before a crowd of up to 50,000, he made a speech in which he said, “My name is merely a hook to hang the honors on. This great ovation by Boston is not for Patton the general, but Patton as a symbol of the Third Army.” The following day, the Daily Record headlines announced: “FRENZIED HUB HAILS PATTON” and “GEN PATTON IN TEARS AT HUB TRIBUTE.” This latter headline referred to Patton breaking down in tears during a speech at a state dinner held in his honor that night; he was completely overcome by the glowing tributes.
Beatrice is said to have declared, “I can hardly speak, I’m so overcome. This has been a proud and wonderful day.” But, in fact, Patton had put his foot in it again. During his first speech that morning he had told his audience that the fact that a soldier was killed in action often made him a fool rather than a hero. What exactly he meant is unclear, but needless to say this remark enraged those who had lost relatives in the war and telegrams and letters soon began to flood into the War Department demanding an apology. They did not get it.
The day after his return Patton and his wife flew to Denver and then on to Los Angeles and Pasadena. He made emotional speeches in all three places, with 100,000 people, including many Hollywood stars, turning out to hear him in the Los Angeles Coliseum. And so it went on throughout his leave—adulation from family, friends, and the vast majority of the public. To his superiors, though, George Patton remained, as in the past, a potential embarrassment—a missile that might go off track at any moment —a missile that needed to be kept under tight control. No doubt with this in mind Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson did just that at a press conference in Washington on June 14; Patton was left merely to add a few comments about the Germans and the Third Army.
Fortunately, the official aim of Patton’s month-long leave was achieved—his enthusiastic oratory helped to sell millions of war bonds and he received a letter of thanks from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. His personal ambitions, however, had not been achieved. His attempts to get an appointment in the Pacific had again failed. His name had been included in a list of six generals submitted by the War Department for consideration by MacArthur, but the Supreme Commander had rejected him out of hand.
“I’ll Bet You Goddam Buzzards are Just Following Me to See if I’ll Slap Another Soldier, Aren’t You? You’re All Hoping I will!”
Along with the faux pas committed during his Boston speech, Patton’s past indiscretions continued to dog him. During a visit to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, he rounded on the press reporters following him with the words, “I’ll bet you goddam buzzards are just following me to see if I’ll slap another soldier, aren’t you? You’re all hoping I will!” His daughter, who worked in the amputee ward as an occupational therapist, recalled later that when her father saw the soldiers there he burst into tears and exclaimed, “Goddammit, if I had been a better general, most of you would not be here.” The men, who were not looking for sympathy, cheered him as he left.
Patton is said to have predicted his own death to both his daughters, Ruth Ellen and Bee, during a visit to the latter’s home in Washington shortly before his return to Germany. He told them, while his wife was out of the room, that he believed his luck had run out.
In early July in Paris, Patton again confided in his close friend Everett Hughes that he was glad to be out of the States and back in Europe. This was despite the fact that an Army order banning dependents had prevented Beatrice from accompanying him. Patton’s morale, however, got a lift when his aircraft was given a fighter escort for its flight to Bavaria and troops and tanks lined the route from the airfield to Bad Tölz. He wrote in his diary, “It gave me a very warm feeling in my heart to be back among soldiers.” Even so, Patton was pessimistic about the future of Europe, reluctant to get involved in the complexities of military government, and, perhaps more importantly, reluctant to purge the Nazis.
In the case of Europe, he was convinced it would soon become Communist, and in the case of the Nazis he saw practical problems. “My soldiers are fighting men and if I dismiss the sewer cleaners and the clerks my soldiers will have to take over those jobs,” he reasoned. “They’d have to run the telephone exchanges, the power facilities, the street cars, and that’s not what soldiers are for.” In short, provided a German had the right qualifications for a particular job, Patton was prepared to ignore his former Nazi background. This was, of course, completely contrary to the political direction he had received from Eisenhower for the denazification of the American zone of Germany. Furthermore, his problems were compounded by the fact that Washington was intent on demobilizing its warrior soldiers as quickly as possible, thus reducing his pool of skilled American manpower.
By his very nature and background, Patton was unsuited to his role as military governor. He was not interested in the details of rebuilding a country. He had little patience with the thousands of displaced persons (DPs), whom he described as “too worthless to even cut wood to keep themselves warm,” and his growing anti-Semitism coupled with despair over the fate of Germany led him to the depths of melancholia. He wrote in his diary, “If we let Germany and the German people be completely disintegrated and starved, they will certainly fall for Communism, and the fall of Germany for Communism will write the epitaph of democracy in the United States. The more I see of people, the more I regret I survived the war.” He even accused the U.S. Treasury Secretary of “Semitic revenge against Germany.”
On July 16, the Potsdam Conference convened, and Patton, resplendent with 20 stars and ivory-handled pistols, was in Berlin to see Truman preside over the raising of the American flag in the U.S. sector of the divided former German capital. The two men did not get on. Truman wrote in his diary, “Don’t see how a country can produce such men as Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Eisenhower and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons and MacArthurs.”
Patton did not enjoy his time there and on the 21st wrote to Beatrice, “We have destroyed what could have been a good race and we [are] about to replace them with Mongolian savages. Now the horrors of peace, pacifism and unions will have unlimited sway. I wish I were young enough to fight in the next one [war]. It would be real fun killing Mongols…. It is hell to be old and passé and know it.”
In his despondency, Patton reverted to the things he liked and did best—overseeing the training and discipline of his Army, riding, hunting, and reading‚—and for exercise he added a squash court to his residence. But the end of the war with Japan only added to his low morale; on August 10 he wrote in his diary, “Another war has ended and with it my usefulness to the world. It is for me personally another very sad thought. Now all that is left is to sit around and await the arrival of the undertaker and posthumous immortality.”
Patton’s biographer, Carlo D’Este, has suggested that his melancholy and increasingly extraordinary behavior may have been due to brain damage that resulted from a series of head injuries caused by a lifetime of falls from horses and road accidents—the most serious being an accident in Hawaii in 1936 that had resulted in a two-day blackout. He goes on to say, however, that we shall never know, for after his death Beatrice refused to allow an autopsy on the body despite a request from the Army.
In September, Patton returned to Berlin for a military review hosted by the legendary Marshal Georgi Zhukov. He had lost none of his quick wit or audacity. When his host pointed out a new, massive, and very advanced Stalin IS-3 tank and mentioned that its cannon had a range of 17,000 meters, Patton is said to have replied, “Indeed? Well, my dear Marshal Zhukov, let me tell you this. If any of my gunners started firing at your people before they had closed to less than 700 yards, I’d have them court-martialed for cowardice.”
Despite Patton’s indiscretions and lack of interest in his overall duties, in August 1945 Bavaria was judged by Secretary of War Stimson to be the best-governed area in the whole U.S. European Theater of Operations (ETO), an opinion apparently shared by his deputy. But any satisfaction Patton might have derived from this report was to be short-lived. In September things began to go terribly wrong for him.
During the early part of that month he decided to visit some of the prison camps in his area holding hardened Nazis and former members of the Waffen SS. Camp 24 at Auerbach, 100 miles northeast of Munich, held former members of the 1st Leibstandarte and 12th Hitlerjugend SS Panzer Divisions, and there had already been complaints by the senior German officer of “unbearable treatment of seriously disabled comrades.”
These had, however, been rejected, and when references had been made to the Geneva Convention, the officer had been told: “What do you mean Geneva Convention? You seem to have forgotten that you lost the war!” However, Hubert Meyer, the ex-Chief of Staff of the Hitlerjugend, recalled that on the occasion of Patton’s visit things had been very different. After satisfying himself about the correctness of the complaints, Patton immediately ordered action to rectify the situation and then went further, ordering that the starvation diet, which was described by one former senior German officer as “not enough to live on, but too much to die on,” should be supplemented by American Army rations.
It was in Camp 8 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 60 miles south of Munich, on September 8, 1945, that an incident occurred which was to have severe implications for Patton’s future career. After inspecting the American garrison responsible for administering and guarding the camp, he met the German commander of the prisoners. He complained that some Germans were being interned there as political prisoners without justification. Patton is said to have told the American officers accompanying him that he thought it was “sheer madness to intern these people.”
Not surprisingly, one of the American officers, a Jew, reported the incident to Eisenhower’s headquarters, now housed in the IG Farben building in Frankfurt and known as Headquarters U.S. Forces European Theater (USFET). The complaint landed on the desk of Ike’s civil affairs officer, Brig. Gen. Clarence Adcock. He briefed Ike’s chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, who sent the report of the incident to Eisenhower who was on leave in the South of France. It was accompanied by a cover letter saying Smith thought Patton was out of control in Bavaria and that Ike ought to come back and take the matter in hand before any further damage was done.
Eisenhower returned and went to see Patton at Tegernsee on September 16. They talked until three in the morning, but there is no record of any discussion about Patton’s military governorship. They did, however, discuss Ike’s successor. The former supreme commander was due to return home in November to take over as Army chief of staff at the end of the year. When Patton heard that Ike’s likely successor was to be his deputy, General Joseph McNarney, he said he had no wish to serve under a man who had never heard a gun go off. The only jobs in which he was interested were commandant of the Army War College or commanding general of the Army ground forces. Ike told him they were both already filled. Patton wrote in his diary, “I guess there is nothing left for me but the undertaker.”
When Patton Eventually Met Dorn on September 28, He Described Him as a “Smooth, Smart-Ass Academic Type.”
Eisenhower returned to Bavaria a week later following reports of bad conditions in some of the DP camps there. The reports were true. Ike found not only appalling conditions but German guards, some of whom were former SS men. Patton tried to explain that the camp had been fine before the arrival of the present Jewish occupants who were “pissing and crapping all over the place.” Despite being told to “Shut up, George,” he apparently went on to say that there was an empty village nearby which he was planning to turn into a concentration camp for them. Eisenhower’s response is unrecorded.
By now Bedell Smith, Adcock, and others had come to the conclusion that Patton was mentally unbalanced. Adcock’s civilian deputy, Walter Dorn, was a history professor on leave from Ohio State University. Of German origin, he was determined to rid Germany of all vestiges of Nazism. When Patton eventually met him on September 28, he described him as a “smooth, smart-ass academic type.” Academic or not, Dorn soon focused his attention on the success or otherwise of the denazification program in Bavaria. He discovered that the German organization set on behalf of Patton to administer Bavaria was riddled with former Nazis. Patton had taken so little interest in the new administration that he did not even recall meeting its Minister President, a Dr. Fritz Schaeffer.
As a result of Dorn’s discoveries and the PW Camp 8 incident, he and Adcock, presumably with Bedell Smith’s agreement, arranged for a psychiatrist, disguised as a supply officer, to be posted to Patton’s headquarters to study his behavior—and, unbelievably, for Patton’s phones to be tapped and his residence bugged. It is not clear if or what the psychiatrist reported, but needless to say it was not long before the wiretappers heard their subject expressing violently anti-Russian views and even suggesting that ex-members of the Wehrmacht should be rearmed and used to help the U.S. Army force the Red Army “back into Russia.” In one conversation with Ike’s deputy, McNarney, he allegedly went as far as to say, “In ten days I can have enough incidents happen to have us at war with those sons of bitches and make it look like their fault.”
Patton held two disastrous press conferences during the following month. At the first, in Frankfurt on August 27, he “spoke out against the Russians and signed a letter proposing the release of some Nazi internees.” This apparently so angered Eisenhower that he is said to have demanded that Patton carry out the denazification program as ordered “instead of mollycoddling the goddamn Nazis.” But Patton was not going to change; two days later he wrote in his diary, “The Germans are the only decent people left in Europe. If it’s a choice between them and the Russians, I prefer the Germans.”
Worse was to follow. On September 22, Patton agreed to answer questions from reporters after his normal morning briefing at Bad Tölz. When asked why Nazis were being retained in governmental positions in Bavaria, he replied, “I despise and abhor Nazis and Hitlerism as much as anyone. My record on that is clear and unchallengeable. It is to be found on battlefields from Morocco to Bad Tölz…. Now, more than half the Germans were Nazis and we would be in a hell of a fix if we removed all Nazi party members from office. The way I see it, this Nazi question is very much like a Democrat and Republican election fight. To get things done in Bavaria, after the complete disorganization and disruption of four years of war, we had to compromise with the devil a little. We had no alternative but to turn to the people who knew what to do and how to do it. So, for the time being we are compromising with the devil…. I don’t like the Nazis any more than you do. I despise them. In the past three years I did my utmost to kill as many of them as possible. Now we are using them for lack of anyone better until we can get better people.”
Needless to say, the press ran with this story, particularly the Democrat versus Republican analogy. When it became clear to Eisenhower that the press reports were basically accurate, he was aghast and ordered Patton to report to him in Frankfurt. The weather was too bad to fly, and when Patton arrived on the 28th, after a seven-hour car journey in heavy rain, he was uncharacteristically dressed in an ordinary khaki jacket and GI trousers. His normal cavalry breeches, swagger stick, and pistols had been left behind.
Patton knew he was in trouble. During their two-hour meeting Eisenhower was “more excited than I have ever seen him,” remembered Patton in his diary. At one stage the officer responsible for USFET Civil Affairs, Clarence Adcock, was summoned and he brought Professor Dorn into the room with him. The latter then skillfully and ruthlessly demonstrated that the Fritz Schaeffer administration in Bavaria was full of former Nazis.
When they were alone again, Patton suggested that he should “be simply relieved,” but Ike said he did not intend to do that and had had no pressure from the States to that effect. “I then said that I should be allowed to continue the command of the Third Army and the government of Bavaria,” remembered Patton. But Eisenhower’s mind was made up. Patton was offered command of the Fifteenth Army— an army in name only since its sole mission was to prepare a history of the war in Europe! The only alternative was resignation.
He accepted the job with the Fifteenth Army, explaining this away in his diary by writing that in resigning “I would save my self-respect at the expense of my reputation but … would become a martyr too soon.” He went on in his diary to justify his acceptance of the Fifteenth Army command as follows: “I was reluctant, in fact unwilling, to be party to the destruction of Germany under the pretense of denazification…. I believe Germany should not be destroyed, but rather rebuilt as a buffer against the real danger which is Bolshevism from Russia.”
Eisenhower ended the meeting by telling Patton that he felt he should get back to Bad Tölz as quickly as possible and that his personal train was ready to take him at 1900 hours. Patton’s diary entry ended with the words, “I took the train.”
The following day Bedell Smith phoned Patton and read a letter to him from Eisenhower. It told him he was to assume his new appointment on October 8. When this was announced on the 2nd, many of the newspaper headlines, including that in Stars and Stripes, read “PATTON FIRED.” Some papers were sympathetic; the New York Times wrote: “Patton has passed from current controversy into history. There he will have an honored place…. He was obviously in a post which he was unsuited by temperament, training or experience to fill. It was a mistake to suppose a free-swinging fighter could acquire overnight the capacities of a wise administrator. His removal by General Eisenhower was an acknowledgement of that mistake…. For all his showmanship he was a scientific soldier, a thorough military student…. He reaped no laurels from the peace, but those he won in war will remain green for a long time.”
Patton Did Not Wish to Become the “Executioner to the Best Race in Europe.”
Patton’s letter to Beatrice, written the day after his meeting with Ike, indicates the turmoil in his mind: “The noise against me is the only means by which Jews and Communists are attempting and with good success to implement a further dismemberment of Germany.” He ended it by saying that he had no wish to be “executioner to the best race in Europe.”
With regard to the fateful September 22 press conference, Patton later wrote: “This conference cost me the command of the Third Army, or rather, of a group of soldiers, mostly recruits, who then rejoiced in that historic name, but I was intentionally direct, because I believed that it was then time for people to know what was going on. My language was not particularly politic, but I have yet to find where politic language produces successful government…. My chief interest in establishing order in Germany was to prevent Germany from going communistic. I am afraid that our foolish and utterly stupid policy … will certainly cause them to join the Russians and thereby ensure a communistic state throughout Western Europe. It is rather sad for me to think that my last opportunity for earning my pay has passed. At least, I have done my best as God gave me the chance.”
Patton handed over command of his beloved Third Army to another cavalryman, General Lucian Truscott, on October 7, 1945. It was a wet day, and the ceremony was held, rather inappropriately, inside a gymnasium. Patton made a short farewell speech, which began with the words “All good things must come to an end” and ended with “Goodbye and God bless you.” A band then played “Auld Lang Syne,” the Third Army flag was handed over, and Patton left to the music of the Third Army march and “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” After a luncheon in his honor, he left in the Third Army train for his new headquarters in Bad Nauheim, 20 miles north of Frankfurt.
One of Patton’s last acts before handing over command was to award a Silver Star to his driver of more than four years, Master Sergeant John Mims. The award of a Silver Star to Mims, who was returning to the States for demobilization, is surprising in that this medal was meant to be awarded “for gallantry in action … not warranting the award of a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross.” Clearly, as a general’s driver, even Patton’s, Mims had never been in direct contact with the enemy and therefore could hardly have been gallant in action.
One could perhaps be forgiven for suspecting that Patton saw this as an award to himself— the Silver Star was after all conspicuous by its absence among his many decorations. This suspicion is reinforced by a comment in a letter to Beatrice dated November 24: “I finally after a fight of three years got the DSM for all my people, ten in all. I think it is amusing that no one tries to get any [medals] for me. I got nothing for Tunisia, nothing for Sicily and nothing for the Bulge. Brad and Courtney [Hodges] were both decorated for their failures in this operation.”
Patton arrived at his new headquarters in the early hours of October 8. He was met by the officer temporarily holding the fort—Maj. Gen. Leven Allen, Bradley’s former chief of staff. Patton’s opening words were, “Well, you know damn well I didn’t ask for this job, don’t you?”
The headquarters was in an old hotel in Bad Nauheim, and Patton’s arrival in the mess for lunch was greeted by some 100 officers standing to attention. In a highly successful attempt to break the ice, Patton’s first words were, “There are occasions when I can truthfully say that I am not as much of a son-of-a-bitch as I may think I am. This is one of them.”
Allen wrote later: “The relieved staff roared with surprised delight. From then on it was as wholeheartedly for him as the Third Army staff had been.” But Patton was not really interested in an Army without weapons or a combat mission and consisting mainly of historians and an administrative staff. He announced that he intended to return to the States by March 1946 at the latest and that he expected all the necessary reports about the European campaign to be finished by then. Even so, he took little serious interest in the work other than to ensure, according to Eisenhower’s son John, a lieutenant on the Fifteenth Army staff, that “Patton’s Army was mentioned about three times as often as any other”—even though John Eisenhower himself “felt that the First Army had contributed more to victory than had the Third.” Few unbiased military historians would disagree with that view.
So what did Patton do with his time? He toured France collecting, according to his aide, enough certificates of honorary citizenship from cities like Avranches, Rennes, and Chartres “to paper the walls of a room,” and he had lunch with the unanimously elected president of the provisional French government, Charles De Gaulle, and dinner with the chief of staff of the French Army. Most of his time, however, was spent preparing his book War As I Knew It. Part of Douglas Southall Freeman’s introduction to War As I Knew It, which was published in November 1947, reads: “He undertook this small book after the close of hostilities and he drew heavily from [his] diary for detail. Some pages of the narrative are almost verbatim the text of the diary, with personal references toned down or eliminated.”
Although perhaps mentally satisfying, such activities did little for Patton’s morale and he soon became moody and tense. General Hobart “Hap” Gay, a loyal friend and his chief of staff, and other members of the staff noticed that he became withdrawn, often taking long drives by himself, having little to say during meals and going home early. One staff officer wrote later: ‘It was obvious he was undergoing deep and gnawing turmoil.”
Sometime in October, Patton resolved to “quit outright, not retire…. For the years that are left to me I am determined to be free to live as I want and say what I want.” This inevitably worried Gay, who surmised, almost certainly correctly, that Patton planned to speak out against Eisenhower’s handling of the campaign in Europe and against other senior officers, like Bedell Smith, Hodges, and even Bradley. Gay counseled Patton to consult Beatrice and other family members before taking such a drastic step, but it seems his mind was made up.
On November 11, Patton’s 60th birthday, he was thrilled to find his staff had arranged a surprise party. It took the form of a gala evening in the ballroom of the Spa Hotel in Bad Nauheim, and Patton found himself once again surrounded by friends and the center of attention. And then, two weeks later, he was again thrilled to receive an invitation to go to Sweden to address the Swedish-American Society. However, the trip, which involved traveling on a special train once used by German President Paul von Hindenburg, turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Patton was greeted by the chief of staff of the Army and eight former members of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon team and was later received by the king and the crown prince. He also breakfasted with Count Bernadotte and was able to enjoy a specially staged ice carnival and hockey game in the Olympic stadium. The highlight was perhaps a reenactment of the 1912 Olympic pistol competition—Patton came second, “13 points better than I made in 1912.”
Patton Was Unconscious, Bleeding Profusely From Head Wounds Received When He was Thrown Violently Around in His Seat
The Swedish trip was the last highlight of Patton’s life. His last diary entry, dated December 3, describes a luncheon hosted by Bedell Smith for Eisenhower’s successor, McNarney. His bitterness is very evident: “General Clay [Ike’s deputy] … and General McNarney have never commanded anything, including their own self-respect…. The whole luncheon party reminded me of a meeting of the Rotary Club in Hawaii where everyone slaps everyone else’s back while looking for an appropriate place to thrust the knife. I admit I am guilty of this practice, although at the moment I have no appropriate weapon.”
Two days later, Patton wrote his last letter to his wife telling her that he was coming home for Christmas. “I have a month’s leave but don’t intend to go back to Europe. If I get a really good job I will stay, otherwise I will retire.” The plan was to fly to London and then sail from Southampton aboard the cruiser USS Augusta. The Augusta had been the flagship of the Western Task Force in the invasion of Morocco.
On the evening of December 8, Gay suggested to Patton that they should spend the following day pheasant shooting in an area known to be rich in game about 100 miles southwest of the headquarters. Patton accepted with enthusiasm. He could think of no better way to spend his last Sunday in Europe than hunting with an old and trusted friend.
Patton and Gay left Bad Nauheim at about 0900 hours on December 9 in Patton’s 1939 Model 75 Cadillac driven by Pfc. Horace Woodring. A jeep driven by Technical Sergeant Joe Spruce followed, carrying the guns and a gun dog. At about 1145 hours, in the northeast suburbs of Mannheim, an oncoming two-and-a-half-ton U.S. Army truck swung across the path of Patton’s Cadillac in an attempt to turn into a Quartermaster depot. Woodring was unable to stop in time, and the two vehicles collided at a 90-degree angle, with the right front bumper of the truck smashing the radiator and bumper of the Cadillac.
Neither driver was injured, and Gay received only slight bruises. Patton, on the other hand, although conscious, was bleeding profusely from head wounds received when he was thrown forward against the steel frame of the glass partition separating the front and rear seats and then backward again into his seat. There were, of course, no seat belts in those days, and whereas Gay and Woodring, having seen the oncoming truck, had braced themselves for the impact, Patton, who had been looking out the side window, had not. He knew he was seriously injured and apparently murmured, “I think I’m paralyzed,” and later, “This is a helluva way to die.”
The ambulance, which eventually arrived at the scene with two medical officers, took Patton to the 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, 15 miles away, where he was admitted at 1245 hours. He was paralyzed from the neck down and suffering from severe traumatic shock; his pulse rate was 45, and he had a blood pressure reading of 86/60. With blood covering his face and scalp from cuts that had gone through to the bone, he was diagnosed as having “a fracture of the third cervical vertebra, with a posterior dislocation of the fourth cervical vertebra.” Whether or not the spinal cord had been transected or merely traumatized remained a matter of conjecture.
Patton was put in a crude and extremely painful form of traction that evening, and the U.S. Army Surgeon General in Washington recommended that a British neurosurgeon, Brigadier Hugh Cairns, and an orthopedic surgeon be brought in to assist. A plane was sent to London to fetch them, and after they arrived on the morning of the 10th, they advised some changes that turned out to be equally painful. Fortunately, Patton’s condition began to stabilize. After nine days of agony, traction was maintained and the pain eased by encasing Patton’s neck and shoulders in a special plaster jacket.
Beatrice and an American neurosurgeon, Colonel Geoffrey Spurling, flew in from the States on the 11th. Patton’s medical records for that day read, “Prognosis for recovery increasingly grave.” Spurling and the other doctors knew that it was impossible to operate to relieve the pressure on his badly damaged spinal cord to eliminate the paralysis. Patton, too, seems to have known that his injuries were irreversible, if not terminal. His first words to his wife were, “I’m afraid, Bea, this may be the last time we see each other.”
Needless to say, rumors soon began to circulate that the accident that had led to Patton’s death was no accident. Carlo D’Este dismisses this idea succinctly: “Those who suggest that Patton was somehow murdered have failed to provide the slightest evidence of how anyone could have planned such a caper or ensured that Patton’s Cadillac would be momentarily stopped for the passage of a train at the crossing just down the street from the scene of the accident. Other than a handful of men on his personal staff, no one even knew where Patton would be, what route he would follow, or what time he would arrive at his destination.”
George Patton died peacefully at 1755 hours on December 21, 1945. The previous afternoon it had been necessary to give him oxygen to restore his breathing and X-rays revealed that a small pulmonary embolism had obstructed his upper right lung. Beatrice spent most of the final afternoon with him but left to have supper when he fell asleep at about 1715 hours. A doctor summoned her at about 1800 hours, but it was too late. Another embolism had struck his left lung.
Patton’s body, draped with his personal four-star flag, lay in state for two days in the Villa Reiner, a 19th-century mansion overlooking Heidelberg and the Neckar River. Beatrice initially wanted him flown home for burial at West Point but was persuaded that this would be totally inappropriate since no American soldier had, up to that time, been sent home for burial.
She was then given a choice of three large U.S. military cemeteries in Europe and chose the one at Hamm, three miles east of Luxembourg City. On the 22nd, the day Stars and Stripes carried the headline “PATTON DIES,” she drove to Bad Nauheim to oversee her husband’s effects being prepared for shipment back to their home in Massachusetts. His beloved dog, Willie, was to follow later. Tributes were already beginning to flow in and would eventually include messages from President Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and the French National Assembly.
On the afternoon of the 23rd, Patton’s coffin was taken on an Army half-track to the Protestant Christ Church in Heidelberg for a short Episcopalian service conducted by two Army chaplains during which there were no eulogies. It was escorted by a platoon of the 15th Cavalry, the unit in which Patton had begun his career in 1910. Bedell Smith did not attend the service, which is hardly surprising since Patton carried his dislike for both him and Eisenhower to his grave. Only two months earlier he had told Ike, “I cannot eat at the same table with Beetle Smith,” and before he died he told Beatrice that he did not want either of them to attend his funeral. Patton could never forgive Ike for removing him from command of the Third Army.
Following the service, the coffin, accompanied by Beatrice who was supported by Patton’s old friend General Geoffrey Keyes, was taken to Heidelberg station along a route lined by some 6,000 U.S. soldiers. At 1630 hours it began its journey to Luxembourg where it arrived at 0400 hours on the 24th. The train stopped six times during the journey to allow honor guards, bands, and mourners, despite the freezing weather and heavy rain, to pay homage.
The route from Luxembourg City station to the U.S. cemetery was lined by troops from the United States, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, and the cortège was followed by Prince Felix of Luxembourg, two French, one Italian, and numerous American generals, including Gay and Truscott.
George S. Patton, Jr., was buried at 0930 hours on December 24, 1945, among other American soldiers, many of whom had died while under his command. The ceremony lasted 25 minutes. In the final minute of the ceremony, Master Sergeant William G. Meeks, the man who had served Patton faithfully as his orderly since April 1942, presented Beatrice with the flag that had draped the coffin. There were tears in Meeks’s eyes. A 12-man squad raised its rifles, and a three-round volley of salutes echoed into the Luxembourg hills. The bugler played the soft, sad notes of “Taps.”
Michael Reynolds is a retired major general in the British Army, He is a veteran of the Korean War and the former director of NATO’s Military Plans and Policy Division. Reynolds is a recognized expert on the Battle of the Bulge. He initially directed and later appeared as a guest speaker on some 50 British Army and NATO battlefield tours in the Ardennes. Since retiring from the Army, he has written several well-received books on the subject.
Updated June 13, 2017