By Maj. Gen. Michael Reynolds
On August 3, 1943, the day that General George S. Patton, Jr., learned that his superior, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was to award him the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism” at Gela on July 11, he called at the 15th Evacuation Hospital near Nicosia in Sicily. One patient he encountered was Private Charles H. Kuhl of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division.
Seeing no visible wounds, Patton asked the soldier why he was in the hospital. The soldier responded that he was not wounded but, “I guess I can’t take it.” Patton called Kuhl a coward and ordered him out of the tent. When the terrified soldier remained motionless, Patton “slapped his face with a glove, raised him to his feet by the collar of his shirt and pushed him out of the tent with a final kick in the rear.”
That night, Patton wrote in his diary, “Companies should deal with such men, and if they shirk their duty, they should be tried for cowardice and shot.”
A Second Incident
A week later, in the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, Patton encountered a regular army artilleryman, Private Paul G. Bennett, shivering on his bed. When Bennett said, “I can’t stand the shelling anymore,” Patton lost his temper, called him “a goddamned coward,” and ordered the receiving officer not to admit this “yellow bastard.” He then shouted at Bennett, “You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. In fact, I ought to shoot you myself right now, God damn you!”
Patton then pulled out his pistol and waved it in the terrified soldier’s face, after which he ordered the hospital commander to “get that man out of here right away.” He then slapped Bennett across the face. Not content with this, when Patton saw Bennett break down in tears he returned to his bed and hit him a second time. By then, a number of doctors and nurses had arrived on the scene and were witnessing the confrontation. It was only brought to an end when the hospital commander interposed himself between Bennett and Patton.
There was clearly no way such actions could be kept quiet for long. One of the 93rd Hospital nurses told her boyfriend, a captain in Public Affairs, and he passed the story on to American press and radio correspondents attached to the Seventh Army. On August 19, a written summary of the incident was presented to Ike’s chief of staff, confirming a similar report sent three days earlier to Eisenhower’s chief surgeon, Brig. Gen. Frederick Blessé, by the II Corps chief surgeon.
Patton Ordered to Apologize
Following Blessé’s report, Eisenhower wrote an extremely strong letter of censure to Patton. He stated that there could be no excuse for “the abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates.” He concluded “that [such] conduct…will not be tolerated in this theater no matter who the offender may be,” and ordered Patton to “make in the form of apology or otherwise such personal amends to the individuals concerned as may be within your power.”
Three days later, Patton was ordered to apologize, not only to the individual soldiers concerned, but to every division in the Seventh Army.
On August 21, Patton shook hands with Bennett and apologized, but that night he wrote in his diary: “It is rather a commentary on justice when an Army commander has to soft-soap a skulker to placate the timidity of those above.” The following day, he apologized to Private Kuhl.
Patton’s apologies to his divisions were charged with emotion. He used earthy language, and the general reaction of the troops is said to have been one of quiet indifference. In the case of the 2nd Armored, a division he had once commanded, there was general disbelief about the incidents and he was received enthusiastically. While he addressed the 1st Infantry, he was heard in stony silence and there were even said to have been a few boos. The reaction in the 9th Infantry varied. In the case of one regiment, he was cheered after his opening word and he left in tears without saying another. In a second regiment, the men released blown up condoms that floated over his head, again causing him to leave with a different type of embarrassment.
Ike Tries to Keep Patton in Service
Despite Patton’s indiscretions, Eisenhower was determined to save him “for service in the great battles still facing us in Europe,” and he hid the full details of the slapping incidents from Washington.
In a letter to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall dated August 24, he attributed the success of the Sicily campaign to Patton’s “energy, determination, and unflagging aggressiveness.”
Ike went on to explain to the media his need to keep the services of his brilliant if unorthodox subordinate and asked for their cooperation. Surprisingly, an unofficial gentleman’s agreement was reached. For the time being, at least Patton was safe from media and Congressional attention. Eventually, however, the story became public and Patton’s career was nearly wrecked prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944.