It is 75 years since the end of WW II and the strange, mysterious death of General George S. Patton, but as in life, Patton sets off a storm of controversy.
THE TRAGEDY OF PATTON: A Soldier's Date With Destiny asks the question: Why was General Patton silenced during his service in World War II? Prevented from receiving needed supplies that would have ended the war nine months earlier, freed the death camps, and prevented Russian invasion of the Eastern Bloc, and Stalin's murderous rampage. Why was he fired as General of the Third Army and relegated to a governorship of post-war Bavaria? Who were his enemies? Was he a threat to Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley? And is it possible as some say that the General's freakish collision with an Army truck, on the day before his departure for US, was not really an accident? Or was Patton not only dismissed by his peers, but the victim of an assassin's bullet at their behest? Was his personal silence necessary?
Early in his life, Patton was a markedly insecure man, petrified by the notion of failing to live up to the standards of his pedigree. Patton was haunted by “several sets of ghosts” throughout his lifetime, including his martial ancestors, the great men of history and literature, and figures from his early years, especially relatives. As far as Patton saw it, his chief duty in life was to live up to — if not surpass — the military precedent set by his forebears. George Patton was driven by an innate sense of duty, both to his family’s great military tradition and to his country. He was fixated on the notion of reaching the status of a military legend, and driven by outdated notions about honor, drawing from the Greek concept of arête and medieval notions of chivalry, both of which had received a heightened level of attention in the 1800s. As a general, Patton measured himself against Alexander, Caesar and Hannibal of antiquity. Combat was, for Patton, the means by which to attain glory and secure his eternal legacy.
Patton was simultaneously brilliant and deeply flawed. He lived an exciting, compulsive life, never standing still for a moment, always searching, seeking, probing. He was daring and noble on occasion, like the Greek and Roman military legends he revered. At other times he was petulant and cruel, lacking in the diplomatic grace and tact that defined many of his contemporaries, a real son-of-a-bitch (i.e. “Our Blood His Guts”: They were mocking him). Patton was the kind of guy the Allies needed to get the dirty work done on the ground, but also the guy they wanted to get rid of or silence when the fighting was over. This is hardly surprising, given how outspoken Patton was about the conduct of the war — especially its end and aftermath — and his willingness to identify the Soviet Union as the next great threat to American democracy and world peace.
General George S. Patton was America's antihero of the Second World War. Orlando explores whether a man of such a flawed character could have been right about his claim that because the Allied troops, some within 200 miles of Berlin, or just outside Prague, were held back from capturing the capitals to let Soviet troops move in, the Cold War was inevitable. Patton said it loudly and often enough that he was relieved of command and silenced. Patton had vowed to “take the gag off” after the war and tell the intimate truth and inner workings about controversial decisions and questionable politics that had cost the lives of his men. Was General Patton volatile, bombastic, self-absorbed, reckless? Yes, but he was also politically astute and a brilliant military strategist who delivered badly needed wins.
Questions still abound about Patton’s rise and fall. THE TRAGEDY OF PATTON seeks to answer them.
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Prologue to THE TRAGEDY OF PATTON: A Soldier's Date With Destiny by Robert Orlando
"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived." — General George S. Patton, Jr. Speech at the copley Plaza Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts, June 7, 1945
It is December 9, 1945, seven months since the end of the war in Europe. On a war-torn two-lane highway in Mannheim, Germany, the most formidable and audacious American commander of World War II, Gen. George S. Patton, and the two other occupants of his Cadillac, Maj. General Hobart Gay and Pfc. Horace L. Woodring, have stopped at a railroad crossing to wait for a train to pass. In the silence, Patton remarked, “How awful war is. Think of the waste.”
The sedan continues a few hundred yards, passing a quartermaster depot. Something suspicious captures Patton’s attention. He is seated in the rear of the vehicle, perched at the edge of his seat. Could this have been—as so many have thought—a hidden gunman? A would-be assassin? Woodring, who is behind the wheel, turns to look at the object of Patton’s interest. In that instant, a 2.5-ton Army truck, driven by Sgt. Robert L. Thompson, suddenly makes a sharp left in front of the staff car. Despite Woodring’s best efforts, the truck and staff car collide.
Remarkably, Patton is dazed but still conscious after the impact. Through gritted teeth, he quips, “Christ, what a way to start a leave.” Patton has a broken neck. He is paralyzed from the neck down. The other occupants of the vehicle walk away from the accident unscathed, but “Old Blood and Guts” would cling to life in a Heidelberg hospital. Within two weeks, Patton is dead—an inauspicious end for a man who believed his destiny was to lead the world’s greatest army in the world’s greatest war and die, in his own words, as “the last man from the last bullet.”
“He never thought he would die in peacetime let alone in an accident,” observes military historian Victor Davis Hanson. “Patton saw himself going back from Europe as a conquering hero. He certainly did not see himself going back encased in plaster as a quadriplegic.”
But why is Patton the only one to sustain serious injury in the collision? Suspiciously, there is no autopsy after he dies.
Was this a freak accident, or were more sinister forces at play? If so, who would want to kill America’s greatest general? Patton had vowed to “take the gag off” after the war and tell the intimate truth about controversial decisions and questionable politics that had cost the lives of his men. He threatened a war with the Russians and disobeyed orders by keeping a German army intact for that purpose. Could these pledges to “out” his wartime rivals and even friends in Berlin, Moscow, and Washington have been the cause of this supposed accident? Were those who held Patton’s fate in their hands afraid of what they saw as his threat to world peace? After 75 years, the mystery remains, but perhaps now, by looking more closely at Patton’s own memoirs and those of his rivals and at Josef Stalin’s influence over FDR, Churchill, and the agreements establishing the postwar order, the mystery can be solved.
Table of ContentsTable of Contents for THE TRAGEDY OF PATTON: A Soldier's Date With Destiny by Robert Orlando
Glossary of Names ix
CHAPTER ONE The Soul of a Warrior 1
CHAPTER TWO Man Up! 23
CHAPTER THREE On the Sidelines 47
CHAPTER FOUR The Unforgiving Minute 63
CHAPTER FIVE The Puppeteers 81
CHAPTER SIX Cold War on the Horizon 107
CHAPTER SEVEN A Desk Job 121
CHAPTER EIGHT The True Cover-up 137
APPENDIX A Patton’s Bookshelf 149
APPENDIX B Timeline 153
Patton’s Speech to the Third Army 165
“Through a Glass, Darkly” 171
"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking." — General George S. Patton, Jr.
Decades have passed since I first probed General Patton’s story and learned of his World War II renown. In the years since, his legacy seems to have faded into the pages of history, as have the vociferous opinions of a general who in his time was loved and hated in equal measure. There is perhaps no greater testament to this paradox than when one of his own men bitterly wondered of Patton, “Won’t that old bastard ever get enough of war?” only to later say with beaming pride, “I’m one of Patton’s men.” Today Patton, like many historical figures, has morphed into a lifeless statue that reflects the political and historical views of our time, not his.
Herein lies the conundrum for the present writer and reader: How do we parse what is contingent and contemporary from what is enduring and ongoing? And how do we observe this nexus between war and our better angels? Is a general in 1944, who slapped soldiers for their perceived lack of courage, a beast, an abuser, or something worse? Whom should we measure him against? Certainly not the enemies he was asked to fight, those who would massacre their opponents without a second thought. So where do we begin when assessing General George S. Patton in light of changing sensibilities on the nature of war and the men who are called to arms?
Consider how many modern works on early American leaders highlight their views on slavery and force those views to the background. Once we conclude that Washington held slaves, does that negate his military acumen? Patton was a general who fought against the most tyrannical empires in modern history and witnessed atrocities that would make current political issues seem laughable by comparison. Perhaps the average college student of today wouldn’t focus on the basic context of the twentieth century, let alone the biography of one general. Yet often that same student would be quick to characterize the general as a proto-fascist and warmonger, though it is the soldier himself who knows war and is most hesitant to fight it. Alexander the Great once opined, “For my own part, I would rather excel in knowledge of the highest secrets of philosophy than in arms.”
Beyond the campus, Patton has been portrayed in film as having borderline personality disorder. While Patton certainly had a complex psychological profile, complete madmen don’t successfully lead liberation armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers or have the tactical judgment to prepare the contingency plans for offenses like that of the Battle of the Bulge, which staved off Hitler’s final attempt at world dominance.
Patton was a tactical genius, well read in both political and military history—a master of his profession. He was a Renaissance man who spoke French, romanticized the gentleman of war, and collected fine wine. He would have followed Napoleon’s admonition that
"[w]ar is a serious game, in which one can endanger his reputation and his country; a rational man must feel and know whether or not he is cut out for this profession. Peruse again and again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene, and Frederick. Model yourself upon them. This is the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the art of war. Your own genius will be enlightened and improved by this study, and you will learn to reject all maxims foreign to the principles of the great commanders."
Patton’s ethnic slurs and offensive language were, mainly, well within the mainstream of his day, long before political correctness. Though certainly his antisemitic* diatribes revealed his prejudices, they were not uncommon in his time. As his biographer, Martin Blumenson, observes, “He jumped from vulgarity to scholarship as nimbly as a cat.”
The scope of this biography eschews the need to explain Patton in the ready-made political categories of our time and reveals a common trait of great leaders: He was an enigmatic man who could not live up to the myth, an imperfect man who, in the end, would be judged by his mission, as are all great men. Indeed, it was Alexander who said, “In the end, when it’s over, all that matters is what you’ve done.” And another Patton hero, George Washington, is judged for his decision to surprise the Hessians in defiance of a king and his army and his step away from his offer to be emperor.
As biographer James Flexner offers in his introduction to Washington, The Indispensable Man:"[A]lmost every historical figure is regarded as a dead exemplar of a vanished epoch. But Washington exists within the minds of most Americans as an active force. He is a multitude of living ghosts, each shaped less by eighteenth- century reality than by the structure of the individual brain in which he dwells. An inhabitant of intimate spaces, Washington is for private reason sought out or avoided, loved or admired, hated or despised. I have come across almost no Americans who prove, when the subject is really broached, emotionally indifferent to George Washington."
What of Patton’s role in history? This flawed man led American forces across North Africa and broke through the deadlock after the Normandy invasion—actions that speak for themselves and are an essential part of completing a Patton portrait. They are well known to historians. There is no mystery as to his military prowess. He had within his grasp the capture of Berlin and Prague but was held back by senior leadership, with disastrous results.
Patton, when compared with the classic archetypes of mythical construction, could be seen as a modern Ajax, with all the gifts and flaws of a tragic antihero. Like Ajax, Patton was one who surpassed most in his originality, intelligence, and sheer force of physical vitality. He was equally undermined by flaws—or, in modern parlance, blind spots—of vanity and an inability to fully embrace how his statesmanship could be dangerous to the morale of a democratic people struggling to hold a moral boundary in a time of war. In his studies, military historian Victor Davis Hanson identifies Patton as an updated form of the antihero, as seen in modern westerns like Shane or The Wild Bunch. Like his cinematic counterparts, Patton is the one who is called in when there is no longer the means to protect the village with conventional justice. What’s needed is someone on the outskirts of genteel society. Someone who might cause a moral blush in peaceful times but seduces a necessary attraction when violence is at America’s door or on the doorsteps of our allies facing the Nazis.
Moreover, Patton is forged out of a type of premodern rock from an earlier age where artifacts such as manliness and the role as leader or U.S. general would come after a life of study and the practice of wearing the mask of command. His mask was not false in the emotional transparency of the modern world but fashioned for the vital reason that the nation was being defined by war— an understanding that could have been gleaned from Patton’s own military library. From the ancient Greeks to modern times, as a culture evolves to a leisure class, one fatigued by war, Patton’s type is recast as an enemy of democracy, especially when calling out the emerging Soviet empire. Ironic since Stalin would have dismissed such notions as tripe. Patton had a trained ancient soul of war but needed to function on a democratic stage.
In his book Patton: A Genius for War, biographer Carlo D’Este describes the challenge of
"how to motivate decent young men raised on the precepts of the Bible, the sanctity of human life, and the immorality of killing to become an efficient cog in a gigantic killing machine such as an armored division. While it was enough to make their mothers cringe, the only method whereby a Patton . . . could succeed on a battlefield was to trespass on the inherent decency of Americans by training and motivating their men to survive by killing others whose task was to kill them. Patton did it as well or better than virtually anyone else."
But there is a final chapter to his life that is lesser known and is often lost in the retelling of World War II. It was after the war’s end, when he was assigned as governor of Bavaria and asked to transform himself from battlefield leader of thousands of troops to an administrator juggling the mundane tasks of waste management, utilities provision, and population control. Here we find a hidden chapter: Patton had ideas of what to do in the war’s aftermath, warning that the Soviets would pick up exactly where the Nazis had left off. He no longer had the guns to win battles, but he had a microphone, his rhetoric, and his instincts. Repeatedly, however, his microphone was turned off. He was commanded to be quiet. Why? Why were we so threatened by a prescient patriot who was TIME magazine’s Man of the Year? What made his insights so dangerous that many have come to believe his accidental death might not have been an accident? The purpose of this book is to dig deep and, as Hamlet said, “delve one yard below their mines,” beneath the binary categories of today’s politics, and to explode retrograde righteousness for its lack of perspective and unwillingness to embrace human complexity.
When we hear adamant and abrasive voices like Patton’s, we have a choice. We can change the channel and consign them to the rantings of racists, ascendant white European males, and the “unenlightened” of an earlier time. Or we can be courageous enough to recognize that the wheels of time grind in circles, and what seems only of the past will soon come around again. And that time might require a not-so-polished leader to redirect our peacetime sensibilities. Better to learn and prepare than to deny and hope.
As a general, Patton measured himself against the military legends of antiquity. Indeed, from an early age, he was moved by the words of Thucydides from his chronicling of the “Funeral Oration of Pericles” in The History of the Peloponnesian War:
"For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war."
Patton would have appreciated similar sentiments on his own tombstone and would allow his own life to speak for itself. But the study of history, he believed, was not merely for the sake of understanding and informing, as is apparent from the library he amassed and consulted religiously. Rather, he believed what Alfred Thayer Mahan writes in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, “The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.” But it was not solely an intellectual knowledge that motivated Patton. As military historian John Keegan writes, there is a distinction between an intellect and a leader: “Mankind, if it is to survive, must choose its leaders by the test of their intellectuality; and, contrarily, leadership must justify itself by its detachment, moderation and power of analysis.”
At key moments in Patton’s career, he was prevented from fulfilling his duty. At certain times, the pauses would also delay his crafted destiny. The narrative that follows is by no means an exhaustive biography of what many historians consider to be the twentieth century’s most brilliant and controversial American general. Many fine scholars have already looked closely at the history and character of this quintessential military leader. Rather, this account focuses narrowly on the personal qualities and wartime events that prompted senior military command to repeatedly rein in and quiet its most prescient warrior. And finally, the account ahead explores how these matters would alter the legacy Patton believed he deserved and the extraordinary destiny he vigorously pursued.