Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans-George Patton

Oct 15, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans-George Patton

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, during World War II, one general stood head and shoulders above the rest: Old Blood and Guts, George Patton. When was he born and what do we know about his early years?

George Smith Patton, Jr. was born in San Gabriel, California on November 11, 1885. Unlike the majority of the Americans we have looked at in this book, Patton was born into affluence. His father was the district attorney for Los Angeles County, and his mother’s father had been the mayor of Los Angeles. He also was born into a military family: his paternal grandfather had commanded a Confederate regiment during the Civil War, and his father had graduated from a military college.

Patton’s parents had him taught at home by tutors until he was 11, and then sent him to a private school for boys in Pasadena. At the age of 17, Patton sought admission into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, asking one of California’s senators to appoint him. The senator asked Patton to first take the institution’s entrance examination. Believing that he might not do well on this test, Patton chose to attend the Virginia Military Institute (his father’s alma mater) for a year to prepare. This approach worked, as after a year at VMI Patton passed West Point’s entrance examination. But Patton’s fears of his academic deficiency proved to be well founded, as he failed Mathematics his first year at the Academy. A summer spent studying the subject helped him to pass the class during his second year, and from then until graduation he maintained acceptable grades. Out of a graduating class of 103 in 1909, Patton ranked 46th.

  1. Now, his early military career—his early battles—what was he renowned for?

An excellent horseman, after graduation from West Point Patton was appointed a second lieutenant in the 15th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. He served at bases in Illinois and Washington D.C., and then was selected to represent the United States in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. After finishing fifth in the event, Patton remained in Europe to receive fencing instruction from a French swordsman.

Returning to the United States, Patton taught fencing at the Mounted Service School at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In 1915 he was scheduled to resume his duties with the 15th Regiment, which was readying for deployment to the Philippines. This, Patton felt, would be an unrewarding assignment. Instead, he hoped to be reassigned to the 8th Cavalry, which at that time was stationed at Ft. Bliss in Texas. It is assumed that Patton desired this because he recognized that the Mexican Civil War (which had begun in 1911) might create an incident calling for an American response.

If this story is true, Patton seemed to get exactly what he hoped for when a Mexican revolutionary named Pancho Villa launched a raid against Columbus, New Mexico in March of 1916. President Woodrow Wilson then sent elements of the U.S. Army into Mexico to hunt down Villa, and Patton expected the 8th Cavalry to be part of the punitive expedition. Unfortunately for him, the high command decided to leave the 8th Cavalry on the American side of the border.

Undaunted, Patton appealed directly to the commander of the punitive expedition to be included. Impressed by his initiative, the commander made Patton one of his personal aides. Once in Mexico, Patton asked for an actual command, and was soon assigned to the 13th Cavalry. In this capacity, Patton organized what seems to have been the first motorized assault in history when he led a force of 10 men driving three Dodges on a raid against three of Villa’s men. This resulted in Patton’s force killing all three. Patton saw no more actual combat in Mexico, but his theater of operations soon changed when the United States entered World War I.

The commander of the punitive expedition, General John J. Pershing, was assigned by President Wilson to command U.S. forces being deployed to Europe, and he asked that Pershing be assigned to him as an aide. Arriving in Europe, Patton learned that the Allies had developed a weapon known as the tank.

Intrigued, Patton asked to be given the opportunity to learn about tanks. Assigned to a tank training school run by the French Army, Patton quickly recognized the potential of the weapon, and soon became the U.S. Army’s foremost expert. Given a combat role, Patton led tanks into battle for the first time on September 12, 1918. Two weeks later, he was wounded in action, but refused to allow himself to be taken to the rear for treatment. Instead, he continued to give orders from the front for over an hour before he allowed himself to be taken to a hospital, and even then he insisted on giving a briefing to his commanding officer along the way.

For his heroism that day, Patton was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. He saw no further action before hostilities ended on November 11 of that year.

  1. Taking us to World War II, what were his initial conquests, and setbacks?

Patton remained in the U.S. Army at the end of World War I, emerging from that conflict with the firm conviction that tanks would be the decisive weapon in the next major conflict. Accordingly, he pushed for the creation of a tank training center in California’s Imperial Valley. By the time of America’s entry into World War II, Patton was a major general and commanded the U.S. Army’s I Tank Corps.

When the United States launched an invasion of North Africa in November of 1942, Patton commanded the forces that landed near Casablanca. Quickly securing the beach head, Patton’s men soon occupied the city. Initially, U.S. Army forces made rapid progress in moving inland, but they were handed a stinging setback at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in March of 1943.

After the American commander was relieved of duty, Patton was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in charge of American forces in North Africa. In a remarkable short period of time, Patton restored the morale of his troops and reversed the tide of battle. By early May in 1943, American forces under his command linked up with a British Army advancing westward, forcing the German and Italian forces in North Africa to surrender. At that point, the Allies began preparing for an invasion of Sicily, the first step towards an eventual invasion of Italy.

Known as Operation Husky, the plan called for British and American forces to land simultaneously in southern Sicily and then work their way northward to the port city of Messina. Patton drove his forces hard, and succeeded in arriving in Messina before the British did. But during this campaign, Patton slapped two American soldiers that he accused of being malingerers. When the American public learned of this, many citizens called for him to be disciplined. As a result, Patton was relieved of his command and sent to England to await further orders.

  1. In terms of his personality, his ego, his audaciousness—can you say a few words about this icon?

One needs merely to read of Patton’s actions in Sicily to learn everything there is to know about the man. Possessing a towering ego, Patton believed that he had been literally destined to command great armies in battle. Indeed, he believed that he had been reincarnated, and in previous lives had served under the greatest generals in history. Through his study of the past, Patton had come to believe that “fortune favors the bold,” and his tactics reflected how thoroughly he embraced that adage. But his relentless approach to war allowed for no signs of weakness, and as such he was quick to judge subordinates unfavorably if they did not meet his goals and expectations. And as we just saw, he was occasionally verbally and physically abusive towards his enlisted men. Because of this dichotomy, people usually love George Patton, or they hate him.

  1. What were the main battles that he was involved in and which seemed to win him a place in history?

It seemed likely to many observers that Patton would never see action again after he was relieved of his command in 1943. This belief seemed validated by the fact that Patton played no role in the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944. But from what we know today, the Allied High Command had actually decided even before Patton’s abusive actions become public knowledge to give command of the invasion to the more methodical Lieutenant General Omar Bradley. Instead, he was tasked with training American soldiers arriving in England. These forces were organized into a unit known as the Third Army, and in the summer of 1944 Patton was ordered to take these men into combat in France.

Given the chance to redeem himself, Patton led his men on a whirlwind campaign that resulted in him reaching the Moselle River by the end of August. At that point, the Allied High Command ordered him to reign in his offensive so that supplies could be diverted from his Third Army to other forces attacking the Germans elsewhere. Deprived of supplies—especially gasoline for his tanks—Patton was able to move only 50 miles by December of 1944.

Unexpectedly, the German chose that moment to launch a major counter-offensive in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Because inclement weather prevented the Allies from using their superior air power, the Germans were initially successful in their assault. At this critical juncture in the war, Patton had his finest moment as a commander.

Disengaging his forces from their eastward campaign, Patton immediately redirected them northward to assist their beleaguered comrades. Largely due to these efforts, the German counteroffensive was stopped, and by February of 1945 all territory lost to the Germans was regained.

In March of that year, Patton’s forces crossed the Rhine River, and by early May the war in Europe was over.

  1. Now, his death, unlike d’Artangan who died in battle, Patton died in a pedestrian car accident. What are some of the questions still unanswered about his “death” or “accident”?

The standard account of George Patton’s death is that he was injured in an automobile accident in December of 1945 that resulted in paralysis, and this led to his death 12 days later from pulmonary edema. Since his death, however, there have been those who felt that his death was actually an assassination. Two individuals have been identified as possible suspects: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Josef Stalin.

Eisenhower, who had commanded Allied forces in Europe, might have wanted Patton dead for political reasons. This may have been the case because Patton had made comments after the war against Germany had ended in which he implied that the United States might have to fight a war against the Soviet Union because of that country’s expansionist tendencies. Eisenhower would have wanted Patton dead so that he would not embroil the United States in a war that would require Eisenhower to remain in uniform. In a similar fashion, Stalin, as the leader of the Soviet Union, would have wanted Patton dead so that he could not lead American forces into battle if such a war occurred.

In these scenarios, Eisenhower or Stalin may have arranged for someone to give Patton a lethal injection while he was immobilized. Most historians discount these conspiracy theories, but they remain a possibility.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Few American generals have been as controversial as George Patton. Clearly, he was as effective a strategist as we have ever had, and he was also a gifted tactician. He was, on the other hand, a rash and impetuous individual, one who made comments that embarrassed his superiors and threatened to disrupt our foreign relations. A man who embraced modern weapons, he was also capable of basing campaign strategies on campaigns fought by history’s great generals.

He will thus always remain a mysterious figure in our pantheon of heroes.

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