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The Story of the Legendary General George S. Patton

I met the man in my medical clinic. He was skinny and old. He looked like everybody’s grandfather. His right forearm was a mass of scars. I naturally inquired where he had acquired those.

General George S. Patton acknowledges the cheers of the welcoming crowds in Los Angeles, California, during his visit on June 9, 1945. Image: NARA

A lifetime ago this small quiet man was a member of the 5th Ranger Battalion huddled down inside a British-crewed LCA (Landing Craft Assault) boat churning toward Omaha Beach in the first wave. Have you seen Saving Private Ryan? Yeah, he really did that.

The man obviously survived the invasion as well as the hellish slog through the bocage country that followed. He lost two toes at the Battle of the Bulge and fought through the Hurtgen Forest. Along the way, he met General George Patton twice.

This early photo is of George S. Patton Jr wearing a uniform at VMI.
Patton spent a year at Virginia Military Institute before transferring to the United States Military Academy (West Point). He had to repeat his freshman year due to poor academic performance.

My friend said that Patton had an odd high-pitched voice that seemed incongruous with his alpha male persona. He told me that the man was as profane and flamboyant in person as the movie made him out to be. At one point my buddy was standing outside of a tent that had recently played host to a command briefing orchestrated by General Eisenhower. All the major players were there, to include Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. As the meeting concluded, Patton and another General walked past. They were engaged in an animated discussion about what they had just heard, oblivious to their surroundings.

My friend related that he heard Patton say, “Ike doesn’t know how to fight a damn war! We need to hit ‘em in the flanks, and we need to pound them down until they don’t have any fight left in ‘em.”

In this photograph we see George Patton in a fencing match at the 1912 Olympics.
George Patton was a born soldier and competitor. He competed in the 1912 Olympics in the pentathlon.

Back then, being a general obviously did not require quite as much political sensitivity as might be the case nowadays. Patton would not make it past captain in today’s army. However, my buddy’s first-person observations help put meat on the bones of the historical figure that was arguably America’s most audacious General.

Origin Story

George Smith Patton, Jr. was born in Los Angeles in 1885. He had a younger sister, Nita, who was, for a time, engaged to marry John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. When he was young, Patton had great difficulty learning to read and write. He had to repeat a year at West Point when he was unable to pass mathematics. However, the young officer had other latent skills that made him an exceptionally capable combat leader.

In this photograph from the Texas Mexico border, George Patton smokes a pipe. He was aide to Gen Pershing.
Lt. George S. Patton served as the personal aide to Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing during the Pancho Villa Expedition in Mexico. Image: NARA

In addition to a diagnosable excess of ego, Patton was terrified he might miss out on war. He called in every favor he could find and was eventually assigned as Pershing’s aide during the 1916 Punitive Expedition to fight Pancho Villa. That was where he first saw the elephant.

Like most young men, 2LT Patton was full of fire and vinegar. Once he arrived in theater he found a place filled with danger and intrigue. Mexican bandits were everywhere, and American soldiers had to be forever on their guard. As a result, when the young officer hit a local watering hole with his mates all wearing civilian clothes, he stuffed his M1911 pistol in his belt, just in case.

Patton already exhibited some exceptional skill at arms. He held the title “Master of the Sword” based upon his facility with a cavalry saber and was an Olympian who placed fifth in the 1912 pentathlon. Had he been given credit for two rounds that likely passed through the same hole while firing his .38-caliber Colt target revolver he would have taken gold. However, once he got lubricated at the bar, something untoward occurred and his M1911 accidentally discharged.

In this image, Gen Patton pins Silver Star on soldier for his heroism in combat.
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. pins the Silver Star on Pvt. Ernest A. Jenkins for his actions in Chateaudun, France on August 16-17, 1944. Patton’s famed revolver is clearly visible. Image: NARA

No one was hurt, but the young man soured on John Browning’s esteemed hogleg. As a result, he sent off for a Single Action Army revolver for which he paid $50. He later had the gun fitted with ivory grips and extensively engraved. He carried the weapon with an empty chamber under the hammer and used it to kill a pair of Mexican bandits. I saw the gun on display in the Patton Museum when I was kid, replete with the appropriate notches in the grips.

Serious War

Patton followed Pershing to Europe for World War I where he developed a keen interest in the burgeoning science of tanks. He toured the French Renault plant where the FT tanks were being produced and received a block of instruction on their operation. When the first 10 tanks were presented to the US Army, Patton personally backed seven of them off the train. He was the only soldier in the US Army with any tank-driving experience.

In this image from World War I, Gen Patton stands with a Renault tank, the first combat tank employed by U.S. troops.
Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Jr., poses for a photograph in France in 1918 in front of a Renault FT light tank. Patton would help “write the book” on armored warfare. Image: U.S. Army

Patton led the first US armored forces into combat at Saint Mihiel in 1918, often walking in front of the vehicles under fire to guide their drivers. In the heat of battle, he struck an American soldier over the head with a shovel to motivate him to dig and later admitted that he may have killed the man. A gunshot wound to the pelvis took him out of the rest of the war.

The Big Time

World War II was without precedent in human history. In 1939, there were 174,000 troops in the US Army. At its apogee during the height of the war, that number reached 8 million. Such explosive expansion offered unprecedented opportunities for advancement. George Patton rode that wave.

In this photo, Patton shakes hands with Montgomery in Palermo during the Sicily campaign.
Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery shakes hands with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. at the Palermo airport, Sicily, on July 28, 1943. Image: Lt. Brin/NARA

Patton’s military service in WWII has been exhaustively documented elsewhere, but here’s an overview. He served in North Africa and subsequently commanded the Seventh Army during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. The controversy surrounding Patton’s slapping of a soldier suffering from battle fatigue circled the globe. Additionally, Patton was implicated for his part in the infamous Biscari massacre wherein American troops shot Axis prisoners claiming the flamboyant General had directed them to do so during a motivational speech. However, an investigation by the Inspector General of the War Department cleared Patton of any wrongdoing in the matter.

In this photograph, Lt Gen George Patton is seated in an observation plane. He is preparing to take to the air for a better view of the battlefield.
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Commanding the U.S. Third Army, prepares to go aloft on August 26, 1944 to inspect the progress of his forces from the air. Image: Van Maanen/NARA

Nevertheless, Patton was placed in command of the “Phantom Army” based in the UK and intended to draw German attention away from the D-Day landings.

In this photo, Gen Patton talks with radio operators and correspondents from the U.S. media.
Radio commentators chat with Gen. Patton in Hershfeld, Germany on April 19, 1945. The end of the European Theater was less than three weeks away. Image: NARA

Once Patton was unleashed upon the continent, his reputation as a fire-breather veritably exploded. Patton led his Third Army on a hell-for-leather charge across France and then helped break the back of the German assault during the Battle of the Bulge. By the end of the war, Patton was a four-star General and a legend in the eyes of the American people. He famously died in an auto accident at age 60 on 21 December 1945. Controversy orbits around the details to that event to this very day.

In this sad photo, we see Patton's dog Willie after Patton died. Patton's personal belongings are boxed up and stacked next to the dog.
Faithful friend to the end, Willie, Gen. Patton’s pet bull terrier mourns the passing of his owner in this January 1946 photograph. Image: NARA


General George Patton was a visionary commander who thrived in the radical space of the war. Audacious, bold, and utterly addicted to war, Patton was a natural combat leader. Though his lack of political sensitivity nearly scuppered his career on numerous occasions, he was nonetheless one of the most effective military officers the United States has ever produced.

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