George Patton: The Final Days of One of America's Greatest Generals

George Patton: The Final Days of One of America's Greatest Generals

Following his campaign in Western Europe, George S. Patton had difficulty adjusting to peacetime and was fatally injured in an automobile accident.

“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.”