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.

One of Patton’s last acts before handing over command was to award a Silver Star to his driver of more than four years, Master Sergeant John Mims. The award of a Silver Star to Mims, who was returning to the States for demobilization, is surprising in that this medal was meant to be awarded “for gallantry in action … not warranting the award of a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross.” Clearly, as a general’s driver, even Patton’s, Mims had never been in direct contact with the enemy and therefore could hardly have been gallant in action.

One could perhaps be forgiven for suspecting that Patton saw this as an award to himself— the Silver Star was after all conspicuous by its absence among his many decorations. This suspicion is reinforced by a comment in a letter to Beatrice dated November 24: “I finally after a fight of three years got the DSM for all my people, ten in all. I think it is amusing that no one tries to get any [medals] for me. I got nothing for Tunisia, nothing for Sicily and nothing for the Bulge. Brad and Courtney [Hodges] were both decorated for their failures in this operation.”

Patton arrived at his new headquarters in the early hours of October 8. He was met by the officer temporarily holding the fort—Maj. Gen. Leven Allen, Bradley’s former chief of staff. Patton’s opening words were, “Well, you know damn well I didn’t ask for this job, don’t you?”

The headquarters was in an old hotel in Bad Nauheim, and Patton’s arrival in the mess for lunch was greeted by some 100 officers standing to attention. In a highly successful attempt to break the ice, Patton’s first words were, “There are occasions when I can truthfully say that I am not as much of a son-of-a-bitch as I may think I am. This is one of them.”

Allen wrote later: “The relieved staff roared with surprised delight. From then on it was as wholeheartedly for him as the Third Army staff had been.” But Patton was not really interested in an Army without weapons or a combat mission and consisting mainly of historians and an administrative staff. He announced that he intended to return to the States by March 1946 at the latest and that he expected all the necessary reports about the European campaign to be finished by then. Even so, he took little serious interest in the work other than to ensure, according to Eisenhower’s son John, a lieutenant on the Fifteenth Army staff, that “Patton’s Army was mentioned about three times as often as any other”—even though John Eisenhower himself “felt that the First Army had contributed more to victory than had the Third.” Few unbiased military historians would disagree with that view.

So what did Patton do with his time? He toured France collecting, according to his aide, enough certificates of honorary citizenship from cities like Avranches, Rennes, and Chartres “to paper the walls of a room,” and he had lunch with the unanimously elected president of the provisional French government, Charles De Gaulle, and dinner with the chief of staff of the French Army. Most of his time, however, was spent preparing his book War As I Knew It. Part of Douglas Southall Freeman’s introduction to War As I Knew It, which was published in November 1947, reads: “He undertook this small book after the close of hostilities and he drew heavily from [his] diary for detail. Some pages of the narrative are almost verbatim the text of the diary, with personal references toned down or eliminated.”

Although perhaps mentally satisfying, such activities did little for Patton’s morale and he soon became moody and tense. General Hobart “Hap” Gay, a loyal friend and his chief of staff, and other members of the staff noticed that he became withdrawn, often taking long drives by himself, having little to say during meals and going home early. One staff officer wrote later: ‘It was obvious he was undergoing deep and gnawing turmoil.”

Sometime in October, Patton resolved to “quit outright, not retire…. For the years that are left to me I am determined to be free to live as I want and say what I want.” This inevitably worried Gay, who surmised, almost certainly correctly, that Patton planned to speak out against Eisenhower’s handling of the campaign in Europe and against other senior officers, like Bedell Smith, Hodges, and even Bradley. Gay counseled Patton to consult Beatrice and other family members before taking such a drastic step, but it seems his mind was made up.

On November 11, Patton’s 60th birthday, he was thrilled to find his staff had arranged a surprise party. It took the form of a gala evening in the ballroom of the Spa Hotel in Bad Nauheim, and Patton found himself once again surrounded by friends and the center of attention. And then, two weeks later, he was again thrilled to receive an invitation to go to Sweden to address the Swedish-American Society. However, the trip, which involved traveling on a special train once used by German President Paul von Hindenburg, turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Patton was greeted by the chief of staff of the Army and eight former members of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon team and was later received by the king and the crown prince. He also breakfasted with Count Bernadotte and was able to enjoy a specially staged ice carnival and hockey game in the Olympic stadium. The highlight was perhaps a reenactment of the 1912 Olympic pistol competition—Patton came second, “13 points better than I made in 1912.”

Patton Was Unconscious, Bleeding Profusely From Head Wounds Received When He was Thrown Violently Around in His Seat.

The Swedish trip was the last highlight of Patton’s life. His last diary entry, dated December 3, describes a luncheon hosted by Bedell Smith for Eisenhower’s successor, McNarney. His bitterness is very evident: “General Clay [Ike’s deputy] … and General McNarney have never commanded anything, including their own self-respect…. The whole luncheon party reminded me of a meeting of the Rotary Club in Hawaii where everyone slaps everyone else’s back while looking for an appropriate place to thrust the knife. I admit I am guilty of this practice, although at the moment I have no appropriate weapon.”

Two days later, Patton wrote his last letter to his wife telling her that he was coming home for Christmas. “I have a month’s leave but don’t intend to go back to Europe. If I get a really good job I will stay, otherwise I will retire.” The plan was to fly to London and then sail from Southampton aboard the cruiser USS Augusta. The Augusta had been the flagship of the Western Task Force in the invasion of Morocco.

On the evening of December 8, Gay suggested to Patton that they should spend the following day pheasant shooting in an area known to be rich in game about 100 miles southwest of the headquarters. Patton accepted with enthusiasm. He could think of no better way to spend his last Sunday in Europe than hunting with an old and trusted friend.

Patton and Gay left Bad Nauheim at about 0900 hours on December 9 in Patton’s 1939 Model 75 Cadillac driven by Pfc. Horace Woodring. A jeep driven by Technical Sergeant Joe Spruce followed, carrying the guns and a gun dog. At about 1145 hours, in the northeast suburbs of Mannheim, an oncoming two-and-a-half-ton U.S. Army truck swung across the path of Patton’s Cadillac in an attempt to turn into a Quartermaster depot. Woodring was unable to stop in time, and the two vehicles collided at a 90-degree angle, with the right front bumper of the truck smashing the radiator and bumper of the Cadillac.

Neither driver was injured, and Gay received only slight bruises. Patton, on the other hand, although conscious, was bleeding profusely from head wounds received when he was thrown forward against the steel frame of the glass partition separating the front and rear seats and then backward again into his seat. There were, of course, no seat belts in those days, and whereas Gay and Woodring, having seen the oncoming truck, had braced themselves for the impact, Patton, who had been looking out the side window, had not. He knew he was seriously injured and apparently murmured, “I think I’m paralyzed,” and later, “This is a helluva way to die.”

The ambulance, which eventually arrived at the scene with two medical officers, took Patton to the 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, 15 miles away, where he was admitted at 1245 hours. He was paralyzed from the neck down and suffering from severe traumatic shock; his pulse rate was 45, and he had a blood pressure reading of 86/60. With blood covering his face and scalp from cuts that had gone through to the bone, he was diagnosed as having “a fracture of the third cervical vertebra, with a posterior dislocation of the fourth cervical vertebra.” Whether or not the spinal cord had been transected or merely traumatized remained a matter of conjecture.