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.

Patton was put in a crude and extremely painful form of traction that evening, and the U.S. Army Surgeon General in Washington recommended that a British neurosurgeon, Brigadier Hugh Cairns, and an orthopedic surgeon be brought in to assist. A plane was sent to London to fetch them, and after they arrived on the morning of the 10th, they advised some changes that turned out to be equally painful. Fortunately, Patton’s condition began to stabilize. After nine days of agony, traction was maintained and the pain eased by encasing Patton’s neck and shoulders in a special plaster jacket.

Beatrice and an American neurosurgeon, Colonel Geoffrey Spurling, flew in from the States on the 11th. Patton’s medical records for that day read, “Prognosis for recovery increasingly grave.” Spurling and the other doctors knew that it was impossible to operate to relieve the pressure on his badly damaged spinal cord to eliminate the paralysis. Patton, too, seems to have known that his injuries were irreversible, if not terminal. His first words to his wife were, “I’m afraid, Bea, this may be the last time we see each other.”

Needless to say, rumors soon began to circulate that the accident that had led to Patton’s death was no accident. Carlo D’Este dismisses this idea succinctly: “Those who suggest that Patton was somehow murdered have failed to provide the slightest evidence of how anyone could have planned such a caper or ensured that Patton’s Cadillac would be momentarily stopped for the passage of a train at the crossing just down the street from the scene of the accident. Other than a handful of men on his personal staff, no one even knew where Patton would be, what route he would follow, or what time he would arrive at his destination.”

George Patton died peacefully at 1755 hours on December 21, 1945. The previous afternoon it had been necessary to give him oxygen to restore his breathing and X-rays revealed that a small pulmonary embolism had obstructed his upper right lung. Beatrice spent most of the final afternoon with him but left to have supper when he fell asleep at about 1715 hours. A doctor summoned her at about 1800 hours, but it was too late. Another embolism had struck his left lung.

Patton’s body, draped with his personal four-star flag, lay in state for two days in the Villa Reiner, a 19th-century mansion overlooking Heidelberg and the Neckar River. Beatrice initially wanted him flown home for burial at West Point but was persuaded that this would be totally inappropriate since no American soldier had, up to that time, been sent home for burial.

She was then given a choice of three large U.S. military cemeteries in Europe and chose the one at Hamm, three miles east of Luxembourg City. On the 22nd, the day Stars and Stripes carried the headline “PATTON DIES,” she drove to Bad Nauheim to oversee her husband’s effects being prepared for shipment back to their home in Massachusetts. His beloved dog, Willie, was to follow later. Tributes were already beginning to flow in and would eventually include messages from President Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and the French National Assembly.

On the afternoon of the 23rd, Patton’s coffin was taken on an Army half-track to the Protestant Christ Church in Heidelberg for a short Episcopalian service conducted by two Army chaplains during which there were no eulogies. It was escorted by a platoon of the 15th Cavalry, the unit in which Patton had begun his career in 1910. Bedell Smith did not attend the service, which is hardly surprising since Patton carried his dislike for both him and Eisenhower to his grave. Only two months earlier he had told Ike, “I cannot eat at the same table with Beetle Smith,” and before he died he told Beatrice that he did not want either of them to attend his funeral. Patton could never forgive Ike for removing him from command of the Third Army.

Following the service, the coffin, accompanied by Beatrice who was supported by Patton’s old friend General Geoffrey Keyes, was taken to Heidelberg station along a route lined by some 6,000 U.S. soldiers. At 1630 hours it began its journey to Luxembourg where it arrived at 0400 hours on the 24th. The train stopped six times during the journey to allow honor guards, bands, and mourners, despite the freezing weather and heavy rain, to pay homage.

The route from Luxembourg City station to the U.S. cemetery was lined by troops from the United States, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, and the cortège was followed by Prince Felix of Luxembourg, two French, one Italian, and numerous American generals, including Gay and Truscott.

George S. Patton, Jr., was buried at 0930 hours on December 24, 1945, among other American soldiers, many of whom had died while under his command. The ceremony lasted 25 minutes. In the final minute of the ceremony, Master Sergeant William G. Meeks, the man who had served Patton faithfully as his orderly since April 1942, presented Beatrice with the flag that had draped the coffin. There were tears in Meeks’s eyes. A 12-man squad raised its rifles, and a three-round volley of salutes echoed into the Luxembourg hills. The bugler played the soft, sad notes of “Taps.”

Michael Reynolds is a retired major general in the British Army, He is a veteran of the Korean War and the former director of NATO’s Military Plans and Policy Division. Reynolds is a recognized expert on the Battle of the Bulge. He initially directed and later appeared as a guest speaker on some 50 British Army and NATO battlefield tours in the Ardennes. Since retiring from the Army, he has written several well-received books on the subject.

This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Army