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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

GUTS AND BLOOD

I think the simplest way to describe George S. Patton is in his own words: as “an outgoing introvert”. He was a poet and a life long klutz, constantly bruising himself and falling off his polo ponies. An Olympic athlete and swimmer, he lost a marksmanship competition in the Stockholm games of 1912 because he was too accurate - the judges ruled his later bulls eye shots which went through the same holes as his earlier bulls-eyes, were misses.

In 1932 he led the U.S. Army’s last cavalry charge - against a “bonus army” of protesting U.S. army veterans. He was a lifelong anti-Semite, who smuggled a copy of Hitler’s anti-Semitic “Nuremberg Laws” back to the United States so it would be preserved as an example of the dangers of bigotry. His father served under Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, and a great-uncle was wounded at Picket’s Charge, defending black slavery. But while others refused, Patton requested a regiment of Black tankers be assigned to his Third Army. In late May of 1945, when he made a brief trip home to Los Angeles, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of 100,000 at the coliseum. But despite his contributions to the victory over Germany, on October 2nd , 1945 he was removed from command because he refused allow Germany to starve (Joint Chiefs of Staff directive #1067). And on December 21st 1945, America’s greatest combat general of the 20th century died as a result of a low speed automobile accident. It was, again in Patton’s own words, “A hell of a way to die.” The terms of his dismissal were insulting. Patton was ordered by General Eisenhower not to make any public statements or speak to the press. As a result there had been no explanation as to why he had suddenly lost his beloved Third Army, but he was still assigned to Europe which kept him out of sight. On the Saturday before he was scheduled to return to the United States for the Christmas holidays Patton had dinner with his chief-of-staff, Major General Hobart R. “Hap” Gay. According to Gay, Patton had reached a momentous decision. After a lifetime of service, “I am going to resign from the Army,” Gay quoted Patton as saying. “For the years that are left to me, I am determined to be free to live as I want to and to say what I want to”. Patton had inherited a family fortune and he now intended to use the independence the money provided to finish his memoir, “War As I Knew It”, and “tell the unvarnished truth” about Eisenhower and General Marshall. The next day, Sunday December 10th , Gay and Patton set off at 7 A.M. for a hunting trip in the forests outside of the Bavarian Cathedral town of Spry. It was a cold and overcast morning. They traveled in two vehicles, a half ton truck driven by Sergeant Joe Spruce and a 12 foot long 1938 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan, all steel and chrome with a spacious interior, powered by a Detroit V-8 block engine, and driven by Patton’s regular driver, 20 year old Private first class Horace L. Woodring. Fewer than 600 of these cars had been built and how this one got to Europe is unknown Part of the limousine’s stylish additions included a window and divider between the driver’s and passengers’ compartments and a small rectangular silver plaque on the divider with the word “Fleetwood ” embossed in sweeping script.

About 11:30 they exited the autobahn at Mannerheim and took route 38 south. On the outskirts of the devastated city the two vehicle convoy came to the multiple tracks of the railroad yards. Here Sergeant Spruce sped ahead, while the Cadillac was required to stop for a short freight.

Woodring then crossed the tracks and resumed his speed of about 30 miles an hour. He wrote later that the road was clear ahead except for an approaching 2 ½ ton truck – a deuce and a half – about a half mile up the road. Stretching along both sides of the road was a quartermaster’s tank repair depot, and burned and broken tanks littered both sides of the road. As they sped past this detritus Patton, who was sitting on the right side of the bench seat, commented on the wastage of war. One tank caught his attention and he turned his body and pointed off to the left, saying, “And look at that heap of rubbish”. Gay turned to look to look and so did Woodring, the driver. It was 11:48 A.M. The approaching truck suddenly turned to its left, across the path of the Cadillac. Woodring slammed on his brakes, but it was too late. At impact the truck was going no more than 15 miles an hour - the Cadillac probably less than twenty-five. But nobody in either vehicle was wearing a seat belt.The big Cadillac slid a few feet and then thudded into the external fuel tank of the truck. The impact was so light that tank was not cracked. The front chrome grill of the Cadillac however was shattered like a boxers front teeth, and the left front wheel hub was twisted and broken off, revealing the tire beneath. But the massive steel frame of the Cadillac performed its unintended function and transferred most of the force of the accident directly to the passengers’ bodies. Sitting in the backseat, General Gay was thrown forward and then back against the seat. And Patton, who was already leaning forward and half turned to his left, was thrown off the bench seat and fell against the divider, his forehead striking the plaque, tearing a small section of skin and bending his neck sharply backward. In recoil he then fell across Gay.Patton immediately asked Gay if he was hurt. “Not a bit, Sir”, Gay assured him. “And you, General?” Patton immediately replied, “I think I’m paralyzed. I’m having trouble breathing, Hap.” Woodring helped Gay out from beneath Patton, made sure help had been summoned and then approached the driver of the truck, Private Robert Thompson. Woodring would later contend that Thompson was drunk, but Patton insisted that no actions be taken against the truck’s driver.A doctor and ambulance quickly arrived, and at 12:45 Patton was admitted to 130th Station Hospital at Heidelberg. An x-ray instantly revealed what the doctors suspected; a simple fracture of the third vertebra with a posterior dislocation of the fourth vertebra. In short, Patton had broken his neck and was paralyzed from the neck down. There was still a chance he could recover, but that would not be known until the swelling of his spinal cord had gone down. He was taken to surgery and two “Crutcheld” (fishhook) tongs were inserted below his cheek bones to apply traction to his neck. By the next morning the traction had reduced the dislocation, but the swelling had not yet gone down.To the constant parade of senior officers who visited him, Patton was cheerful. In private to his nurse he was depressed and frightened. Eisenhower did not visit, nor did General Bradley, Patton's immediate superior. Then on the morning of the 12th Patton reported that he could move his left index finger, slightly. His wife arrived that morning, having been flown from California. She warned the doctors that the General had a history of embolisms.

On the 13th Patton showed strength in his left arm and right leg. But that was as far as the improvements were to go. Slowly the sixty-one year old began losing ground. He was given plasma and protein, as albumen. On the 20th of December Patton reported trouble breathing. An X-ray confirmed that he had a blood clot in his right upper lung. He was now suffering from Pneumonia and was placed on Oxygen. Late on the 21st of December Patton whispered to his wife, “It’s too dark. I mean too late.” Shortly afterward he died. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure. On Christmas Eve, 1945, in a pouring rain, General George S. Patton was laid to rest in the U.S. military cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg. As the casket was lowered a chaplain repeated one Patton's favorite sayings: "Death is as light as a feather." But I prefer to remember General George S. Patton by something else he said. “Anyone, in any walk of life, who is content with mediocrity is untrue to himself and to American tradition.”

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