Thursday, December 9, 2010

December 9, 1945 – Patton Escapes Car Crash Unharmed

While on his way to a hunting trip in the German countryside, the Cadillac belonging to General George S. Patton collided with a left-turning 2 ½ ton truck. Patton’s driver, Private First Class Horace Woodring, rather than braking and hitting the truck at lower speed, briskly turned to dodge, and the two vehicles slammed into one another’s sides. Woodring and Patton’s chief of staff Major General “Hap” Gay both suffered bruises, but Patton seemed totally unhurt after tumbling sideways.

The accident seemed to follow the course of luck that could be traced through the old soldier’s life. Patton had attended the Virginia Military Institute and United States Military Academy, competed in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics, finishing fifth overall and the only non-Swede in the top seven. He studied swordsmanship in Europe the next year, going on to become the youngest Master of the Sword in Army history. From there, Patton became an instructor, wrote pamphlets, and helped design the Army’s final saber in 1913, later nicknamed the “Patton saber.”

Peace soon gave way to war, and Patton’s real career began. He served as Pershing’s aide in the Mexican expedition in 1916 and then became a captain among the US Tank Corps in WWI. Campaigning for years to acquire funding for armored divisions for the US Army, but with little success, Patton spent the between-war years stationed in Hawaii (where, in 1931, he wrote a defensive plan for a potential air raid) and in Washington, D.C., (where he led tanks against the Bonus Army on the orders of General Douglas MacArthur). When WWII began, Patton’s arguments for armored divisions gained clout, and he was promoted to major general to head the 2nd Armored Division.

Patton’s leadership would give the Allies massive advantage in the African and European Theaters of the war. The “Desert Fox” Irwin Rommel was notoriously concerned of Patton, and the German military would routinely place their best troops against him, often to no great avail. Patton pressed his troops through North Africa, Sicily, and France.

While a master on the battlefield, Patton met with great controversy when bullets did not fly. Hoping to motivate his men, he maintained a powerful visage and carried nickel-plated revolvers with ivory handles. He swore constantly, even in public addresses. Patton’s belief in the honor of the military contradicted Eisenhower’s easy-going nature and cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s ridicule, both of whom chafed Patton’s temper. Most shocking was the “slapping incident” in Sicily where Patton had hit a soldier suffering from shellshock and ordered him back to the front. Patton would be stripped of command for a time, but he would use his time to confound German intelligence on where the European landing would begin. After Normandy, Patton would be back in command with the Third Army and helped in the liberation of Europe.

As the war came to an end, Patton began to give warnings about not being able to trust the Soviets. Some 25,000 American POWs had been liberated but not returned in Eastern Europe, where the communists were seemingly settling in. Patton suggested that the American Army be ready for war again to keep Russia in its place while they were low on supplies. Instead, the Army began dismantling itself for peacetime, and Patton was reassigned to the Fifteenth Army, which was mainly handling occupation and historical collection.

After the accident, the Fifteenth Army headquarters was inactivated on January 31, 1946, and Patton sent his request for retirement to the War Department, which was approved. According to Hap Gay, Patton would have resigned if retirement had been refused. The weight of peace seemed too much for the old soldier to bear. When Patton returned to his native California, he began a lecture circuit, which provided a great deal of scandal, and primarily wrote, commenting on his past as well as the present and future of America. He consistently warned of Soviet expansion, which gained the attention of political movements.

Patton was invited to the 1948 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. He was surprised to be seen in politics and even more to hear that he had been placed on the ballot. While he campaigned rigorously after the invite, it was apparent that he had no real hope of taking the presidency as Dewey had cinched the vote and Patton’s infamy preceded him, not to mention that his military clout was blocked by votes going toward MacArthur. Instead, Patton returned to retirement, writing to several friends with the exclamation, “God, give me a war to fight!”

As if an answer to prayer, Patton was called up by Vice President Richard Nixon to be an adviser in the situation in French Indochina, which was quickly becoming known as Vietnam. Having watched the turmoil that was the Korean War from the sidelines in agony, Patton was eager to sort out the situation himself. Though he agreed with MacArthur’s suggestion to use atomic weapons, Patton was disgusted by his former commander’s disrespect of President Truman. Patton arrived in Saigon and met with CIA advisers, many of whom had connections back to the old Army OS. Upon his assessment, Patton shook his head over the situation and said of Ngo Dinh Diem, “I wouldn’t fight for him, even if it were against Stalin himself.” It was clear the people preferred Ho Chi Minh, who was a cunning warrior working to limit trouble upon the peasants.

Patton wrote an extensive description of the corruption in South Vietnam and suggested winning over the resistance-fighters of the Viet Minh rather than trying to fight the Viet Cong and their pro-populace support. The CIA worked to follow his plan, infiltrating North Vietnam and gaining leverage as the Sino-Soviet split began to appear in the late ‘50s and became clear by the ‘60s. With the American-backed regime change in South Vietnam in 1958, the short-lived Vietnam War of 1959-60 established firmly the division between the Communist North and the increasingly western South, as had been seen in Korea. Containment continued to be the policy of the United States as it subtly transformed itself over the twentieth century while Communism would self-destruct by the 1990s.

However, Patton would not live to see his influence on modern events. He died at age 72 in December of 1957 while touring Vietnam and suggesting military placements for defense along the northern border despite rainy weather. His body was returned to the US, where it was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

In reality, Patton suffered a broken neck from the collision when the Cadillac struck the front end of the truck. Patton was thrown forward and hit his head on the partition between the front seats and the back. He was paralyzed from the neck down and rushed to the hospital, where he would die of a pulmonary embolism twelve days later. He would be buried in Luxembourg, at the head of his fallen fellow troops in honor of Patton’s asking that he "be buried with my men."

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