Thanks to the movie, most Americans are familiar with George Patton—the crusty, outspoken, and brilliantly aggressive general of World War II fame. Yet few know of his exploits as a young officer. There is nothing about Patton’s early career in any of our standard history textbooks, an omission that is unfortunate. At one time we learned of the lives of our heroes to draw inspiration from them.
As a child Patton listened transfixed to stories about his grandfather, a Confederate war hero. Sixteen of Patton’s ancestors fought with honor and distinction in the war. Most of them suffered wounds; three of them died. Suffering from dyslexia, Patton had difficulty reading but not listening. A maiden aunt lived with the family and read to Patton for hours from the Bible, until Patton could quote chapter and verse. She also read from dozens of books about the Civil War and wars throughout history, especially those of classical antiquity—Plutarch’s Lives, Xenophon’s Anabasis, stories about Alexander the Great.
Patton grew up desperately wanting to be a warrior and, at 17, went off to VMI and a year later to West Point. After five years and much struggle—although excelling in history, riding, and marksmanship—he was graduated in 1909 and assigned to the cavalry. His duties would include serving as a riding instructor at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In 1912 he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the pentathlon, a rugged several-day contest of shooting, swimming, fencing, riding, and running. He took fifth place despite being robbed of points in pistol marksmanship, normally his best event, by poor judging.
When Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, Patton was serving with the 8th Cavalry at Fort Bliss, Texas, and still a 2nd lieutenant. What became known as the Punitive Expedition was organized to cross the border and pursue Villa. The 8th Cavalry was not one of the units chosen to participate in the action. (Patton blamed the exclusion on his overweight commanding officer: “There should be a law killing fat colonels on sight.”)
Patton appealed directly to Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, arriving unannounced at his headquarters to tell him that he wanted to go on the expedition: He would perform any job, no matter how menial. Pershing told the brash lieutenant, “Everyone wants to go. Why should I favor you?”
“Because I want to go more than anyone else,” replied Patton.
Pershing stared at him coldly and said only, “That will do.” The next morning Patton got a phone call from the general, asking how long it would take him to get ready. Pershing thought his call would surprise the lieutenant, but Patton was already packed and said he could go immediately.
On May 14, after two months of chasing Villa in Mexico, Pershing put Patton in charge of ten soldiers and two civilian guides to scout for grain for the expedition’s horses. They would not charge out on their normal mounts, though, but in three Dodge touring cars. After concluding a deal for grain at Rubio, Patton decided to raid a rancho at San Miguelito where he suspected Villa’s right-hand man, Gen. Julio Cardenas, was holed up.
Understanding that his principal advantage was surprise, Patton had his cars race over a rutted dirt road at top speed in the first motorized assault in American military history. He sprang from the lead car and, with an ivory-handled 1873 Colt Peacemaker in hand, zigzagged for the hacienda. As he did, three heavily armed riders galloped through an archway from an adobe-walled corral and fired at him. With bullets whizzing by his head and kicking up gravel all around him, Patton returned fire. The lead rider lurched in the saddle and, wounded, wheeled his mount about and raced back through the archway.
His revolver empty, Patton took cover behind a wall and began reloading. The second rider took advantage of the momentary lull and made a dash for safety, firing over his shoulder as he fled. “I remembered then,” Patton told the New York Times, “what an old Texas Ranger had told me. That was to kill a fugitive’s horse, which was the surest way of stopping him.” Upon pushing a final round into his revolver’s chambers, Patton aimed and fired. The bullet struck the horse in the hip and the beast tumbled. The rider struggled to his feet and Patton fired again. Several of his men took shots also. The Villista collapsed, dead.
The third rider, now 150 yards away, was going hell bent for leather. Patton grabbed a rifle and squeezed off a round. His soldiers joined in. The rider crashed to the ground, dead. Just then the first rider, wounded earlier by Patton, was spotted along a stone wall 200 yards distant. Patton and several of his troopers opened fire. The man fell to the ground. He signaled he was wounded and wanted to surrender, but as one of Patton’s scouts approached to within 20 feet, the man suddenly raised a pistol and fired. The bullet missed. The scout’s bullet didn’t. The man was General Cardenas himself.
Patton had his men strap the bodies to the hoods of the Dodges and made haste for Pershing’s headquarters. They had not gone far when a group of 50 mounted Villistas swept down on them and opened fire. The speed of the touring cars and the accuracy of the Americans’ fire, though, kept the Mexicans at bay. By late afternoon, Patton and his detail were back at headquarters with the bodies and war trophies, including Cardenas’s saddle and saber. Pershing ordered the bodies buried and told Patton the saddle and saber were his. As the sun was setting the bodies were lowered into graves. An old sergeant raised a hand and said, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. If Villa won’t bury you, Uncle Sam must.”
The New York Times and other newspapers told the story of the fight at the San Miguelito rancho, talked of Patton initiating motorized warfare, and called him the Mexican Bandit Killer. In May, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
When the United States entered World War I, Patton was promoted to captain and shipped to France, again serving under Pershing, now a major general. Eventually, Patton was tasked with organizing a training school for the Army’s newest weapon, the tank. For Patton, a proponent of mobility of forces and rapid, offensive action, the tank was an armored and treaded version of the Dodge touring car—and he was the only one in the Army who had ever conducted a motorized assault.
Within a month Patton produced a manual for tank warfare that became the Army’s standard reference for years to come. He had two of his officers design a shoulder insignia for the Tank Corps and used his own money to pay for the making of 300 patches. He also designed a brassard and a collar device. He drove himself and his officers hard. An enlisted man recalled Patton telling him and his soldiers in training, “Why you God damned sons of bitches, do you think the Marines are tough? Well, you just wait until I get through with you. Being tough will save lives.” Patton appreciated new weaponry, especially the tank, but said, “wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and the man who leads that gains the victory.” For his outstanding work in organizing and training the Tank Corps, Patton was promoted to major.
Nonetheless, Patton was champing at the bit. He desperately desired to be in the fight, at the front. He got his wish in April 1918 when he was put in command of the 1st Tank Brigade and promoted to lieutenant colonel. For an officer who had spent seven years as a 2nd lieutenant rank was suddenly coming fast.
When the Saint-Mihiel offensive was launched on September 12, Patton and his tank battalions were in the van. At one point Patton came upon Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the 84th Brigade, who was on foot leading his infantrymen. “I walked right along the firing line,” said Patton, “they were all in shell holes except the general . . . who was standing on a little hill. I joined him and the creeping barrage came along toward us.” Patton said both he and MacArthur “wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us.”
At the village of Essey a critical bridge reportedly had been mined by Germans. MacArthur requested that Patton take his tanks over the bridge. Army engineers were unable to detect any detonating wires but couldn’t guarantee a thing. Patton didn’t want to see any of his men and tanks blown into the river below and said he’d first walk across the bridge. MacArthur said he’d go with him. “We walked over the bridge in a most catlike manner expecting to be blown to heaven any moment but to our great relief found that the bridge had not been tampered with.”
Throughout the three-day battle of Saint-Mihiel, Patton proved an inspiring leader, always in the thick of the fight and quick to innovate when the situation demanded it. During one phase of the battle he commanded “the only successful operation of tanks absolutely unaided by other troops in attacking and routing an enemy.”
Patton and his tanks were again in the van when the Meuse-Argonne offensive began on September 26. In attacking the German-held village of Cheppy, Patton was forced to take command of more than a hundred infantrymen who had lost their officers. Most of Patton’s tanks were stuck in muddy trenches, while 27 German machine guns spewed fire from the village. Exposing himself to withering fire, Patton organized work crews to build ramps to free the tanks from the trenches. Patton got five tanks back in action rolling toward Cheppy. He then started forward, yelling to the infantrymen, “Who comes with me?”
Patton said the intense machine-gun fire left him
trembling with fear when suddenly I thought of my progenitors and seemed to see them in a cloud over the German lines looking at me. I became calm at once and saying out loud “It is time for another Patton to die” called for volunteers and went forward to what I honestly believed to be certain death. Six men went with me; five were killed and I was wounded so I was not much in error.
A machine-gun bullet went through Patton’s thigh, the exit wound the size of a silver dollar. He struggled to his feet and moved to a shallow shell hole before collapsing. A soldier bandaged the wound and staunched some of the bleeding. One of Patton’s tanks rolled up beside him and stood guard. Patton lay in the hole untreated for two hours while his tanks and infantry pressed forward and captured Cheppy. Only then could he be evacuated.
Patton was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions and promoted to colonel.