This article is not intended to disparage the service of General George S. Patton. He revolutionized modern warfare with his aggressive use of armored cavalry and his disdain for fixed fortifications. His Seventh and Third Armies saved soldiers and citizens from Sardinia to the Seine in the dark years of World War II—One of them being my own great-uncle, a 101st paratrooper who huddled in the Bastogne snow during the Battle of the Bulge. However, Patton was far from perfect.
In November of 1943, Private Herman Kuhl sat slouched over on a stool in the 15th Evacuation Hospital in Sicily. A husband and father from South Bend, Indiana, had fought bravely for eight months through the Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns. Within the last two weeks Kuhl had twice been admitted for “exhaustion” and doctors were observing the chronically fatigued young man. Beds of wounded men lined room around him.
Everything fell to a disciplined hush when the six-foot, two-inch General George S. Patton tromped into the room, ivory-handled pistol on his belt, jodhpurs flaring from his hips to knees. The general, tired and irritable from the long months of planning and training, and the longer months of fighting, was touring the hospital to visit his sick and wounded men. Faced with soldiers’ suffering put Patton’s vulnerability on full display and his soldiers’ suffering moved him to tears. It wasn’t affected or a performance; it really did upset the general.
Then his long, tall shadow fell across the young Hoosier from northern Indiana. For Private Kuhl, it must have felt like God Himself standing over him in judgment. “Where were you hurt?” the general asked in his high-pitched voice (Patton sounded nothing like George C. Scott).
The physically-exhausted and sweat-soaked Kuhl could barely lift his eyes up to the general. His mind and body seemed two separate things and the young soldier couldn’t stand at attention or even offer a salute. “I-I guess I can’t take it, sir,” Kuhl said.
The general’s already-flushed face grew crimson. Patton exploded. Already infamous for his love of cursing, Patton fired a volley of unprintable words at the hunched over GI, sprinkled with an occasional “coward” and “yellow-bellied.” In moments a crowd of doctors and attendants surrounded the two men, not sure how to react.
Had it ended there, it might not have even made the news. But it didn’t end there.
Patton pulled his arm back and then whapped the private across his chin with his leather gloves. The slap silenced the entire room and there was only the sound of Patton’s cursing and the sobbing and shamed private.
The furious general reached down and twisted the private collar in his hand, lifting him easily and dragging him to the entrance. The staff and attendants of the hospital parted faster than the Red Sea. He continued cursing the crying private the entire time.
Patton yanked the private into the sunlight, then planted one polished boot on the private’s rear and kicked him to the dust. He turned to a doctor. “You don’t admit him again,” Patton said, stabbing a finger at a humiliated Kuhl.
“You hear me, you gutless BASTARD? You’re going back to the front,” Patton bellowed at Kuhl and then stomped away.
Quickly, medics came to Kuhl’s aid and lifted him from the ground, helping him to a smaller tent well away from the hospital. The private’s face was bathed in sweat and although he was still crying, it was obvious Kuhl was only half-aware of what had just happened. Heat radiated off him like an oven wrapped in olive drab cotton. Nurses took his temperature and found the Hoosier baking with a 102 degree fever. They performed a flurry of tests.
The answer for Kuhl’s sudden delirium, chronic weakness, and inability to fight returned soon after: malaria. For the last two weeks this private had endured a sun-baked Hell. The daily stress and exhaustion of furious combat and shelling, multiplied by fever, exhaustion, vomiting, and aches. It didn’t surprise anyone that Kuhl had arrived at the hospital. In fact, the most amazing thing was that Kuhl had lasted as long as he did.
Doctors hurriedly reported the incident, which made its way up the chain of command, directly to Ike himself. A similar incident happened a week later, involving Patton slapping yet another soldier for cowardice. This second incident ended with a rabid Patton pulling out his sidearm. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man in charge of the whole shebang, finally intervened.
…I feel that the personal services you have rendered the United States and the Allied cause during the past weeks are of incalculable value; but nevertheless if there is a very considerable element of truth in the allegations accompanying this letter, I must so seriously question your good judgment and your self-discipline as to raise serious doubts in my mind as to your future usefulness.
~8/17/43 Letter from Eisenhower to Patton
His chilling message to “Old Blood and Guts” ended with a suggestion that Patton apologize to the soldiers, the doctors, and any witnesses. He then spoke publicly to each of the five divisions of the Seventh Army. His speech, as colorful, memorable, and apologetic as it might have sounded, was mostly crocodile tears. Personally, Patton didn’t see the purpose. He later wrote, “It is rather a commentary on justice when an Army commander has to soft-soap a skulker to placate the timidity of those above.” *In this instance, he was speaking of the second incident, where the soldier in question had gone AWOL then lied about his condition to avoid combat.
The support from his soldiers was unquestioned. In fact, when speaking to the last division, his own men drowned out his speech by chanting “NO. NO. NO. NO…” over and over to drown out the general’s penitent words. It was reported that Patton burst into tears.
Many in the American media overseas demanded Patton’s resignation, but Eisenhower demurred. Both Charles Kuhl (and his father) forgave the general for his mistake, with the private suggesting the general had been suffering his own “battle fatigue.” A prudent Eisenhower simply pocketed Patton while the war continued, waiting for the bloodlust to boil down. “Patton is indispensable to the war effort,” Eisenhower wrote, “one of the guarantors of our victory.” He kept Patton in the wings until after the Normandy landings, when he handed “Old Blood and Guts” control of the Third Army.
Today, Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well-researched and all-too-common diagnosis for the chronic flight-or-flight response that results from the intensity of combat. Today, it’s PTSD. During World War II, doctors referred to it as “battle fatigue”. During World War I, when it was first diagnosed, it was known as “shell shock.” In 1943, it was still a somewhat controversial diagnosis. And Patton? He believed shell shock an invention of the Jewish people. *Patton’s anti-Semitism was well-documented, but that’s still a big YIKES.
Patton numerous exploits have left him a moderately controversial figure, but most historians agree that his contribution to the war far exceed his personal shortcomings. His lack of diplomacy was dwarfed by the morale boost his presence offered the fighting American soldiers. They loved him. Found of swearing and of conspicuously displaying his rank in public (any German sniper that bagged Patton would have been an instant hero). According to Eisenhower himself, Patton’s personal swagger and willingness to fight “struck terror at the hearts of the enemy.”
Want to Know More?
Watch this World War II Navy training film “Combat Fatigue Irritability” starring Singin’ in the Rain actor Gene Kelly.
Here’s a link to excerpts from Bill O’Reilly’s easy-to-read history Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General.Using his extensive experience as a high school social studies teacher, O’Reilly paints a simple and accessible portrait of “Old Blood and Guts.”