In the biblical book of Esther, Esther’s cousin tells her that perhaps she was born in order to help save the Jewish people from destruction, which in fact she did. There are some people who seemed born for a specific purpose — they have a destiny. During the early part of the twentieth century, there was an American Army officer who seemed destined for his role in the modern age of combat. He helped to usher in a new form of warfare and spent his life advocating its superior qualities. He will forever be linked with a fundamental transformation in the art of war. His name was George S. Patton, Jr. This is the story of how his early experience in tank warfare prepared him for the grand purpose he would fulfill in World War II.
From the beginning, George Patton appeared destined for a soldier’s life. Both his actual grandfather, who died in battle, and his step-grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. His father attended the Virginia Military Institute. Patton grew up listening to personal stories of Civil War battles. With dreams of martial glory of his own, he attended VMI for a year before transferring to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There he struggled academically but excelled in sports, especially football and track. He also mastered “Drill Regulations,” rising to become Corps Adjutant during his senior year. Following graduation, Patton was stationed at various army posts and also participated in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the pentathlon. In 1916 he was part of the expedition led by General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing against Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. In one fight, he personally killed two Mexican bandits with his trademark ivory-handled pistol. Pershing was greatly impressed by the young officer and marked him as a rising star.
As Patton was gaining the trust of his superiors, war was raging throughout Europe. By late 1916, Britain and France had been stalemated in trench warfare against Germany for nearly two years. A new weapon had been created to break the stalemate — the tank. Despite the best efforts of the British and French, the Germans remained entrenched throughout northern France. Then in April 1917 the U.S. entered the war. “Black Jack” Pershing was once again placed in command of American forces. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), Pershing selected Patton as one of his staff officers. Arriving in France, Patton served as commandant of headquarters. The work soon bored him, and he appealed to General Pershing for a field command. Pershing offered him a choice between an infantry brigade and the newly created American Tank Corps. Sensing a transformation in battlefield tactics, Patton chose the tanks.
At the time the new corps existed in name only. There was only one tank, and it was primarily used for experiments. Additionally, there was only one other man in the corps besides Patton, corps commander Brigadier General Samuel Rockenbach. Patton would not let these obstacles overcome him. His first objective was to personally master tank operations so he could teach those operations to the new volunteers enlisting in the corps. He used British and French training centers to great effect. Returning to corps headquarters, Patton was placed in command of the first brigade of tanks with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After observing both British and French tanks during training, he decided that the lighter French Renault model was better for American use. He took delivery of the tanks and began training his soldiers in the new type of warfare. He earned a reputation as a tough disciplinarian, but his soldiers took pride in the rigorous training to which they were subjected. Their commander, however, began to fear that the war would be over before he could see action.
That fear would not be realized. American commanders were preparing to launch an attack against the Germans at St. Mihiel, France. The American strategy included plans for the tanks to lead and cover the advancing infantry. The attack began on the morning of September 12, 1918. Patton watched as his tank crews moved forward. To his frustration, many of them bogged down in the mud. Patton was determined that his soldiers would not be defeated by nature. Afoot, he rushed to the forefront of the attack and waved his ivory-handled pistol in the air to rally the few tanks left. Then he personally led them toward the German lines. Patton and the tanks successfully broke through the German fortifications.
At this point in the battle a noteworthy meeting took place. Patton was advancing with his force when he came upon an infantry unit commanded by Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. The two future heroes of World War II briefly conversed before they turned their attention back to their respective commands. Patton moved on with his tanks to capture a nearby town. Returning to corps headquarters, however, he was severely reprimanded for exposing himself to danger and excessive eagerness in pursuing the enemy. Unfazed, Patton apologized, but the very next day he led an attack that penetrated German defensive fortifications known as the Hindenburg Line. George Patton was well on his way to becoming an American hero.
On September 26, 1918, Patton’s brigade of tanks was once again ordered to lead an attack in what came to be known as the Argonne offensive. As in the attack on St. Mihiel, Patton personally led the assault on foot. His tanks were not able to do much damage, but Patton refused to slow his attack. He and five tanks were moving through a break in the German lines when he discovered nearly three hundred Americans pinned down by a German machine gun. According to his own later account, he was on the ground when had a vision of his grandfather telling him Pattons were not cowards. Pushing himself up, he finally convinced five of the soldiers to join him in a charge against the machine gun. It was basically a suicide mission and proved fatal for three of the soldiers. Patton himself was severely wounded when a bullet tore through his upper thigh. He went into immediate shock but would not leave the field until he made his report to headquarters. As he was making it, he passed out and was finally moved to a hospital. He was not a happy patient, however, and hoped to recover enough to fight the Germans one more time. Finally, he left the hospital without authorization in order to rejoin his unit. It was too late though. He arrived on November 11, 1918, just as the Germans were signing the armistice. He thought, and not for the last time, that his days of combat were over.
Patton’s fortunes seesawed over the next two decades. On January 1, 1919 General John Pershing awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the Argonne. Such an award for bravery could not keep him from being affected by the army’s demobilization with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. His rank was reduced to major, his tank brigade shrank to a token force, and military appropriations fell to five hundred dollars. He remained an outspoken advocate for tanks and for a strong military. His arguments often alienated his fellow officers. He labored in virtual obscurity during the interwar years refining tank tactics and utilization. Though in reality his efforts would ultimately reap huge rewards, it seemed for now that his career was over. The outbreak of World War II changed everything.
General Patton was by now considered by many to be the preeminent authority on tank warfare. One of those who held him in high esteem was General George C. Marshall. He had appointed Patton to command an Armored Division during a series of war games in the summer and fall of 1941. After the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, Patton was placed in command of the forces that captured Casablanca and Tunisia, known as Operation Torch, and later the island of Sicily. His career suffered a setback when he was disciplined for inappropriate comments while in England during preparation for the invasion of France. Nevertheless, Eisenhower knew Patton was his best battlefield commander and restored him to action shortly after the Normandy invasion. He led his famed Third Army across France, came to the rescue in the Battle of the Bulge, and struck hard into the heart of Germany. There was no stopping the world’s greatest “tanker.”
In May 1945 World War II ended, and Patton was a national hero. After the war he published his memoirs and served as military governor of Bavaria. As before, his outspoken nature resulted in clashes with his superiors. This time it was his comments regarding war with Soviet Russia. It seemed that George Patton was a man of war with no wars left to fight. In an ironic twist, the man who had spent much of his life in harm’s way died on December 21, 1945 from complications related to an auto accident. He was buried in Luxembourg with military honors.
George Patton seemed to be living proof that some people are created for a certain purpose. His heritage, his nature, his training — all pointed toward a life devoted to the combat arms. No other life would have ever fit George Patton. From a different perspective, had it not been for Patton, it is possible that American tank warfare would have evolved much slower and quite differently. It was Patton who transformed the tank from an infantry support weapon into a true offensive weapon. He found his calling in leading American soldiers into combat. He spent his life searching for glory, and he found it with the new American “cavalry.” He is as admired and respected today as he ever was. At West Point, his statue proudly stands flanking the parade ground. His methods, tactics and utilization of tanks are still studied today. It is clear George Patton was a man of destiny — destined to service, destined to lead, destined to greatness.