“Firm and drastic measures are at times necessary… but this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates.”
— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
MILITARY HISTORY IS replete with tyrannical commanders.
Italian field marshal Luigi Cadorna had 750 of his own troops executed for cowardice during the First World War. No army that fought in Europe between 1914 and 1918 shot more of its own soldiers than Italy.
Joseph Stalin’s 1942 Order No. 227, also known as the ‘Not One Step Back’ directive, made giving any ground in battle an offence punishable by death. The Soviet dictator once remarked that in the Red Army it took more courage to retreat than it did to advance.
In its nearly 250-year history, the United States Army produced few such callous leaders — it’s doubtful if the American public would have tolerated them. They certainly didn’t when it came to the firebrand George S. Patton. The outspoken and flamboyant general unleashed a storm of controversy when he famously berated and then struck two shell-shocked soldiers during the Allied campaign in Sicily. Amazingly, the fallout from the incidents very nearly ended his career.
The Sound of One Hand Slapping
It was Aug. 3 and Patton’s Seventh Army, fresh from its victory at Palermo, was driving on Messina. While touring the units under his command, “Old Blood and Guts” as he was known stopped at the 15th Evacuation Field Hospital at Nicosia to pay his respects to casualties being treated there. As Patton visited the recovery ward, he spied Charles Kuhl a rifleman with the 26th Infantry huddled on a supply crate. The 18-year-old private had been pulled from combat to recuperate from what doctors characterized as battle fatigue (today it would be considered post-traumatic stress disorder). Kuhl, who was also racked with malaria and dysentery, reportedly had a 102-degree fever at the time. The general asked the rifleman about his injuries.
“I guess I can’t take it,” came the young man’s unsteady reply.
Patton exploded. As hospital staff looked on in disbelief, the general yanked the soldier to his feet, called him a coward and slapped him across the face with a leather glove. The enraged general then chased the youth from the tent with a kick to the backside. Kuhl was moved by hospital staff to another tent and treated for his illness.
Later that day, the general noted the incident in his diary, writing that the object of his diatribe was little more than a “weakling”.
Within 48 hours, a memo from Seventh Army headquarters went out directing all commanders to cease and desist sending battle fatigue cases to the rear. “Such men… bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades,” Patton wrote.
Days later, while visiting the 93rd Evacuation Hospital at San Stephano, the general encountered Pvt. Paul Bennet, age 21. The artilleryman from South Carolina had been sent to the rear to recover from physical exhaustion and dehydration. Patton approached the seemingly unscathed soldier as he sat trembling.
“It’s my nerves,” the private blurted out when the general inquired about his condition. “I can’t stand the shelling anymore.”
“Hell, you’re just a goddamned coward,” Patton roared and then struck the soldier across the face. Bennet recoiled under the blows, which knocked his helmet from his head.
“You’re going back to the front lines,” the general cried adding that he didn’t care if the young man was shot and killed there.
“I ought to shoot you myself,” he shouted, drawing his pistol.
Medics quickly leaped forward and hustled Bennet from the tent as the general explained to the gaping onlookers that it made his “blood boil” to have “yellow-bellied bastards being babied.”
But of course Patton’s wasn’t the only blood that boiled that day.
Incensed by the spectacle, a the field hospital’s ranking surgeon wrote up a detailed report of what transpired and passed it to the Seventh Army’s chief medical officer who in turn sent it along to Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in Sicily. Troubled by the details, Ike promptly ordered an investigation.
Eyewitness accounts from both the Aug. 3 incident at Nicosia and the disturbance at the 93rd Evac Hospital were collected and within 10 days, Eisenhower delivered Patton a strongly worded rebuke.
“I clearly understand that firm and drastic measures are at times necessary in order to secure the desired objectives. But this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates,” Ike wrote. “I must so seriously question your good judgement and your self-discipline as to raise serious doubts in my mind as to your future usefulness.”
While no charges would be laid (despite ample grounds), Eisenhower directed Patton apologize to all concerned.
The tarnished general first invited both Kuhl and Bennet to his command post where he made what staff characterized as grudgingly apology for his outbursts.
Kuhn was sympathetic. “I think he was suffering a little battle fatigue himself,” he later wrote of the debacle.
Later, Patton spoke to every division in his command expressing regret over the incidents. He was reportedly warmly received by the men. The general also penned a personal letter to Eisenhower seeking forgiveness. It all should have ended there.
Unfortunately for Patton, the civilian news media got wind of the story and began pressing Eisenhower for details.
“If this thing ever gets out, they’ll be howling for Patton’s scalp,” he reportedly said. “That will be the end of Georgie’s service in this war. I simply cannot let that happen. Patton is indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our victory.”
Despite Ike’s appeal to the press corps to keep the affair under wraps, the debacle was reported stateside later that year.
Front Page News
Public opinion condemned by Patton’s behaviour. By late 1943, newspaper editorial pages across the country were demanding his stars; legislators in Washington echoed the calls. Oklahoma representative Jed Johnson (D) blasted the general’s conduct as “despicable”, while Charles Hoeven a Republican from Iowa (himself a combat veteran) commented that tyrants like Patton had no place in the army.
Even the retired John “Blackjack” Pershing, chief of American forces in France in World War One and Patton’s own mentor, condemned the general for his conduct.
Ironically, one of Patton’s supporters was Herman F. Kuhl, the father of the malaria-stricken GI who was struck on Aug. 3. In a letter to Washington, he called on the military to accept the general’s apology and let him get on with winning the war.
Eisenhower was compelled to pull Patton from front-line duty until the clamour subsided.
Even benched, Patton still proved useful to the war effort. Allied commanders used the disgraced general to decoy the Axis into believing the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe would target Calais, rather than Normandy. Patton’s very public appointment to the non-existent First United States Army Group (FUSAG) helped convinced the Germans that a massive army was massing near Dover to cross the channel at strike Calais. It was all a deception.
In the days following D-Day, Patton would finally win a real chance to redeem himself. Placed at the head of the Third Army in 1944 (and promoted to four-star general), he led his troops half way across France and into Germany killing, wounding or capturing 1.4 million enemy troops and liberating more than 10,000 cities and towns along the way.
But that still wasn’t the end of controversy for Patton.
Prior to Operation Overlord, the general sparked a diplomatic firestorm for suggesting that the Americans and British would rule the post-war world (omitting any mention of the Soviets). In another case, he referred to the Russians as “drunks”. Later, during the Allied occupation of Germany, Patton became a vocal critic of denazification, going so far as to suggest that America should rearm its former Axis enemies and turn them loose on the communists. He was promptly sacked from command of the U.S. Fifteenth Army. Patton died in December, 1945 at Heidelberg following a motor vehicle collision. He was 60.
As for Kuhl, he survived the war and returned to his home in Mishawaka, Indiana. He died in 1971. Paul Bennet served another 30 years in the army.
(Originally published on Aug. 26, 2015)