General George Patton. Credit: Library of Congress.

General George Patton. Credit: Library of Congress.

Patton, whose appearance was purposely calculated to set him apart from the men he led, spent as little time as possible in his headquarters and was always present along the front lines. He wanted to see the battle for himself, but, more than that, he wanted those fighting the battle to see him. Visiting field evacuation hospitals was part of this see-and-be-seen philosophy. He believed his presence improved morale. “Inspected all sick and wounded,” he noted in his diary on August 2. “Pinned on some 40 Purple Hearts on men hurt in air raid. One man was dying and had an oxygen mask on, so I knelt down and pinned the Purple Heart on him, and he seemed to understand although he could not speak.” But these visits took a heavy toll on Patton, who struggled to maintain his command presence. “One man had the top of his head blown off,” Patton noted in an August 6 diary entry, “and they were just waiting for him to die. He was a horrid bloody mess and was not good to look at, or I might develop personal feelings about sending men to battle. That would be fatal for a General.”

What Patton dared not acknowledge was that he had long since developed such “personal feelings.” On August 3 he learned that General Eisenhower was to award him the Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary heroism” at Gela on July 11. It should have been welcome news, but in a letter to Beatrice, Patton admitted that “I rather feel that I did not deserve it, but wont say so.”  Later in the day, on his way to visit II Corps, Patton stopped at the 15th Evacuation Hospital near Nicosia. Among the sick and wounded, he encountered Private Charles H. Kuhl, Company L, 26th Infantry Regiment (1st Division). Kuhl did not appear to be wounded.

A report by a senior medical officer, Lieutenant Colonel Perrin H. Long, headed “Mistreatment of Patients in Receiving Tents of the 15th and 93rd Evacuations Hospitals, “reveals what happened next:

[Patton] came to Pvt. Kuhl and asked him what was the matter. The soldier replied, “I guess I can’t take it.” The General immediately flared up, cursed the soldier, called him all types of a coward, then slapped him across the face with his gloves and finally grabbed the soldier by the scruff of his neck and kicked him out of the tent.

Corpsmen picked Kuhl up and rushed him to a ward tent. “There he was found to have a temperature of 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit . . . The next day his fever continued and a blood smear was found to be positive for malarial parasites.” Patton, of course, had been unaware that Kuhl was sick. That night, he wrote in his diary that he had met “the only arrant coward” I have ever seen in this Army.”

Some time after the encounter and with considerable insight, Kuhl observed to reporters that “at the time it happened, [General Patton] was pretty well worn out . . . I think he was suffering a little battle fatigue himself.”

Patton, of course, did not think he was suffering from battle fatigue—a condition he did not even believe real—nor did he subject himself to self analysis. Instead, two days after the encounter with Kuhl, he issued a directive to all Seventh Army commanders summarily and categorically forbidding “battle fatigue”:

“It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but are dealt with in their unites. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

Beyond the directive, surprisingly little was made of the August 3 incident. Then, on August 10, Patton toured the 93rd Evacuation Hospital. There he came across Private Paul G. Bennett, C Battery, 17th Field Artillery, II Corps. According to Lieutenant Colonel Long’s official report, Bennett had already served four years in the army and had been in II Corps since March.

“[He] never had any difficulties until August 6th, when his buddy was wounded. He could not sleep that night and felt nervous. The shells going over him bothered him. The next day he was worried about his buddy and became more nervous. He was sent down to the rear echelon by a battery aid man and there the medical officer gave him some medicine which made him sleep, but still he was nervous and disturbed. On the next day the medical officer ordered him to be evacuated, although the boy begged not to be evacuated because he did not want to leave his unit.”

Indeed, he had a fever, was sick, dehydrated, fatigued, confused, and listless. In that condition, despite protests, he could not be returned to the front.

Patton, who knew nothing of this, looked at Bennett, who, like Kuhl, was unwounded. He asked him what the trouble way. Long related the exchange:

“It’s my nerves,” [said Bennett and] began to sob. The General then screamed at him, “What did you say?” The man replied, “It’s my nerves, I can’t stand the shelling any more.” He was still sobbing. The General then yelled at him, “Your nerves, hell; you are just a Goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch.” He then slapped the man and said, “Shut up that Goddamned crying. I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot at seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying.” He then struck the man again, knocking his helmet off and into the next tent. He then turned to the admitting officer and yelled, “Don’t admit this yellow bastard; there’s nothing the matter with him. I won’t have the hospitals cluttered up with these sons of bitches who haven’t got the guts to fight.” He then turned to the man again, who was managing to sit at attention through shaking all over and said, “You’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t, I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact,” he said, reaching for his pistol, “I ought to shoot you myself, you Goddamned whimpering coward.” As he left the tent, the General was still yelling back to the receiving officer to “send that yellow son of a bitch back to the front line.”

It was the second incident coming as it did just days after the first, that motivated the medical officer to send a report through army medical channels to Omar Bradley, who was now commanding officer of II Corps. Doubtless out of loyalty to Patton and a sense of his importance to the war, Bradley did nothing more than lock the report in his safe. But the medical officers also sent a report directly to Eisenhower, who received it on August 16. The very next day, Ike wrote Patton what Patton himself described as “a very nasty letter,” in which he pulled no punches: “if there is a very considerable element of truth to the allegations . . . I must so seriously question your good judgment and yourself discipline as to raise serious doubts in my mind as to your future usefulness.” However, Eisenhower took pains to make it clear that the incident had not been entered into the records of Allied Headquarter. He did not want to bring Patton up on official charges, and when Demaree Bess, a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post and other reporters heard about the incident, they complied with Eisenhower’s request to bury the story because, Ike explained, the American war effort could not afford to lose Patton.

Contrary to some accounts, Eisenhower did not order Patton to make a round of apologies for his outburst. Patton himself decided that such amends were necessary, albeit mainly to placate his commander:

“I hate to make Ike mad when it is my earnest study to please him,” he wrote in his diary on August 20. Patton made his first apologies to the doctors and nurses of the hospitals involved, then to Kuhl and Bennett personally and in private (he insisted on their shaking hands with him), and, in September, to a body of troops assembled for a USO show. Each time, he spoke sincerely, if defensively, insisting that while his method had been, beyond question, wrong, his motive had been unimpeachable. To the group of doctors and nurses, he even told a story about a World War I friend who had lost his nerves in battle and subsequently committed suicide. Pattton suggested that, had someone slapped sense into him in a timely manner, his life might have been saves. As for Kuhl and Bennett, Patton explained that he was urgently trying to return them to an understanding of “their obligation as men and soldiers.” When he addressed the large assembly of troops in September, Patton offered humor. “I thought I would stand here,” he said as he took the stage, “and let you see what a son of a bitch looks like and whether I am as big a son of a bitch as you think I am.”

The troops ate it up.

 Patton by Alan AxelrodExcerpted from Patton by Alan Axelrod.

Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.