George S. Patton
Article abstract: Though never a theoretician, Patton was a masterful tactician who demonstrated the advantages of mobility and aggressive offensive action as essential elements of modern warfare.
George Smith Patton, Jr., was born on November 11, 1885, in San Gabriel, California. His father, George Smith Patton, was descended from a well-established Virginia family rooted in the culture of genteel Southern aristocracy and steeped in the military tradition one commonly associates with that class. His mother, Ruth Wilson, was the daughter of B. D. Wilson, a California businessman who made a sizable fortune in the winery business. Owing to the affluence of his family, Patton’s childhood was happy and largely carefree. He did suffer from dyslexia, and as a result his parents decided to enroll him in a private school just prior to his twelfth birthday. His classmates represented some of the wealthiest families in Southern California, but it was with the tradition of his paternal forebears that Patton’s affinities lay.
The year 1902 proved to be critically important in Patton’s early life. He had decided to pursue a career in the military and thus sought appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He also met Beatrice Banning Ayer, the daughter of Frederick Ayer, a wealthy industrialist from Massachusetts. She would later become his wife—and her marriage to him would on more than one occasion prove beneficial to Patton’s career. There were no senatorial or congressional vacancies available at West Point in 1902, so Patton enrolled for one year at Virginia Military Institute, his father’s alma mater. During that year, Patton’s father worked untiringly to ensure his son’s appointment to West Point, and his efforts were rewarded the following year.
At nineteen, Patton was tall—slightly over six feet—very athletic, and quite handsome. An arm injury prevented his playing varsity football, but he took up the broadsword, excelled in the high hurdles, and became a skilled horseman. In fact, three years after graduating from West Point, he competed in the Modern Pentathlon event in the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics and finished fifth. Patton had two physical traits, however, which were of great concern to him—a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice, and a very fair and placid facial expression. To correct the latter he practiced in front of a mirror to develop what he called “my war face.” There was little that could be done about his voice, but his frequent use of profanity may well have been designed to compensate for what he considered to be a flaw.
Patton was graduated from West Point in June, 1909. He married Beatrice in May of the following year, and in March, 1911, their first daughter, Beatrice, was born. Following his initial assignment at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago, Patton utilized family influence to secure a tour of duty at Fort Myer in Washington, D.C. Knowing that advancement in the peacetime army would be painfully slow, Patton actively sought to make contact with the “right people.” His personal wealth and family connections certainly facilitated his efforts—a fact well illustrated in 1915, when he secured an assignment to a cavalry regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas, while the rest of his outfit went to the Philippines. It proved to be a particularly fortuitous assignment for Patton, who met and served as aide to General John J. Pershing when the latter was ordered into Mexico in 1916. Patton, who served with distinction in Mexico, regarded Pershing as a model soldier and continued to serve as his aide when the latter was chosen to head the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917.
Once in France, Patton relinquished his staff position for a combat command. He was particularly interested in the tank, which promised to be the cavalry arm of the modern army. His dream of leading a tank unit in combat became a reality during the St. Mihiel campaign. During one engagement he was wounded, but he continued to direct his tanks to their targets by runners. When the newspapers ran the story of the “Hero of the Tanks” who directed his men while lying wounded in a shellhole, Patton became an instant hero. His actions won for him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. Later, he would admit to his father that he had always feared that he was a coward but had now begun to doubt it.
The peacetime army was a difficult place for Patton. He tried desperately to gain appointment as commandant to West Point and even sent a personal letter to Pershing in which he poignantly argued that he could transmit his ideal of “blood and gutts [sic]” to the cadets under his command. The argument failed, but the sobriquet remained for all time.
Denied West Point, Patton pursued the course one might expect of an ambitious young officer on the rise. In 1923, he attended the Command and General Staff College at...
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