October 25, 2016

1943. General Patton's Shell Shock Scandal

The Patton Scandal
Lieutenant General George S. Patton in Sicily, July 11, 1943 (source)

From Newsweek, December 6, 1943, pp. 60-62:

PATTON'S SLAP

Poor Press Handling Worsened the Scandal of General's Outburst
There was a classic precedent. When Abraham Lincoln's secretary John Hay told him some people wanted Gen. U. S. Grant removed because he drank, the President tossed off a characteristic retort: "If I knew what brand of whisky he drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals."

It turned out last week that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had followed essentially the same reasoning in dealing with one of the greatest personal scandals of United States Army history—the case of Gen. George S. Patton and the two "shell-shocked" privates. Because Patton, like old Grant, is a fighter, Eisenhower had let Old Blood and Guts off lightly—with a reprimand that "took his hide off" and an order for him to apologize to all concerned.

But the affair was too spectacular and too shocking to be left at that. In the Senate—which happened to be considering a promotion for Patton—it was slated this week to be fully discussed on the floor.


The Man: From the beginning no one doubted Patton was capable of manhandling his soldiers. Once the story was out, correspondents in North Africa rehashed over all the incidents that added up to the character of an extraordinarily tough, flamboyant, and emotional soldier. Even in battle he insisted on strict compliance with regulations on dress—woolens even in the desert; helmets and neckties, too, at all times. "Put on your leggings," he barked to a captain during the fierce fighting at Guettar.

He was dogmatic on casualties: "Even the worst wound doesn't hurt any more. Of course if you get hit in the liver it hurts, but then if you get hit in the liver usually you're a dead cookie." Yet when one of his aides was killed the general openly wept. About his nickname there are many legends; according to one, he told his troops: "We've got to kill the Germans . . . We've got to attack them, run our bayonets through them, and then take their blood and guts to grease the tracks of the tanks." (By an ill-timed coincidence, the magazine True Confessions last week came out with a somewhat saccharine interview quoting Mrs. Patton: "The general makes a lot of noise. But he's quite sweet, really.")


The Incident: The man fitted the incident. But Army handling of the story was wretched. Suppressed for months, it finally broke last Sunday when from Washington the columnist Drew Pearson broadcast a sketchy account. At Allied headquarters in Algiers, Maj. Gen. Walter B. (Beetle) Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, at first replied with evasions. But in more or less garbled form the incident was known to nearly every soldier and correspondent in North Africa—and to many in the United States. Hence Eisenhower and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson disavowed the evasion. A day later General Smith was forced to call in Algiers correspondents and tell the truth. In Washington the Senate Military Affairs Committee demanded an official report from Stimson. The Secretary relayed the demand to Eisenhower. The result was a series of reports that added up to this:

In the thick of the Sicily campaign and not far from the front, Patton was touring hospital tents near San Stefano. He went the rounds commending wounded soldiers. Then he came upon one who sat on the edge of his cot. "Where were you wounded?" asked Patton. The soldier, a "shell-shock" case,* mumbled something about hearing shells that never landed and guessed it was his nerves. Well known for his disbelief in the reality of "shell-shock," Patton flew into a rage, called the soldier "yellow-bellied," and gave him a backhanded cuff that knocked off the man's helmet lining. A nurse lunged at the general but was restrained and led away weeping. As he was leaving, Patton heard the soldier sobbing. He strolled back and slapped the private again. At about the same time, Patton similarly upbraided another "shell-shock" victim.

Hearing from a doctor and newspapermen about Patton's "unseemly and indefensible" behavior, Eisenhower told Blood and Guts that a repetition would bring his instant removal and ordered him to apologize to all concerned. He sent a general to Sicily to investigate and went there himself. Patton did apologize, not only to the private, the nurse, and the doctors, but to all divisional officers he could find. Inquiry into troop morale convinced Eisenhower that "no great harm had been done." He noted that whenever Patton recently addressed his troops he got "thunderous applause."


The Law: Under the Articles of War, Patton could have been court-martialed for assault, dismissed for conduct unbecoming of an officer, or merely admonished. As theater commanding officer, Eisenhower chose admonition—because Patton is "an invaluable officer who has done great things and can do more."

Few last week questioned Eisenhower's choice. As Stimson put it, the Army selects its theater commanders carefully, gives them full authority, and holds them responsible for their decisions. Hence Eisenhower's decision would boomerang first upon Eisenhower, if anyone.


The Reaction: Eisenhower's report failed to satisfy all of Congress's questions. Weeks before President Roosevelt had sent the Senate a batch of Army promotions—one raising Patton from his permanent rank of colonel to major general, two grades higher; another elevating General Smith from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. All had been held up until both houses had passed a bill to eliminate a long-standing requirement that before promotion lieutenant colonels must have served 28 years in the Army (Smith had spent only 26). All were finally ready for confirmation when the Patton revelations once more stalled action. The best way out, decided the Senate Military Affairs Committee, was to let Eisenhower's report simmer and then bring it to the floor this week.

Meanwhile, as appears inevitable in irreverent America, the Patton incident became the subject of gags. Junior officers and civilians around the Pentagon proposed a new decoration—the Order of the Boot—for victims of "Pistol Packin' Patton."

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* A misnomer. Now called "battle anxiety" or "exhaustion," the condition results from fatigue, noise, and protracted strain. Treatment consists of sleep, special diets, and warm baths and usually refits men for combat in a matter of days.