George S. Patton made his mark in World War I as the first officer assigned to the new U.S. Army Tank Corps before becoming one of the most prominent military commanders in World War II. Learn 10 surprising facts about the outspoken American general nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts.”
Patton was an Olympic athlete.
As a 26-year-old Army cavalry officer, Patton was selected as the sole American competitor in the first-ever Olympic modern pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm. Of the 42 competitors, he finished in fifth place, although he might have medaled if not for a controversy in the pistol-shooting event. While the judges believed Patton missed the target with one of his shots, he argued that he was so fine a marksman that one of his bullets actually traveled through a bullet hole he had already made. Patton was also selected to the 1916 Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled due to World War I.
He believed in reincarnation.
Patton claimed he had seen combat many times before in previous lives, including as a Roman legionnaire and as part of the 14th-century army of John the Blind of Bohemia. Before the 1943 invasion of Sicily, British General Harold Alexander told Patton, “You know, George, you would have made a great marshal for Napoleon if you had lived in the 19th century.” Patton replied, “But I did.” The general believed that after he died he would return to once again lead armies into battle.
He was forced to repeat his first year at West Point.
Patton struggled academically during his initial year at the U.S. Military Academy and was required to repeat his first year after failing mathematics. The plebe began working with a tutor and redoubled his efforts to receive adequate grades the remainder of his tenure at West Point, eventually graduating 46th in his class of 103 cadets.
Patton first saw combat and gained fame chasing Pancho Villa.
In response to a deadly 1916 raid by Pancho Villa in Columbus, New Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson ordered American troops across the Mexican border to capture or kill the Mexican revolutionary. Patton served as aide-de-camp to the mission’s commander, General John J. Pershing, and participated in the first motorized attack in the history of American warfare on May 14, 1916, in which Villa’s second-in-command and two of his guards were killed. Patton garnered headlines by ordering the three corpses strapped like trophy animals to the hoods of his unit’s automobiles before driving back to base.
He carried a pair of pistols with ivory handles.
Patton fired a new ivory-handled Colt .45 in the deadly Mexican shootout, but after the battle he decided to carry a second ivory-handled handgun for added firepower. The flamboyant pistols contained his hand-carved initials and became his trademarks.
He earned a Purple Heart in World War I.
While personally leading an attack on German machine gun positions as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on September 26, 1918, Patton was struck by a round that tore into his left thigh. Badly wounded, he continued to command the battle for the next hour from a shell hole and insisted on filing his report at division headquarters before being taken to the evacuation hospital. When the Purple Heart was reinstituted in 1932, Patton was awarded the honor for his combat wounds.
Patton played a pivotal role in the eviction of the Bonus Marchers.
On July 28, 1932, Patton received orders from U.S. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to disperse the World War I veterans seeking cash payments for their veterans’ bonus certificates who had occupied Washington, D.C., for two months. Charging down Pennsylvania Avenue and through the streets of the national capital, Patton led 600 cavalry troops on horseback who fired tear gas into the “Bonus Marchers,” trampled civilian observers including Connecticut Senator Hiram Bingham and beat protestors with the flats of their swords.
He was used as a decoy in the lead-up to D-Day.
General Dwight Eisenhower believed Patton too undisciplined to lead the Allied invasion of Normandy, particularly after the impulsive Patton slapped two shell-shocked soldiers under his command in an Italian field hospital in August 1943. Nazi military leaders, however, considered him the Allies’ best commander and expected he would lead a cross-channel invasion. As part of the elaborate disinformation campaign leading up to D-Day, Patton was placed in charge of a phantom army, complete with plywood aircraft and inflatable rubber tanks, in southeast England to make it appear he would strike at the channel’s narrowest point at Pas de Calais, France. Even weeks after D-Day, the Germans continued to amass troops at Pas de Calais expecting that Patton would still come ashore there.
His grandfather was mayor of Los Angeles.
Patton’s maternal grandfather, Benjamin Davis Wilson, was a powerful southern California landowner who became the second elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1851. He also served as a county clerk, a county supervisor and a state senator. Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains is named in his honor.
He designed his own sword.
Patton was one of the top swordsmen at West Point and among the foremost fencers in the United States. He redesigned the Army’s saber combat doctrine for the cavalry by favoring thrusting attacks over slashing maneuvers and designed the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, a new straight-blade weapon designed for thrusting that became known as the “Patton sword.”