September 20

This Day in History

World War I

Sep 20, 1918:

U.S. officer George S. Patton writes home after Saint-Mihiel offensive

On September 20, 1918, 32-year-old Colonel George S. Patton of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) writes to his father from the Western Front in France, recounting his experiences during the American-led offensive against the Germans at Saint-Mihiel earlier that month.

Patton had previously served in Mexico in 1916 under General John J. Pershing during the U.S. army's pursuit of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. The following year, after the U.S. declared war on Germany, the young officer traveled to France as Pershing's aide. At Saint-Mihiel, Patton was put in command of the light-tank brigade. The attack marked the AEF's first major offensive operation as an independent army during World War I, as well as the first time the U.S. had used tanks in battle.

"Dear Papa," Patton began his letter, "we have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped, not as exciting as affairs in Mexico, because there was so much company. When the shelling first started I had some doubts about the advisability of sticking my head over the parapet, but it is just like taking a cold bath, once you get in, it is all right." In the rest of the letter, Patton chronicles his experience in battle alongside a brigade commanded by General Douglas MacArthur (later the commander of all Allied forces in the South Pacific during World War II) and his movement on foot across the battlefield, evading German shells and surveying the damage inflicted by the battle. As Patton finally concluded, "This is a very egotistical letter but intersting [sic] as it shows that vanity is stronger than fear and that in war as now waged there is little of the element of fear, it is too well organized and too stupendous."

Later wounded in the leg by a German machine-gun bullet, Patton was evacuated to a military hospital, where he enjoyed a full recovery. He returned home safe from France, receiving a Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart for his service in World War I. Two decades later, as a general, Patton would play a leading role in World War II, becoming one of the most famous and controversial military figures in U.S. history.

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