On this day, General George S. Patton, commander of the U.S. 3rd Army, dies from injuries suffered not in battle but in a freak car accident. He was 60 years old.
Descended from a long line of military men, Patton graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1909. He represented the United States in the 1912 Olympics-as the first American participant in the pentathlon. He did not win a medal. He went on to serve in the Tank Corps during World War I, an experience that made Patton a dedicated proponent of tank warfare.
During World War II, as commander of the U.S. 7th Army, he captured Palermo, Sicily, in 1943 by just such means. Patton’s audacity became evident in 1944, when, during the Battle of the Bulge, he employed an unorthodox strategy that involved a 90-degree pivoting move of his 3rd Army forces, enabling him to speedily relieve the besieged Allied defenders of Bastogne, Belgium.
Along the way, Patton’s mouth proved as dangerous to his career as the Germans. When he berated and slapped a hospitalized soldier diagnosed with “shell shock,” but whom Patton accused of “malingering,” the press turned on him, and pressure was applied to cut him down to size. He might have found himself enjoying early retirement had not General Dwight Eisenhower and General George Marshall intervened on his behalf. After several months of inactivity, he was put back to work.
And work he did-at the Battle of the Bulge, during which Patton once again succeeded in employing a complex and quick-witted strategy, turning the German thrust into Bastogne into an Allied counterthrust, driving the Germans east across the Rhine. In March 1945, Patton’s army swept through southern Germany into Czechoslovakia—which he was stopped from capturing by the Allies, out of respect for the Soviets’ postwar political plans for Eastern Europe.
Patton had many gifts, but diplomacy was not one of them. After the war, while stationed in Germany, he criticized the process of denazification, the removal of former Nazi Party members from positions of political, administrative, and governmental power. His impolitic press statements questioning the policy caused Eisenhower to remove him as U.S. commander in Bavaria. He was transferred to the 15th Army Group, but in December of 1945 he suffered a broken neck in a car accident and died less than two weeks later.