Reflections of a Fighting Father

by Jeffrey St. John

The following article is a summary of a two-and-a-half-hour exclusive interview with Major-General George S. Patton (Ret) and Mrs. Ruth Ellen Totten, the son and daughter of Major General George S. Patton Jr. (1885-1945). The interview was conducted in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where both General Patton and Mrs. Totten make their home.

General Patton, 63, graduated West Point Military Academy in 1946. His first combat assignment was in Korea as a tank commander and during the Vietnam conflict he served three tours of duty, between 1961 and 1969, for a total of 33 months. His decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Purple Heart. Promoted to Brigadier General in 1970, he later attained the rank of Major-General in 1973. In 1975 General Patton made military history by assuming command of the Second Armored Division that had been his father's first divisional command. It was the first time in US. military history that a son took command of a unit previously commanded by his father. He retired in 1980 after 34 years of active service as a U.S. Army commissioned officer. In retirement, General Patton divides his time between farming and extensive public speaking dates. He is the father of five children, two girls and three boys.

Mrs. Ruth Ellen Totten, 70, is the family historian and has supervised the collection and editing of the family papers. She is currently at work on a biography of their mother, Mrs. George S. Patton, Jr., who was a published novelist. In 1940 she married James W. Totten, a career army officer, who rose to the rank of Major-General. She is the mother of three children. One of them, Colonel Michael W. Totten, is the Military Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria.

Christmas 1945 had a special meaning for Americans on the home front, for they no longer feared that the sound of the doorbell or the ring of the telephone carried the dreaded telegrammed news from the War Department in Washington informing a family that a loved one serving overseas in Europe or in the Pacific had been killed or was missing in action.

Four days before the holiday, a 21-year-old West Point cadet went unnoticed as the Weehawken, New Jersey, ferry made its way to Manhattan Island. Most of the ferry passengers sat reading in silence or discussed in hushed voices the front-page headline on the extra edition of the New York newspapers. "General Patton Dies In Sleep," the black bannered headline said, with a picture of General George S. Patton Jr. looking every inch the warrior that earned him the nickname "Old Blood & Guts."

The passengers on the Weehawken ferry did not know that the young West Point cadet would carry for the next 40 years the memory of that ferry ride with a melancholy clarity--for he too had just learned from those headlines that his father had died.

Cadet George S. Patton was on Christmas leave, traveling to his sister's Washington home, when he read that his famous father had died from injuries suffered in a December 9, 1945, truck-auto accident on the German autobahn new Mannheim.

"I had a deep feeling he wasn't going to make it," General Patton recalled for The New American. "I went over to the West Point hospital and talked to the doctors about the injury. They knew he had a broken neck and that he would be paralyzed, even if he did pull through, so they told me not to get my hopes up."

The pain of his father's passing and manner of learning of it was compounded by the fact that his mother decided he would not fly to Europe with her for the funeral and burial at the national cemetery in Luxembourg, to be surrounded by the slain of the Third Army that he had led to victory.

"I was right in the middle of some very tough examinations," he explains with a mixture of pain and regret, "and the funeral was on the 24th of December, which happens to be my birthday. The decision was made by her that I should not go. In retrospect, I don't agree with the decision, but there you are," he adds with a melancholy finality in his voice.

Mrs. Ruth Ellen Totten sat across from her younger brother, radiating a shining strength mixed with a sensitivity and wistful regret that after 40 years there is no way to ease the hurt, of a son not having had the opportunity to present the final, soldierly farewell to his father. "It was his birthday, the night before Christmas. He didn't want a birthday party, and I said if you don't have a party now, you'll never feel the same about your birthday," Mrs. Totten recalls.

Time, however, has not allowed the hurt to heal. Reporters have not helped. "You know, we have gone over it and over it with hundreds of media people. It's been beaten to death so much I get a little upset." General Patton tells you with his usual candor that is empty of personal rebuke but with a voice filled with irritation and pain.

The living room and library of General Patton's comfortable South Hamilton farmhouse are overflowing with his own memorabilia from service in Korea and Vietnam, as well as that of his father's; a life-size oil hanging over the fireplace, the four-star helmets, and, most important, the books with copious margin notes are tangible reminders of a vibrant life.

Mrs. Totten sat across from her brother and recalled how their father forecast to her and her older sister Beatrice (who died ten years later, two years after their mother had died) in June of 1945 while he was on leave that this was the last time they would see him alive.

"Mother went upstairs to powder her nose; we were having lunch at my sister's house in Washington," she relates in a laconic manner. "He said, 'Well, good-bye girls. I won't be seeing you again.' And I said, Oh what are you talking about? And he said, 'Well, I have used up my luck. I won't be seeing you again. I will be seeing your mother, I won't be seeing you. Keep an eye on your kid brother.'

"I said, Oh, come on daddy, it's crazy. The war is over. And he said, 'Well, my luck has run out. Every shell that has struck near me, struck closer each time. Front-line infantry men use up their tuck a lot faster than a rear line cook. You are born with a certain amount of luck, like money in the bank, and you spend it and it's gone.' "

Mrs. Totten tells you that when the news reached the family that their father had died, she and her sister were better prepared because of the prophetic conversation they had had with their father.

"We were all prepared, my sister and I, but George hadn't been prepared," she said, shooting her brother an empathetic glance. Even though, she continues, "All three of us had been brought up being told he was going to die in a foreign land and he was going to be buried there. We grew up with that. When you are a little kid and your father says something like that, you believe it!"

For this and other reasons, General Patton and Mrs. Totten dismiss the persistent assertions that their father was the victim of an assassination conspiracy because of his blunt opposition to the Soviets and what he, correctly, forecast was the Kremlin's real post-World War II aims.

"He was anti-Russian," General Patton says, "and his relief from the Third Amy command stirred up a lot of people, mainly Ike [General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander]. I have discussed this with my sister and brother-in-law in much detail and we don't feel there was a conspiracy. I know for a fact that it was not an assassination attempt."

Mrs. Totten nods in agreement. "No, it wasn't murder. He wasn't murdered. His time had come. When your time comes, it comes. There is no way out of it," she adds with a firm finality, recalling that her grandfather had quoted Peter Pan to her when she was a little girl that "death is a great adventure."

Although it has been 40 years since the funeral of General George S. Patton, son and daughter still express with shining admiration how their mother conducted herself during the funeral and burial on December 24, 1945. The funeral train left the Heidelberg Cathedral for Luxembourg in a gray, foggy overcast drizzle. During the procession through Germany, thousands, many of them veterans of the army that General Patton had defeated, stood bare-headed along the train tracks in silent tribute. In a dozen cities and small towns, the funeral train stopped and Mrs. Patton would emerge and give a short speech of appreciation in flawless French. The stops took place between 1:00 AM and 6:00 PM in the morning! "She exited each time the train stopped and inspected the honor guard that was lined up along the railroad track. She was a very, very tough woman. Totally strong, but sentimental," Mrs. Totten recalls.

"She acted her part. She was something else," adds General Patton, full of love and admiration for their mother in the most trying ordeal of her life.

Although dozens of books have been written about General George S. Patton Jr. Beatrice Ayer Patton remains in the shadow. Yet, she was a critical force in the life and times of the man she had met at age 16 and married at 24. "She didn't want people to know about her. She wanted them to know about my father," said Mrs. Totten, who is working on a biography of her mother.

"I wish the h*** you would finish it," General Patton says with visible impatience. "I am working on it right now, George. I've got to re-edit it," she replies with a trace of annoyance at her brother's needling in front of a stranger. "I hope the book comes out," he adds with an edge of doubt in his voice. "It will," she replies with steely firmness.

Mrs. Totten describes her mother as a "pocket Venus, perfectly beautiful" with brains and a literary gift. Beatrice Ayer's father was an orphan at four and although lacking a formal education went on to become a business tycoon. "He backed Alexander Graham Bell's telephone when nobody else would. He backed the subway in New York. He bought land in Manhattan. He was a forward-thinking man. He died at 96 from horseback riding in the rain," she relates in a matter-of-fact manner.

But what kind of influence did Beatrice Ayer Patton have on her husband?

"I don't think he could have lived without her," Mrs. Totten replies, her voice revealing a hidden romantic. "She knew all about him, She knew his background, his relatives, and everything about him. She was like a rich tapestry behind him. He would stand out and she was there to fill in the background, giving roses to the wives of the people he had hurt. But she didn't put up with unsuitable behavior a bit, swearing and extra drinking, for instance."

She maintains that her father's fame for using profanity with troops was an act that he did not carry into their home. Both Mrs. Totten and General Patton concede that until each was ten or eleven they were intimidated by their father. "You wept with delight when he gave you a smile and trembled with fear at his frown," Mrs. Totten said with a smile.

General Patton agrees that his father's use of profanity was "soldier's talk" and a device for effective command, and recalls he emulated his father by using four-letter words with his troops in Korea and Vietnam. He also recalls that he spent a great deal of time with his father prior to World War II.

"He was a first-class father," he says. "He taught me all kinds of things: to shoot, ride, and we worked on ship models together. He loved the ocean, did a lot of sailing. When I was a little boy I was scared to death of him. Then when I got to be about 11 just decided one day I wasn't going to be scared to death of him. He never laid a hand on me, not once. Never spanked me or anything like that. He locked me in my room once. That was the worst thing he ever did."

Mrs. Totten recalls that when her father came home from World War I, she, as a little girl, could not remember what he looked like. Her mother had said she could expect a knight in armor.

"I must say I was terribly disappointed," she adds, "because I was told I would be seeing a gentle knight. He was a kind of disagreeable man. The first time he ever spoke to me without yelling was when I came in and he was disassembling guns all over the living room floor. He looked at me and said, 'Hello little lady.' I burst into tears. My father yelled to my mother: 'Beatrice, come and get the baby, she's crying d******, and I didn't do anything to upset her.'

"Shortly after that mother said that he must do something to get in touch with his daughters. So he bought us a bull terrier, named Ted, because he had always wanted a bull terrier. Ted was stone deaf and by the time we found out he was deaf my sister and I refused to part with him. Oh, he was a wonderful dog."

The three Patton children did not become "Army brats" and both General Patton and Mrs. Totten tell you that they loved Army life with their parents, "I would give anything to go back to the Army again. I have been away 18 years and I have never been so bored. We had a better time in those days, We had a h*** of a good time," Mrs. Totten says with a burst of uninhibited exuberance.

"We really had a ball in those days prior to World War II. We had a h*** of a good time. I enjoyed living on an Army post," General Patton says with boyish glee. "In retirement, I think my dad would have sat down and written a book on strategy. He would have been hard to handle if he had come home in one piece. Without that accident, he would have been hard to handle, as we all are. I've had my adjustment problems with this d*** civilian life too."

Both recall that when they were growing up on various Army posts the entire family would dress in formal wear for dinner almost every night. The meals with silver and linen would turn into seminars ranging from lessons in history to the geological origins of silver. "Dinnertime conversations were always fascinating," Mrs. Totten said of her father's intellectual interests.

"You should have heard him recite poetry," she adds. "He. was a good actor when he read poetry. He knew poems by heart, four and five pages long, and he would recite them to us. Oh, Gee, I would recite an awful lot of them because I was so impressed with him that I memorized about half the poetry that he could recite."

General Patton does not like to think of his father as an intellectual, rather as "a professional student of arms," and probably one of the best who ever lived. I would rate him in the top two or three in history.

Mrs. Totten agrees and dislikes the label "intellectual" because of his intensive and life-long reading of history and biography. "George is right, scholar is a better word than intellectual. He was a great scholar. He could read Greek from the original and translate into English in his head. He used to read the Iliad to us," Mrs. Totten says with a joyous smile.

General Patton has part of his father's library, books filled with extensive margin notes. He studied his profession all the time. He I studied the profession of arms intensely. The other generals of World War II did not have the same historical base that my dad did. You look at the books that are his and you can see the tremendous breadth of study he did before World War II," he says.

"I particularly remember in Hawaii," General Patton goes on, "when he was there, as a lieutenant colonel. He had a little office in the back of the house and he used to stay there very late at night studying various military works, but mostly biography and autobiography. As a matter of fact, that was some advice he gave to me. He said study biography and autobiography."

General Patton provided an illustration of his father's intense mental preparation applied to his task as a military commander.

"It may be of interest," he relates, "that on the way to North Africa in 1942, my dad read the Koran from cover to cover. He said that it bored the h*** out of him, but he really felt he had to do it so that he could understand the Moroccan way of living. I thought that was pretty farsighted. We should do more of that today."

In World War II, countless officers and enlisted men idolized General George S. Patton, Jr. But whom did he idolize and take as his hero? General Patton without hesitation answers: General John J. Pershing, who was U.S. Supreme Commander in World War I.

"His relationship with Pershing was extremely intimate," Patton relates. "He worshipped Pershing. Pershing was a hero of his. He modeled himself after Pershing in terms of integrity and character. He was an absolute straight arrow, no variance from his mission. I think that historians today regard Pershing as the father of the modern American Army. I met General Pershing, when I was a boy. He came to the house a couple of times."

Historically, General Patton maintains that there were four military heroes of his father's: Horatio Nelson, the British naval hero; Frederick the Great of Prussia; and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. "What he most admired about them was their professional competence, their ability to win battles," General Patton observes.

General George S. Patton's driving ambition to succeed came from his ancestors, two of whom fought on the Confederate side, according to his son. He has no doubt that his father's colorful personality and winning of battles, the latter a product of long preparation, produced professional jealousy and envy among his fellow field commanders. He specifically states that he has no doubt that General Mark Clark, Fifth Army Commander in Italy, harbored feelings of jealousy toward his father. But contributing to the problem, General Patton believes, were his father's outspoken ways.

The famous "slapping incident" that almost cost him his military career during World War was, in his son's view, wrong and cannot be justified even today. "I personally and professionally believe he should not have done it," General Patton states. "At the time of the incident in that hospital, he was pretty well worn out, and extremely high strung, trying to get to Messina ahead of the British, trying to clean up Sicily in record time, which he did in 38 days. I believe that if he were sitting here today, he would say he shouldn't have done it.

"You just don't strike an enlisted man. But I could understand why he did it. I might have done the same thing under the same circumstances. He was looking at very, very seriously wounded, perhaps dying men, and this enlisted man as a shirker was too much of a stark contrast for the Ol' Man. I think something may have cracked. But I think the press made a mountain out of a molehill.

"Of course, in the movie, George C. Scott says 'I wish I had kissed the son-of-a-b****.' But I have a friend who lives in Kentucky and was in the audience at the time my dad made a speech to the First Division. He was required to go out and apologize to everybody. In the movie, it is not actually what he said. He got up in front of the First Division in Sicily and said, 'I'm General Patton. I'm just standing here to see if you all think I'm as big of a son-of-a-b**** as the press thinks I am.' The whole group up and cheered him."

General Patton's subsequent relief as Seventh Army Commander, after his swift series of victories in North Africa, baffled the German General Staff, who wondered why General Eisenhower would remove the U.S.'s most successful military field commander. "That was precisely what the German General Staff thought because I talked to a couple of them when I went to Europe in 1958. They could not understand why that was done," General Patton observes.

Mrs. Totten recalled a later incident when her father visited the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a physical therapist during World War II.

"He didn't want to come; he said he didn't have any luck in hospitals," she recalls, "and they told him he had to come. There was a whole lot of press people around him. Just before he came into the ward where I worked, he turned around and said to the press: 'What do you b******* expect? Do you expect me to slap another soldier so you can put it in the paper?' Which startled them because that was just what they had been hoping.

"He stood in the middle of the ward and burst into tears and said: 'If I had been a better commander many of you wouldn't be here today.' He pulled out his handkerchief and walked out. He didn't leave a dry eye in that ward, including the nurses. Later those boys, most of them double amputees, told me that they each thought he had spoken directly to them. He had somehow projected himself so widely, that the whole ward thought that he had given each of them a personal greeting."

Mrs. Totten and General Patton both agree that the Walter Reed incident with their father contained a certain amount of play acting, arguing that an element of theatrics is part of an effective military commander's tool kit. General Patton said that while he was in Vietnam he borrowed the Walter Reed incident of his father when he visited his wounded men in hospitals,

Throughout his military career, General George S. Patton Jr. used his extensive study and knowledge of history and drew on it when he needed it. For example, the famous prayer their father had composed during the Battle for Bastogne in December 1944, praying for clear weather, which he had printed on the back of a Christmas card, Mrs. Totten contends, was borrowed from the ancient Greek warrior Achilles who prayed to the god Zeus for a clear day so that his warriors might die in the sunshine. "He never forgot anything and he used it. He knew just where to put his hand to pick up each, little thing. He had a quote for everything," Mrs. Totten says.

General Patton says that his father's mind was "like a little tool box" and everything in it found a use when the occasion arose. Both are convinced that had their father lived to see Korea and Vietnam he would have had a hard time tolerating a no-win strategy. "It was totally foreign to anything that he had ever studied or believed in or practiced. He would have hated every minute of it and he would have raised h***!" Mrs. Totten observes with visible anger.

Prior to his fatal auto accident, General George S. Patton Jr. had grown disgusted and disillusioned with the political and military leaders who refused to face the threat of the Soviets. He was prepared to resign his commission and crusade for a policy of firm opposition to the Soviets. If he had remained in the U.S. military service, however, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of General John J. Pershing and bring along the next generation of military officers by heading the War College.

"He wanted the War College real bad," General Patton said of his father. "He wanted to teach strategy and tactics to senior officers who were coming up. There was a lot of rank laying around after World War II. You wouldn't put a four star general like my dad into the War College. It's a job for a major or lieutenant general. I think he would have taken a demotion to head the War College."

General Patton credits his father with having had a large influence in guiding his own education. Originally, he wanted to attend military prep school prior to entering West Point. But his father said no, insisting that he attend a civilian prep school so that he could "learn the other side of society" beyond the military.

Ironically, when he attended West Point during World War II, he followed in his father's footsteps by taking five instead of four years to graduate, failing the same mathematics course as his father had a generation before.

"He wrote me a letter," General Patton recalls, "saying that he was sorry to hear of my misfortune, but that he was unable to criticize me for my misfortune, because he had also spent an extra year at the Academy. I pitched in and studied with a wonderful tutor in the Bronx, Jacob R. Silverman, and took the reentrance exam that had ten tough problems and I knew the correct answers to nine of them."

Unlike a great many sons of famous men, General Patton says that he never had a problem either at West Point or during his own long military career being the son of a military legend and hero. "I didn't have a problem with that," he says matter-of-factly.

Of her brother, Mrs. Totten adds, "People are always comparing him to our father and it isn't fair. No two people are alike. He is a great man in his way."

Only once, General Patton recalls, did his being the son of General George S. Patton Jr. affect his military career and it was during the Korean conflict. He threatened to "screw up" if he could not get a combat assignment, he recalls, and made no less than ten applications. And he wanted to be assigned to a particular tank battalion in Korea, but the division commander denied the request. As it turned out, according to General Patton, his father had fired the general officer when he was a colonel in the second world war. "He said very honestly that he would prefer not to have Captain Patton assigned to his division because of his feelings about my father. But the division commander who made that decision against me was right," General Patton insists.

He does concede that while he never developed any problems being the son of a great military leader, he always felt the pressure that more was expected of him because of the Patton legend. "I just did the best job I could all the time," he says matter-of-factly. "That's the only way I can explain it. I have always believed in being your own man."

General Patton does believe that his own military career was in many ways enhanced by having the knowledge and experience of his father to draw on.

"One thing I learned from my Ol' Man," he says, " was how to handle soldiers. A soldier is a soldier. You've got to look after them constantly. There is no difference between the soldier today and those in the 12th Roman Legion, except what he worships. They had the same passions and fears and they got just as muddy, dirty, and P***** off as the soldier in Vietnam.

"There was not a lot of difference between Vietnam and the Pacific in World War II; there was the heat, the weather, and the enemy--we were fighting Orientals. The difference was in the national strategy, the attitude of the White House, and the goals and missions of the Vietnam War. But at the front-line level there wasn't a lot of difference."

During World War I, General George S. Patton Jr. later recalled that in the midst of a fierce battle he had had a vision of his warrior ancestors urging him on into battle. During the Korean War, General Patton had a similar experience, involving his father.

As General Patton recalls it, he and a Korean colonel were on a roadside, and to reach his jeep radio he had to cross the road which was under artillery bombardment. The Korean officer advised him not to cross the road. But, according to General Patton, he knew that his own men were endangered if he did not reach the radio to warn them of a tactical change.

"I looked up at the sky and there he was," General Patton says of his father, "He said, 'Get your a** across that road.' That was the message I got. I took a deep breath and took off and as I crossed the made road the shelling stopped--or relaxed. I think my sense of duty and obligation to my men would have made me cross that road anyway, But his appearance in the clouds helped to spur me on."

When General Patton made U.S. military history by taking over the Second Armored Division, which his father had commanded, he had a similar experience.

"I'll never forget at that change of command ceremony in August of 1975," General Patton relates, "I could feel him all around me. He loved that division above the any other in the Army. It was not under him in World War II in Europe, but he did have the division under him in Sicily and in North Africa. He loved that division as I do, and when I took command I could feel he was with me there."

As for his own military idol and hero, beyond his father, it is General Creighton Abrams, the commanding general in Vietnam. He regrets that a book has not been written on his career and service in Vietnam.

Until the motion picture "Patton," starring George C. Scott, was produced, public interest in General George S. Patton Jr. was of interest only to historians. Since "Patton," the interest has never ceased, particularly this year, as 1985 marks the 100th year of his birth and the 40th year of his death.

Mrs. Totten recalls that she "fought tooth and nail for 20 years" the making of a movie about their father and hired the best lawyers to prevent the picture's production, The bad experience that their father had at the hands of the press made her understandably opposed to a motion picture on their father.

"I was horrified at the idea. But I liked it, I was so surprised," Mrs. Totten added. "George C. Scott did a great job. He didn't have our father's voice and he didn't look like him. But he had all the Ol' Man's gestures. It was extraordinary. I take my hat off to him."

Both believe that what was left out of Patton" was the depth and breadth of their father's mind and scholarship. General Patton's favorite part of "Patton" is the scene where his father tells General Bradley, portrayed by Karl Malden, that both of them are prima donnas.

"The difference between you and me is that I admit it and love it," Scott says to Malden.

The second best scene in "Patton," according to General Patton, is the burial scene in a North African military cemetery after his father's young aide, Captain Richard Jensen, is killed.

"The way he walked in that scene at the Jensen funeral," General Patton says, "was incredible. I grew up with Dick Jensen and knew him very well. A lovely guy. And the walk going away in the scene was absolutely incredible. It looked like the Ol' Man."

Mrs. Totten also has a favorite scene in the motion picture. "I liked it when he was going into Eisenhower's office and that marble statue of the emperor was staring over his shoulder," she relates.

But the opening scene in "Patton," with George C. Scott in front of a huge American flag is, according to General Patton, inaccurate as far as the uniform Scott was wearing.

"The initial speech is a mixture of about three different speeches," General Patton observes, "and the uniform is not accurate at all. He would not have worn big medals with a Class A uniform. Dad was always precise about wearing the right uniform for the right occasion. No, he wouldn't have done that. But I have to say that General Harkins, who passed away about a year ago, did a super job on the technical side. The pistols were right, the uniforms were right. The insignia was right."

General Patton and Mrs. Totten believe that the definitive book has yet to be written about their father. Both also believe that despite the fame and legend that still surround their father 40 years after his death, they have escaped many the problems that often afflict the children of great men. The Patton children were fortunate that their father's fame did not come until World War II when the two daughters had left home, were married, and had given their father grandchildren. And George S. Patton Jr.'s only son managed in his own right to achieve general officer rank despite the persistent and unfair comparisons. Like their famous father, they are uniquely individualistic people and as blunt in stating their opinions as was their father. And, like their father, they have had their problems with the news media who come calling for an interview without doing their homework. This exchange illustrates the point:

Mrs. Totten: "George, we have had some real kooks from the news media." General Patton: "I made a speech and the press came up later. One asked: 'What do you think about the future of NATO after the Reagan-Gorbachev summit? I said, What do you think about the future of the Warsaw Pact after the summit? She looked at me and said, 'What is the Warsaw pact?' If the press is so d*** lazy not to get the background on a subject, they shouldn't leave their d*** office."

Mrs. Totten: "George, remember when the TV crew came up here and interviewed us and one of them asked if daddy was dead. They came up here from Boston and interviewed George and me and asked if our father was dead! I asked him how much homework they had done. And then one of the young men asked what we do. We have no love for the press."