A Freak Accident, A Devoted Wife, And The Death of General Patton

Beatrice Ayer Patton’s first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in over seven years was not as she imagined. The plan was to revisit the campaigns of World War II with her husband and son in the summer of 1946; instead, she found herself on a freezing Army Transport with a handful of strangers and seven thousand pounds of mail. Two days earlier, on December 9, 1945, while planning for her husband’s first Christmas at home in four years, an Associated Press reporter called Beatrice at her daughter’s home in Washington, asking her to comment on the accident General Patton suffered on the outskirts of Mannheim that morning.

Getting Beatrice to Germany was a team effort: the State Department issued her an emergency visa within hours, General Eisenhower issued orders to find “the very fastest transportation for Big Bee,” and a national manhunt was under way to locate Colonel Roy Spurling. The renown neurosurgeon was plucked off a train to Kentucky and flown to Washington’s Bolling Field where Beatrice, her temporary aide Lieutenant Colonel Kerwin, and a C-54 Transport Plane were waiting. At 9.45 p.m., a mere sixteen hours after General Patton’s 1938 Cadillac Limousine crashed into a 2 1/2 ton Army truck and he was taken to a hospital in Heidelberg with a broken neck, a determined Beatrice departed on the first leg of a hazardous trip to her husband’s bedside.

Someone curtained off a small area in front of the plane for Beatrice’s comfort, but as soon as the plane reached cruising altitude the cabin became “bitterly cold” and she moved to the back to sit with Lt. Col. Kerwin and Col. Spurling. Both men were instantly infected with Beatrice’s intrepid spirit despite the discomfort of traveling on a plane which wasn’t intended to take along passengers. The few available blankets on board were hardly enough to keep the trio warm on the aluminum seats, least of all Col. Spurling, who was wearing nothing more than a light uniform and a trench coat. Beatrice handed him a pair of ski pajamas and one of her sweaters, apologizing profusely when she learned he was about to be released from military service on December 20 and had been on his way home to spend Christmas with his family.

Col. Spurling couldn’t help but smile when they landed at 5 a.m. in Stephenville, Newfoundland, a busy relay station for transatlantic flights which he passed through several times during the war. Whereas in the past he was merely “herded through the crowds with sharp, curt commands,” this time he received a “royal welcome.” No one felt like eating the sumptuous breakfast that awaited them, but the bottle of whiskey they received did something “to the morale regardless of the hour.” Despite three feet of snow and barely an hour after they landed, the trio was notified the plane was ready to take off for the Azores, a tiny Portuguese island three thousand miles away. Beatrice once again chattered away through most of the flight, repeating to herself the words she shared so many times with young Army wives whose husbands were injured or missing, “Worry is a senseless and evil thing.”

Inclement weather on the Continent grounded the C-54 on the Azores until the urgency of the mission necessitated a change in plans. Col. Spurling, however, had serious reservations about “risking the lives of about ten perfectly healthy people” once he read a full report on General Patton’s condition, “A fracture, simple, of the third cervical vertebrae with posterior dislocation of the fourth cervical. Complete paralysis below the level of the third cervical.” At that moment in the Officers’ Club on the Azores, though, he would have followed the “small, wiry person with an immense amount of vitality” to the ends of the world. “Viewed from any angle,” Col. Spurling remembered later, “Mrs. Patton [was] a grand lady.”

Twenty-nine hours after leaving Bolling Field, fog and rain prevented the C-54 from landing at Orly Field near Paris. A contingency plan was put in motion which took the weary travelers to Marseilles, where they transferred to the luxurious C-47 of Lt. Gen. Lee, a West Point classmate of George. Continued rain and fog forced the C-47 to climb to 11,000 feet, but without oxygen masks the passengers had no choice but to suffer through the effects of oxygen deprivation. After a harrowing fifteen minutes following a river surrounded by pine trees in search of Frankfurt’s Esborn Airport, the pilot finally put the plane down in a meadow near Mannheim, using “every trick known” to him. While the co-pilot went in search of help, the navigator admitted this was “the closest call I’ve ever had.”

Beatrice Ayer Patton and Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes arriving at the 130th Station Hospital in Germany
Credit: AP WirePhoto

Lieutenant General Keyes — Commanding General of the Seventh Army and one of General Patton’s closest friends — arrived posthaste from Frankfurt and first took the stranded party to Villa Reiner, his hilltop home overlooking Heidelberg. Waiting there for a quick consultation were Brigadier Cairns, a famed British neurosurgeon whom Beatrice called earlier at the suggestion of her brother; Major General Albert Kenner, Chief Surgeon in the European Theater and a longtime friend of the Pattons; and Major General Hobart “Hap” Gay, George’s Chief of Staff who was with him when the accident happened. On his last day in Germany, a downcast George eagerly accepted Hap’s suggestion to go pheasant hunting near Mannheim. Not only was vigorous physical exercise still the best outlet for George’s pent-up energy, but it was also a great opportunity to get a last-minute Christmas gift for Beatrice, who loved to wear pheasant feathers in her hat.

A throng of reporters surrounded the 130th Station Hospital when Beatrice finally arrived at 3.30 p.m. on December 11. “I have seen George in these scrapes before and he always comes out alright,” she said as she walked inside the tiny hospital whose hallways were already crowded “like Grand Central Station” with “old Army comrades.” George’s room, however, was closely guarded and without the presence of any doctors or nurses nurses when Beatrice first entered. No one knows what was said between them, but when she emerged from her husband’s room half an hour later, Beatrice was in full command and armed with a list of requests. First, she wanted George’s books brought from his traveling library so she could read to him; second, she wanted complete control of who had access to his room because it was “hard for me [George] to see my old friends when I’m lying here paralyzed all over”; third, she wanted her brother Fred to come to Heidelberg; and fourth, she wanted the doctors to be truthful with her. As she told a reporter in 1943, there were two things she venerated, “one is intestinal fortitude (the general calls it guts), and another is truth… I believe in hoping, but I don’t like kidding myself.”

Sizing up his famous patient as he began his examination, Col. Spurling found him to be “almost jovial in his manner” despite laying flat on his back in traction with ten-pound weights pulling his cheeks and unable to do anything except move his eyes and talk feebly. After years of practicing medicine, however, Col. Spurling knew exactly what was up when General Patton asked to speak with him “man to man.” Without a forthright answer, George put the question very simple, “What chance have I to ride a horse again?” Spurling’s answer was unequivocal this time, “None.” George looked the Colonel in the eye, as always “subtly testing out the doctors’ statements,” and asked, “In other words, the best that I could hope for would be semi-invalidism.” Once the neurosurgeon’s “yes” sank in, George thanked him “for being honest” and returned to his “old jovial mood,” promising “to be a good patient.”

The General “was cheered by the arrival of Mrs. Patton” and for the first time since the accident his vitals and “neurological status slightly improved.” Captain Duane was “fascinated by the interplay” between the Pattons as he got to know them better throughout those dark days in December sitting by his bedside at night, and Col. Spurling thought Beatrice’s devotion to her husband was “one of the most beautiful human relationships that I have ever known.” No doubt George put up the fight he did for “Beatrice’s sake” because “he didn’t want to disappoint her.” For Beatrice to have been able to be with her husband “at this time,” their daughter Ruth Ellen wrote in thanks to Eisenhower, “has meant more than anything, as you must realize, from your long friendship with them.”

Whether she slept in the little room down the hall or at Villa Reiner, the first thing Beatrice did each morning was pop her head in the room across George’s where his doctors set up a special command center. She always did so unobtrusively, “as if she had done it by mistake,” excusing herself for interrupting but wondering whether there was any improvement in George’s condition. “Nothing ever seemed to ruffle her” and she won over “everybody from MPs to nurses to doctors” with her cheerful demeanor. Her manner was “quiet and unassuming,” Spurling remembered, and she always spoke “slowly, softly and correctly,” looking people straight in the eyes with a “frank [yet] friendly look.” She was “kind and by no means shy or exclusive,” telling a downcast MP to “cheer up [and] stop worrying.”

After she coaxed George to have some breakfast she retreated down the hall to answer the countless letters and telegrams which flooded the hospital. Whether it was President Truman who knew “faith and courage will not fail you [George]” after winning “many a tough fight,” or Mrs. Evelyn Benjamin “from a humble home in England” who prayed “your husband will recover like mine did,” each piece of correspondence warranted a personal reply from “Mrs. George S. Patton.” In the afternoon, she returned to the tiny hospital room in Ward A-1 to work with George on the book he’d been writing or to read to him. He always received a “mental uplift” from reading, and throughout the Pattons’ thirty-five-years of marriage, every night after dinner when they found themselves together, they gathered in the living room to do just that. Beatrice also read to him often, just like when he was growing up when he lay by the fire at Lake Vineyard (in San Marino, California) and listened to his father and aunt spin tales of romantic warriors and heroic deeds.

George continued to make “very satisfactory progress” until the nineteenth. With the fishhooks in his cheeks replaced by a cast around his neck, he was “very cheerful and talkative, laughing a little,” but Beatrice knew her husband well enough to see right through the bravado. Even though they never talked about death, Ruth Ellen later said her parents “both knew that he was dying.” Beatrice’s streak of individualism stood her in good stead, as did her ability to adjust to any kind of situation and the arrival of her brother Fred on the fifteenth. General Keyes found Beatrice to be as “plucky and courageous as five ordinary people,” even when George suddenly interrupted her reading on the afternoon of the twentieth. Gasping for air as his lips turned blue, “he rallied very fast” when oxygen was administered, but the little phlegm George coughed up was blood-tinged, an unmistakable sign of the embolism Beatrice feared from the moment she learned what happened.

George always believed “you are not beaten until you admit it (Hence Don’t),” but on Friday morning, December 21, 1945, he refused breakfast and told his nurse with no hesitation, “I am going to die. Today.” He lingered through the morning, cooperative and alert, but his breathing was labored and he became slightly cyanotic. At some point he wistfully whispered to no one in particular, “I guess I wasn’t good enough.” By 4 p.m. “he felt better and very comfortable” and suggested that Beatrice finish their book after she got an early dinner. She waited about fifteen minutes until he was asleep before heading out, leaving him in the capable hands of Captain Duane and nurse Margery Randell.

Several times over the last thirteen days, Col. Spurling noticed that Beatrice “was almost clairvoyant” in all matters relating to her husband and her unease was obvious as she joined him and Col. Hill (the hospital’s Chief of Surgical Services) in the Officers’ Mess. When Capt. Duane ran in just before 6 p.m., she jumped up from her chair and exclaimed, “I knew something was wrong — I could just feel it.” She ran back across the snow-covered courtyard to Ward A-1, but it was too late; the only man she ever loved died at 5.55 p.m. of “pulmonary embolism followed by cardiac failure.” General George S. Patton Jr. was barely a month over sixty, but as he himself maintained from a young age, “We live in deeds not years.”

I deliberately refrained from commenting on the controversy regarding the death of General Patton because there is nothing controversial about it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the straightforward narrative—based on hard facts and not unsubstantiated rumors, which read like historical fiction—makes it abundantly clear that his untimely death was nothing more than an unfortunate accident.

Continue Reading: Beatrice Ayer Patton’s Greatest Irritation

9 thoughts on “A Freak Accident, A Devoted Wife, And The Death of General Patton”

  1. Fine piece, and I’m sure the book is just as well written.
    But as a relative of Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee, it is as painful to me to see the same brickbat, coined by Ambrose, applied to a man of tremendous accomplishment, and faith as the insults about Patton would be to his family. He was the first senior commander sent to the ETO after the reorganization of the Army by Gen. Marshall, and he built the infrastructure that made all the combat success of Patton, Hodges, Simpson, Gerow, and Devers’ 6th Army Group from the south possible. He was a good friend to both General and Mrs. Patton, and served as an honorary pall bearer at his funeral in Heidelberg. Nasty comments may sell books, but they don’t serve history.

  2. My Father was in the 4th car behind General Patton during this unfortunate accident and I was fortunate to visit his burial site with his men.

    1. So very sad, to happen to such an amazing man, a leader of men, self driven and achieve all his victories for his country, only for his life to be taken so tragically, at least he died knowing that he won over adversity.

    2. I spoke with General Patton’s driver, and saw statements by Major General Gay. There was no “4th car behind General Patton” when the accident occured.

  3. It is both sad and ironic that the two most iconic commanders of WWII, former adversaries Patton & Rommel, were both cheated out of glorious deaths on the battlefield and/or living quiet lives in peace after the war, possibly having a beer (or tea) together in friendship discussing history & battlefield tactics. I visited both of their Graves a few years ago to pay my respects to these great warriors. Rest In Peace. 🙏🏻🙏🏻

    1. They didn’t get the chance, but their sons, who were both born on December 24, did. Major General George Patton and Manfred Rommel became close friends, even more so when the younger Patton was stationed in Stuttgart during the seventies. At that time, Rommel was the mayor of Stuttgart.

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