General Patton’s Second in Command

Beatrice Banning Ayer looked like a child standing next to George S. Patton Jr. when they met in the summer of 1902. She was only so in appearance, though, because the worldly sixteen-year-old was mature beyond her years and exuded an air of confidence which dwarfed her unsophisticated seventeen-year-old escort. Unlike George, who only read about the military battles of Napoleon, Xenophon, and Caesar, Beatrice “studied history in the land where the events took place.” Her parents were avid travelers and made their home in Paris for two years — 1896 to 1898 — while they toured across Europe and the Orient. They took along their children, cultivating in them an openness to new experiences, different cultures, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Embarrassed to be seen spending the summer with a “little girl,” George tried hard to shake his charge. Beatrice, however, relentlessly followed him across Catalina Island, showing no apprehension at taking any of the risks he did and setting the tone for the rest of their lives. Underneath her frilly dress was a true tomboy with a determination which would only grow stronger over time. Her quiet composure hid a perceptiveness which easily saw through George’s boastfulness as a way to cover up his insecurities. By the time he entered West Point in 1905, Beatrice supplanted his father in offering advice and words of encouragement. Somehow she knew the perfect combination of compliments, criticisms, and suggestions to make him not feel offended, even when she stood up to him.

The Patton Family: Beatrice, George, Little Bee, Ruth Ellen, and George IV

The Ayers were capitalists and military life was alien to them, yet Beatrice never tried to rein George in even when he admitted he was “desirus [sic] of an early and glorious death.” Instead, she continuously festered the flames of his ambition and unflinchingly stepped into the unknowns of Army life. It took her a long time to learn how “to take it,” but once she did, she was able to channel her worry into worthier causes. From that point forward, a certain reputation preceded Beatrice from post to post, one which commanded respect, not because she was wealthy, but because she was kind, showed interest in others, and always stood ready to help those in need without drawing attention to herself. On the other hand, she was high-spirited and could be as unpredictable as she was sensible. Her temper was legendary — she physically had to be pulled off a Reserve Officer who insulted George — and she never forgave a slight nor forgot a grudge.

Beatrice approached life with a gusto that matched her husband’s. No one who saw the Pattons hunt together ever forgot the occasion. George would “pass by the low spots in the fence, in favor of a high place with an unknown landing on the far side,” calling out to his wife, “Come on, Bea! Do you want to live forever?” She was an accomplished sailor who twice placed second in the Woman’s National Championship, she went swimming in shark-infested waters off the coast of O’ahu, and she “nimbly” climbed into the turret of a small whippet tank when seven generals refused “with cold superiority” to join Major Patton for a demonstration. The confidence she possessed from a very young age strengthened the courage of her convictions. Pretense or underhandedness was not in her vocabulary; honesty and straightforwardness were traits possessed by all the Ayers.

Beatrice at the wheel of the Arcturus

Beatrice was devoted to her husband and kept his life in order so he could focus all his energy on reaching his destiny. She corrected his spelling, translated military papers and books from French, and taught him the art of diplomacy. He depended on her advice to make important decisions and was “apt to make mistakes of judgment” without her. Everything they did was to prepare for a moment that might or might not come; riding on the Kansas prairie, they were “disposing of imaginary troops in the folds of the hills,” on O’ahu they “made landings on beaches where the surveys told us landings were impossible,” and in 1913 France, they “reconnoitered every hill and hedgerow in Brittany and Normandy.” Beatrice turned “right-square-out-of-this-world with enthusiasm” every time she heard of another one of George’s WWII exploits, yet she was “not just an appendage of the Great Man,” but “a person in herself, with a great deal to offer.”

When Beatrice threw a cluster of ʻōhelo ʻai berries into the erupting Halema’uma’u crater on the Island of Hawaii, a gust of wind threw a branch back at her feet. Her friend Emma Ahuena Taylor, an expert on Hawaiian anthropology who was a Native Hawaiian high chiefess, explained that Pele wanted to share with her, but the Goddess of Fire was not the only one who wanted to do so. While the Native Hawaiians were reluctant to open up to foreigners out of fear of being ridiculed, they recognized in Beatrice a kindred spirit whose interest in their culture was genuine. Friends like Hamana Kalili — a local fisherman who is said to be the originator of the Shaka sign — shared with her the stories of their past, invited her to attend ancient ceremonies, and took her to hidden archaeological sites. All her research eventually led to the publication of two books: Légendes Hawaiiennes, a collection of Hawaiian legends which she translated in French as a challenge to herself, and Blood of the Shark, “a romance of old Hawaii in the days of Kamehameha the Great.”

During WWII Beatrice worked for the War Department Public Relations Women’s Interest Section. She quickly gained a reputation for being a “direct and purposeful speaker,” one who was doing “as fine and as well” in her sphere as George was doing in his. She spoke anywhere from women’s clubs to factories, packing her days “full to the brim… with every opportunity for usefulness,” “jumping around the country so constantly” that Chilly had a hard time keeping track of his sister. She urged women to get a job outside the home, part of the “ten-point regimen” she lived by in wartime, a “practical philosophy” gleaned from years of experience. Even though Beatrice only reluctantly spoke to the press, she was the perfect PR woman for her husband. She was as “magnificent in adversity” as she was “in success” and “behaved with wonderful tact and devotion” when George slapped two soldiers in Sicily.

General Patton’s homecoming on June 7, 1945

Upon his untimely death in December 1945, Beatrice was responsible for shaping General Patton, the legend. She returned to the US from his funeral in Luxembourg with the portrait he intended to give her for Christmas, his beloved bull terrier Willie, and a staggering amount of papers. For months on end, Beatrice and her brother painstakingly transcribed George’s letters and diaries and completed the manuscript he wrote in the months leading up to his death. After careful consideration, she went ahead with the publication of War as I Knew It in November 1947. Living up to the example set by George, Beatrice’s driving power increased as she grew older. She traveled the world attending ceremonies in his name, became a vocal proponent of Universal Military Training, and fought tooth and nail to prevent her husband’s grave being moved.

Beatrice Ayer Patton never wanted to be known. All she ever wanted was for people to remember her husband, “the finest, bravest, most gallant, and best-looking man who ever lived… destined for unimaginable glory.” It is undeniable, however, that she did not walk behind George Patton on his path to glory, but right next to him. There would “be no Taps at the Army wife’s funeral,” yet Beatrice was a true soldier in all but combat experience.

2 thoughts on “General Patton’s Second in Command”

    1. I totally agree – such virtue and prudence. and commend on General Patton for having chosen such an amazing woman to be his companion. too many men fell short because their choice of significant other.

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