I deliberately refrained from commenting on the controversy regarding the death of General Patton because there is nothing controversial about it. Since, however, it seems to be the thing people focus on most, I thought I might expound on my article “A freak accident, a devoted wife, and the death of General Patton“. 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.
Accidents involving public figures always fascinate the public, especially when the public figure is as controversial as General Patton. The notion “that such a warrior should die in such a routine fashion” is one many people grapple with—including his wife Beatrice—and partly contributed to the enduring belief that General Patton was assassinated.
There is, however, no credible evidence that this was the case (just like there is no evidence General Patton would have ever run for political office. He was very much aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, and governing was not one of them). No doubt many wanted him dead—an entirely different matter—but simple fate dealt General Patton the fatal blow long before an assassin’s bullet ever could.
A lot of damned fools say I have political ambitions. What are they talking about? I have no kind of political ambition at all. No—take that back—maybe I’d like to be mayor of Junction City, Kansas.Saturday Evening Post June 23, 1945
An unplanned trip
Removed from command of his beloved Third Army, General Patton had been in charge of the Fifteenth Army since October 1945. Contemplating whether to retire or resign, his closest friends advised him not to decide until he had a chance to sit down with his wife, Beatrice, and brother-in-law, Frederick Ayer. Generals Hobart Gay (Patton’s chief of staff) and Geoffrey Keyes (commander of the Seventh Army) advised him to go home for Christmas despite the publicity that would inadvertently accompany his return, and joined him at Bad Nauheim on the eve of December 8 to say goodbye.
To cheer the General, who had been feeling lower than the arse of the “species of whale which is said to spend much of its time lying on the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean,” General Gay suggested they go pheasant hunting the next day. His account of December 9, 1945, can be found in the Patton Papers at the Library of Congress, as can General Patton’s medical files containing minute details of his last days, and the recollections of Colonel Spurling, the neurosurgeon who arrived with Beatrice Patton from the United States.
As General Gay concludes, “[S]uch things are almost always the result of fate because so many things enter into the timing of an accident like this.” No one knew the route the 1938 Cadillac would take, especially since General Patton added a last-minute stop at Saalburg to explore an old Roman fort dating back to 90 A.D. Neither could anyone have foreseen that he would change seats twice along the way, the last time while the car was stopped at a security checkpoint.
Whether the official accident report is missing or lacking in detail, the initial investigation attributed the accident to carelessness on the part of the drivers. If they were never disciplined for their actions, it was because General Patton did not want them to be. He neither held Pfc. Horace Woodring nor T/5 Robert Thompson responsible and was unwilling to ruin two young lives over what he knew to be an accident.
A constant prescence
Paralyzed from the neck down, General Patton spent the next twelve days in traction at the 130th Station Hospital. Eager to be left alone but dependent on others for even his most basic needs, he had at least one nurse in his room twenty-four-seven. During the day, Beatrice and (later) her brother Fred spent most of their time at his bedside. At night, Captain William Duane Jr., a young neurosurgeon, listened as his patient reminisced about the first anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
General Patton did not need protection from an assassin; he needed protection from desperate reporters who even posed as patients and orderlies. Hundreds camped outside the 130th Station Hospital, and the more brazen ones “resorted to any type of trickery to get a story.” The thought of one of those “damn fools” slipping into his room to take a picture mortified George, and an armed MP stood guard outside his room.
A pulmonary embolism
When asked by Colonel Spurling on December 21, Beatrice declined to have an autopsy performed on her husband. She was thoroughly satisfied that everything had been done to save him, and she accepted that he had died of a pulmonary embolism brought on by the accident. She was also satisfied with the Army’s report that no foul play was involved, but in later years she “got so irritated by people claiming that he had been murdered.”
As Ruth Ellen, the General’s youngest daughter, once said, “The sensation seekers in the media and in the cheap books all want to think he was murdered because its more exciting and people will notice them.” After Beatrice’s death, people regularly contacted her family, claiming “they had done it, or that they knew who had done it.” Still, every Patton was unequivocal and unanimous in their reply: General Patton “wasn’t murdered.”
It was maddening to go “over it and over it with hundreds of media people,” George IV said once, but the accident was nothing more than “an incredible irony.” Ruth Ellen considered it “fate,” something that “was just destined to be.” She said it best in a letter to an interested party years after her parents’ death, “All I can say is, why can’t they leave him alone with his glory——he earned his pay, he deserves to sleep in peace. Dulce et decorum est pro patria more [It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country].”