101st Airborne, 1st Infantry Division, 4th Armoured Division, Ardennes, Bastogne, Big Red One, Christmas, Echternach, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Fondation Pescatore, Fort Riley, Hitler, Hugh Gaffey, Lowell Alexander, Luxembourg City, Memorial Day, Metz, Meuse, Mims, Monty, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, P-47 Thunderbolts, P-47Thunderbolt, Phil Naish, Rommel, Sen. Orren Hatch, SGT Robert Mims, Tony McAuliffe
On this Memorial Day, Americans are meant to pause for a moment to remember and, just perhaps, also revere those men and ladies who wore or wear the uniform of the American Armed Services, whether Army, Navy, Air Force, or Coast Guard.
When I was on active duty as an officer with the 1st Infantry Division, Vietnam was raging.
Still, there were times which were both embarrassing as well as sometimes a bit (or more) ‘off-color’; delightfully so!
One day, my now late Mother was on Post and was introduced to the Commanding General, a ‘two-star’ or Major General.
As the very gracious, beyond merely ‘ladylike’ lady she was (and a retired English teacher at that!), she offered a bit of praise to my Boss by remarking “how pleased my son is to be serving in the Big RED One”!
Her pronunciation or emphasis was as opposed to the more customary “Big Red ONE!”l
Ladies of her certain age never got the irony or the joke, but nonetheless, the General was scrambling to keep a straight face!
This became an example of how important ‘emphasis’ is in effectively delivering a message, even in the military.
Perhaps the one man who surpassed himself in delivering messages was General George Patton.
At 0900 on Christmas Eve, 24th December 1944, General Patton strode into the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.
George S. Patton takes off his helmet as he enters the century-old Catholic chapel. Though Episcopalian, he is in need of a place to worship. The sound of his footsteps echoes off the stone floor as he walks reverently to the foot of the altar. The scent of melting wax from the many votive candles fills the small chamber. Patton kneels, unfolding the prayer he has written for this occasion, and bows his head.
“Sir, this is Patton talking,” he says, speaking candidly to the Almighty. “The past fourteen days have been straight hell. Rain, snow, more rain, more snow—and I am beginning to wonder what’s going on in Your headquarters. Whose side are You on anyway?”
Patton and the Third Army are now thirty-three miles south of Bastogne. Every available man under his command has joined this race to rescue the city. The Bulge in the American lines is sixty miles deep and thirty miles wide, with Bastogne an American-held island in the center. And while Patton’s men have so far been successful in maintaining their steady advance, there is still widespread doubt that he can succeed. Outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans, Patton faces the daunting challenge of attacking on icy roads in thick snow, with little air cover. Small wonder that British commander Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery—whom Patton has taken to calling a “tired little fart”—and other British authorities are quietly mocking Patton’s advance.
He has even heard that many of them are suggesting he hold his lines and not attack, as Monty is doing, for fear that the wily German field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt may be preparing to launch yet another surprise attack that could do irreparable damage to the Allies. “Hold von Rundstedt?” Patton grumbled in reply. “I’ll take von Rundstedt and shove him up Montgomery’s ass.”
Despite those hard words, the truth is that the Third Army may be in trouble. Patton has vowed to Tony McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne that he will be in Bastogne on Christmas Day. However, thanks to the weather, it is very likely he will not be able to keep this promise.
So the general prays.
“For three years my chaplains have been telling me that this is a religious war. This, they tell me, is the Crusades all over again, except that we’re riding tanks instead of chargers. They insist that we are here to annihilate the Germans and the godless Hitler so that religious freedom may return to Europe. Up until now I have gone along with them, for You have given us Your unreserved cooperation. Clear skies and a calm sea in Africa made the landings highly successful and helped us to eliminate Rommel. Sicily was comparatively easy and You supplied excellent weather for the armored dash across France, the greatest military victory that You have thus far allowed me. You have often given me excellent guidance in difficult command situations and You have led German units into traps that made their elimination fairly simple.
“But now You’ve changed horses midstream. You seem to have given von Rundstedt every break in the book, and frankly, he’s beating the hell out of us. My army is neither trained nor equipped for winter warfare. And as You know, this weather is more suitable for Eskimos than for southern cavalrymen.
“But now, Sir, I can’t help but feel that I have offended You in some way. That suddenly You have lost all sympathy for our cause. That You are throwing in with von Rundstedt and his paper-hanging god [Hitler]. You know without me telling You that our situation is desperate. Sure, I can tell my staff that everything is going according to plan, but there’s no use telling You that my 101st Airborne is holding out against tremendous odds in Bastogne, and that this continual storm is making it impossible to supply them even from the air. I’ve sent Hugh Gaffey, one of my ablest generals, with his 4th Armored Division, north toward that all-important road center to relieve the encircled garrison and he’s finding Your weather more difficult than he is the Krauts.”
* * *
This isn’t the first time Patton has resorted to divine intervention. Every man in the Third Army now carries a three-by-five card that has a Christmas greeting from Patton on one side and a special prayer for good weather on the other. The general firmly believes that faith is vital when it comes to doing the impossible. Patton sees no theological conflict in asking God to allow him to kill the enemy. He has even given the cruel order that all SS soldiers are to be shot rather than taken prisoner.
* * *
“I don’t like to complain unreasonably,” Patton continues his prayer, “but my soldiers from Meuse to Echternach are suffering tortures of the damned. Today I visited several hospitals, all full of frostbite cases, and the wounded are dying in the fields because they cannot be brought back for medical care.”
Head bowed, Patton prays while Sgt. Robert Mims waits outside with his open-air jeep. When the general is ready, they will set out for yet another day on the road. When Patton finally leaves the chapel and the castle-like headquarters at the Fondation Pescatore, he and Mims will prowl the roads of the Ardennes Forest. Without planes to offer overhead reconnaissance, Patton must see the battle lines for himself.
But these travels also serve another purpose. Patton seeks out his troops wherever he can, encouraging them as they march in long columns of tanks and men up the snowy farm roads. More than 133,000 tanks and trucks travel around the clock toward Bastogne. The infantry wear long greatcoats, many still spattered with the mud of Metz. The tank commanders ride with their chests and shoulders poked out of the top hatch, faces swaddled in thick wool scarves. Heavy snow blankets the roads, forests, and farmlands and also covers their vehicles, muting the rumble of engines and giving the Third Army’s advance a ghostly feel. But it can also be deadly: unable to distinguish which snow-covered tanks are American Shermans and which are German Panzers, some U.S. P-47 Thunderbolt pilots have made the cruel mistake of bombing their own.
Patton’s jeep has also been strafed, though by German fighter planes. He is a relentless presence in his open-air vehicle, red-faced and blue-lipped as Sergeant Mims fearlessly weaves the vehicle through the long column of tanks and trucks. “I spent five or six hours almost every day in an open car,” he will later write in his journal about his zeal to be in the thick of the action. “I never had a cold, and my face, though sometimes slightly blistered, did not hurt me much—nor did I wear heavy clothes. I did, however, have a blanket around my legs, which was exceedingly valuable in keeping me from freezing.”
Just yesterday, a column of the Fourth Armored Division that was advancing on Bastogne were shocked to see Patton get out of his jeep and help them push a vehicle out of a snowdrift. The men of the Third Army are bolstered by Patton’s constant presence. They speak of him warmly, with nicknames such as the Old Man and Georgie. His willingness to put himself in harm’s way and endure the freezing conditions has many American soldiers now believing the general would never ask them to do something he wouldn’t do himself.
Back in America, the Battle of the Bulge has shocked the public. The siege of Bastogne is becoming a symbol of bravery and holding out against impossible odds. All across the country, people are taking time during this Christmas season to do just what Patton is doing right now: get on their knees to pray. They ask God to deliver the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne,” as the newspapers are calling the men of the 101st.
Yet Patton’s prayer is unique. He is asking not only for deliverance, but for power. Few men are ever given the chance to change the course of history so completely. If the men inside Bastogne are to be rescued, it will be because of the daring of George S. Patton—as he himself well knows.
But to succeed he will need a little help from above.
* * *
The last words of Patton’s prayer are for the ages.
“Damn it, Sir, I can’t fight a shadow. Without Your cooperation from a weather standpoint, I am deprived of accurate disposition of the German armies and how in the hell can I be intelligent in my attack? All of this probably sounds unreasonable to You, but I have lost all patience with Your chaplains who insist that this is a typical Ardennes winter, and that I must have faith.
“Faith and patience be damned! You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You are on. You must come to my assistance, so that I may dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to your Prince of Peace.
“Sir, I have never been an unreasonable man; I am not going to ask You to do the impossible. I do not even insist upon a miracle, for all I request is four days of clear weather.
“Give me four days so that my planes can fly, so that my fighter bombers can bomb and strafe, so that my reconnaissance may pick out targets for my magnificent artillery. Give me four days of sunshine to dry this blasted mud, so that my tanks roll, so that ammunition and rations may be taken to my hungry, ill-equipped infantry. I need these four days to send von Rundstedt and his godless army to their Valhalla. I am sick of this unnecessary butchering of American youth, and in exchange for four days of fighting weather, I will deliver You enough Krauts to keep Your bookkeepers months behind in their work.
Thousands of men died in that Second World War.
Men, and also women nowadays, are maimed or die every day throughout the American forces that are deployed around the planet.
Indeed, men who fought the ‘police action’ in Korea and the ever-dwindling Few who are still alive today, must view with greatest trepidation that all-too-real possibility that their grandsons or great-grandsons or -daughters may soon be back there, again, this time fighting the North Koreans.
On this Memorial Day, one must remember that “Duty, Honor, Country” may be words or indeed a question which is dipped in bile, or at least disgust, and held in contempt upon lips the grieving fiancé, widow, widower, parent(s) of Americans who were sent to ‘defend’ what all-too-many of the public consider to be almost an Irrelevance to their daily lives.
As usual, my heart goes out to children whose Dad or Mom left, but will never return, or who return, in a box, to spend Eternity amongst blades of grass and pure white stone.
(If for some reason the video does not play, please click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1rRSd3cL3A )
Blades of grass and pure white stones
Shelter those who’ve come and gone
Just below the emerald sod
Are boys who reached the Arms of God
Buried here with dignity
Endless rows for all to see
Freedom’s seeds in sorrow sown
’Neath blades of grass and pure white stones
Blades of grass and pure white stones
Cover those who left their homes
To rest in fields here side by side
Lest we forget their sacrifice
George Smith Patton, Jr. was born 11 November 1885. On 9 December 1945, General Patton suffered injuries as the result of an automobile accident. He died 12 days later, on 21 December 1945 and is buried amongst the soldiers who died in the Battle of the Bulge in Hamm, Luxembourg.
The Official Website of General George Patton, Jr.
Bill O’Reilly, “Killing Patton” available at bookstores everywhere
Lyricists of Blades of Grass and Pure White Stones
Sen. Orren Hatch (Republican, Utah) Lowell Alexander and Phil Naish
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Fondation Pescator has changed a lot since the time General Patton offered his prayer there. It is now a home for seniors. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tK9K95EbCE