The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
Blood and Guts
The first time I saw George Patton was on a hillside in England where he assembled all the non-commissioned officers, right before we went into Normandy.
He gave one of the typical George Patton talks. By the time you got through listening to his speech, you wanted to go out with your bare hands and kill Germans.
He had a high-pitched voice. He said, "Let me tell you one thing. After this war is over, when you get home and are bouncing your grandchildren on your knee, you can tell them that you fought with George S. Patton, and you didnt shovel shit in Fort Polk."
He kept on and on in that vein. When you left, you just thought the guy was a born leader.
I was taking three trucks with gas on them to A Company during the breakout from St. Lo when I came to a crossroad that wasnt marked as to whether it was cleared of mines or not. So I was sitting there debating what to do, when all of a sudden I look up and I see all those stars shining. It was General Patton, and he wanted to know who was in charge of the trucks.
I told him I was, and he said, "Well, what the hell are you sitting here for?"
I said, "Im taking gas up to A Company. I know where they are, but I dont know whether that road is cleared of mines."
And he said, "Well, you take this goddamn truck and drive it down that road, and well find out whether its cleared of mines or not, wont we?"
So I went down the road, at about five miles an hour, every moment wondering if it was going to happen. Needless to say, it must have been cleared of mines or there were none there to begin with, because we made it. We found the tanks and got them gassed up.
That was my encounter with Patton.
One time we had just pulled up on a four-way crossroad and were waiting for further orders, and here comes Patton and his jeep.
He got out, and he walked right by the officers and went around and shook hands and talked with nearly every one of the enlisted men.
While he was there, a German plane strafed that crossroads both ways, twice. And he just looked up and said, "They must know Im here." But what he wanted to know was, "Are you getting plenty to eat? Are you getting enough ammunition and gasoline? And is there anything that I can do to make it better?"
And of course we all said, "Yes, send us home." But I got to shake hands with him on the front line.
When we broke through in Normandy, the battalion was acting as a point and protecting the right flank of the 90th Infantry Division as we went down through Avranches. The Headquarters Company had an assault-gun platoon.
We came to this bridge, and I was in charge of the assault-gun platoon. I deployed the vehicles in what I thought was the proper method to protect the bridge site, and just about five minutes later, George Patton approached. He came up in his jeep, and I very quickly ran to him and saluted and told him what the situation was, and his words to me were: "Get the goddamn tanks across that bridge on the east side and do it now!" I saluted very hurriedly and did that right quickly.
Walter Hahn, he was Colonel Randolphs jeep driver, said Randolph came down with pneumonia somewhere on the road, and he wouldnt turn himself in. Some of the officers reported him real sick, and the doctor checked him and ordered him to bed. And Hahn said when Patton found out Randolph was in bed "Now I was standing right there with the jeep, right next to the old building where they had Randolph in because he had pneumonia," Hahn said, "and Patton went in, and he came out in a few minutes," and he said Patton stood and looked at him and said, "You know, Id give anything in the world if the Third Army had as much confidence in me as the 712th Tank Battalion boys do in Colonel Randolph." And he said tears came into Pattons eyes. [Lt. Col. George B. Randolph was killed on Jan. 9, 1945, at Nothum, Luxembourg, during the Battle of the Bulge.]
General Walker from the First Army called Patton and asked him to send up a recovery crew to remove a gun that missed a curve in the road and went down a cliff. It was a 155 Long Tom, towed by a big truck full of shells that stood five feet high and were eight inches in diameter. This crew of five was on top of that truck when it rolled over, and there were five bodies under that mess. That was our first job, to turn that truck over, get the weight off, and bring those bodies up that hill.
I met General Walker in a little cabin up in the woods across the road, and we agreed that I could have the road for three hours. I wanted four. Then he said, "You have the road from midnight on." So it was getting daylight. Removing the bodies and getting them up the cliff took longer than we expected. Every time the men would pick up a body theyd start vomiting. They had dry heaves. So I said, "Throw the canvas over them and roll them in it. Out of sight, out of mind." And we dragged the bodies up to the road that way.
Just as I had the gun up near the edge of the road, a sergeant from the medics came to me and he said, "I understand youre in charge of this operation. Ive got 20 ambulances back there, and if they dont get to a doctor in an hour theres gonna be a lot of dead people."
"Bring em through."
And this colonel that was in charge of the gun said, "No you dont. You get that gun up first."
I said, "Those men back there are more important to me than that dang gun there. Lower them cables, fellows." So we lowered the cables and they lay flat on the road, and I moved the ambulances through. And this colonel said, "Im going to court-martial you for refusing a direct order." I didnt hear him.
So we got all the ambulances through and then we got the gun up on the road, and I said, "Okay, you want to see General Walker about that court-martial?"
He said, "Aw, go to hell."
And I said, "The same to you," and I saluted him. Then I went in and talked to General Walker. He had a bottle of Canadian Club on the table and I said, "God, can I have a shot of that?" I was shaking like a leaf.
He said, "Whats the matter?"
And I said, "Ah, theres a redheaded colonel out there, he wants to court-martial me for refusing a direct order," and I told him what had happened.
"You did the right thing," he said. "Those men had to get through." So I had a shot of Canadian Club, and he said, "How about another one?" Then he said, "If you see old George, give him my regards."
Captain Bob Vutech, of Corpus Christi, Texas, was a company commander in B Company.
I was invited to a conference in Austria. It was a critique, and we sat with a whole bunch of colonels and generals. I dont know how I was chosen. I got to go, and maybe one more person from the battalion. It was after the war in Europe was over, but we were still fighting in Japan, and we didnt know for sure whether we were going to go over there or not.
We discussed the war day by day, and the generals would ask us questions. Why did you fire this type of ammunition? Should we change our tanks?
General Patton asked us how many times we sighted a gun when we fired. The more we were in combat, you didnt take the time eventually to fire like you think a sharpshooter would fire. You fired. You got the first round in if you could. You had a sense, you knew where it was gonna go, you didnt have to be told. When I grabbed a machine gun, I never had to fire four or five rounds until I saw where the tracer was going. All the sights that were put on these guns cost money. In his eyes, the question was, do we need them? If you were a sharpshooter, yes, you would need one. But when the average boy fired, our answer was no. We critiqued the entire war that way.
At the end of the critique, Patton asked if there were any questions. And I asked him why the armored divisions got the first crack at the new equipment, why didnt we get some?
He asked me what I thought?
I said we should have gotten some of the new tanks like the armored divisions were getting.
He paused and said, "Politics, son. Politics." It was a good answer.
Afterward, we had a social. Pattons niece had come over, she was a Red Cross girl. She attended the cocktail party, and a young major took a fancy to her. Then it came time that the general wanted to leave. Well, when the aide tells you that the general is leaving and hes got his niece with him, you let the niece leave. But this major kept talking, and Patton had to wait. The major was doing all the talking, nobody else. The next day he was transferred to the Pacific.
- - - -