A secretary to generals, an eyewitness to history

Observer: Alfred J. Rapetti was an aide to some of World War II's most famous commanders. He saw the best and worst they had to offer.

October 31, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen

AS ONE OF two master sergeants assigned as secretaries to then-Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. when he commanded II Corps in North Africa during the early days of World War II, Alfred J. Rapetti had the opportunity to observe the flamboyant and almost mythical general up close.

His counterpart, who had been promoted to warrant officer the day before, was asked by Patton to take dictation. When he mistakenly asked to borrow the general's notes to check the spelling of several names, Patton erupted.

Rapetti recalled him screaming, "Get this !@#$%c out of here and bust him back to master sergeant!"

Rapetti was then asked if he thought he could work with Patton.

"I can handle anybody," he said, but later had second thoughts about ever having a relationship with the tempestuous yet brilliant general.

"I used to break out in a sweat every time I had to take dictation from him because I knew what had happened to the guy before me," Rapetti said in a 1988 interview.

He described Patton as having a "very high-pitched voice" who "was very emotional in a discourteous sort of way.

"He would get up early in the morning and go to bed at midnight and I had to be there close to him all that time. I had a paperback book of poetry and one of the poems in it was Alexander Pope's, 'Man's Inhumanity to Man.' I used to think of Patton whenever I would read it," he said.

He had observed the mercurial Patton tear up a letter from his son, then a student at West Point, because he had failed to put the date at the top.On another occasion, he witnessed him weeping unabashedly at the funeral of a young Army captain who had been killed.

Rapetti, whose Army career concluded in 1962, had been secretary to such notable World War II generals as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley, Walter Bedell Smith, Courtney H. Hodges and Geoffrey Keyes.

Rapetti, 82, a Joppa resident, died this month from complications of a stroke at Franklin Woods Center in Essex.He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

After leaving the Army, he worked for the Bay Pines, Fla., Veterans Administration Hospital and a St. Petersburg, Fla., brokerage. He moved to Harford County last year to be near family members.

The Staten Island, N.Y., native graduated from the High School of Commerce in New York and had planned to be a professional actor.

After appearing on the Italian stage in New York as a youth, he performed during the 1930s in about 30 Broadway productions including "Journey's End," "The Eternal Road," Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" and Clifford Odets' play, "Waiting for Lefty."

Because he had studied stenography and typing to support himself between acting jobs, Rapetti decided to enlist in the Army to "meet and study peoples of different lands," he said.

Early in 1941, Rapetti and his portable typewriter were sent to London as part of a Special Army Observers' Group.He was assigned to the Intelligence Section of II Corps in Africa and participated in the Sicily and Italian campaigns.

After Bradley took over II Corps when Patton was given command of the 7th Army, Rapetti was asked to stay on by his successor, who decorated him with the Legion of Merit in 1943.

"Some said it was for surviving Patton," said Franz von Paris, Rapetti's son-in-law, who lives in Joppa.

The decoration was for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service. "

Bradley was everything Patton was not. He was considerate and allowed Rapetti to use a corner of his desk while taking dictation. He made sure that he spoke slowly, making Rapetti's task easier.

He also detested Patton's penchant for surrounding himself with luxurious accommodations. The more modest Bradley was content sleeping on the ground in a tent surrounded by his troops.

"Bradley was very strong, but he was always a gentleman. He hated war. He was a leader. He did his job and he did it well, and he was a very peaceful man," Rapetti said.

"He really liked Bradley and Eisenhower and was quite fond of both of them. He actually lasted longer than anyone else who worked for Patton but he just didn't like him. He worked hard but found Patton not to be a very likable individual," von Paris said.

Rapetti admired Eisenhower, and during the war also came to know Kay Summersby, his British jeep driver. Some historians have claimed she was romantically involved with the general.

"I could see that he was very tactful, but, of course, he was known for that. He had the British, French, North Africans all under his command, and he had the ability to be firm, but always with a great amount of tact," Rapetti observed years later.

"Kay was a wonderful girl," said Rapetti, who got to know Summersby in London earlier in the war when she was engaged to a young colonel on Patton's staff.

Rapetti recalled taking dictation from the colonel who then got into his jeep and drove away. Several minutes later, he stopped, got out of the jeep and stepped on a German mine and was killed.

Reflecting on his wartime experience, Rapetti, a deeply religious man, said: "I saw some terrible things in the war, and they caused me to realize the only right way is to live as God wants us to live. And I never saw an atheist on the front line."

Frederick N. Rasmussen is an obituary writer for The Sun.

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