A valiant soldier's pedestrian death

WAY BACK WHEN

December 20, 2003|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN STAFF

The highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one's country. Hence it is a proud privilege to be a soldier - and a good soldier.

- Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

In a biting wind and persistent rain that chilled mourners, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was buried on Christmas Eve 1945, in the Hamm U.S. Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, 12 days after his neck was broken in an automobile accident.

Patton, who had led the U.S. 3rd Army from the beaches of Normandy into Czechoslovakia during World War II, remains an almost mythic yet controversial figure 58 years after his death.

It is one of history's ironies that Patton, an expert in armored warfare who had fought and survived some of the greatest and bloodiest military engagements of the war, died from injuries received in an automobile accident.

In his 1985 book Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945, Martin Blumenson described Patton as "an extraordinary individual. ... His victories in World War II turned him into a folk hero, half man, half god, a mythic figure who, four decades after his death, dazzles still the public imagination."

While the general was known as Old Blood and Guts, his detractors were fond of saying, "Our blood, his guts."

Edward Ball, an Associated Press reporter assigned to Patton and his army, wrote, " ... covering the 3d was a newspaperman's dream, no less than covering Patton himself, one of the greatest field commanders ever to wear a general's stars and one of the greatest actors ever to escape a Hollywood career."

Lee McCardell, who spent nine months covering Patton for The Evening Sun, observed, "His military philosophy was to attack, claiming that no defense position in the history of the world had ever been permanently successfully defended. To his officers and men he harped continually that if they kept advancing, their chances of being wounded by enemy fire were much less. And long before the end of the war his soldiers learned from practical experiment, that this was true."

When the war in Europe ended on V.E. Day - May 8, 1945 - Patton wrote his wife that victory had "terminated my usefulness to the world ... The best end for an old campaigner is a bullet at the last minute of the last battle."

However, it was Patton's seeming penchant for controversial statements and unpopular viewpoints that eventually forced his removal as commander of the 3rd. He was placed in charge of the 15th Army, a largely paper force, whose role was primarily gathering materials for the official history of World War II.

He publicly criticized the Allies' denazification program, which aimed to rid Germany of Nazi influences. He explained that most German citizens had joined the Nazi party "in about the same way that Americans become Republicans and Democrats."

On Dec. 9, 1945, Patton and his chief of staff, Gen. Hobart R. Gay, were driving near Mannheim, Germany, for a day of pheasant shooting. Horace L. Woodring, a 19-year-old Army private from Sturgis, Ky., was at the wheel of Patton's Cadillac limousine.

Patton, who had been riding in the car's front seat, looked back and saw a hunting dog that was going to be used in the day's hunt, riding behind in an open-air Jeep. At a checkpoint, he ordered Woodring to bring the dog into his car.

While the dog occupied the front seat, Patton climbed into the back with Gay.

"That simple act of kindness toward an animal ended the life of a national hero," wrote Woodring, who died last month at the age of 77 in Detroit.

Moments after the dog was put into Patton's car, the vehicle collided with a 2 1/2 -ton Army truck, throwing the general against the partition that separated the front and back seats.

"My neck hurts," said Patton after the accident. "This is a hell of a way to die." The wreck had shattered his neck and left him paralyzed.

Gay and Woodring were uninjured.

Patton was hospitalized in Heidelberg, Germany, until he died on Dec. 21. His body arrived in the city of Luxembourg by special train from Heidelberg. The flag-draped casket was removed from the train and placed on a halftrack.

While the cortege formed in silence in the square in front of the train station, an artillery salute boomed in the distance as the first notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" were played.

The procession wound for four miles through the streets of Luxembourg and then across the Petrusse River and into the forested hills that led to the cemetery where 6,000 American soldiers were buried.

"The route was lined with people. Old men stood bareheaded in the rain. Children, as rigid as statues, watched with wide and staring eyes," reported The Evening Sun.

Prince Felix, the husband of Luxembourg's reigning Grand Duchess Charlotte, and his son, Prince Jean, rode in an automobile behind Patton's family and President Truman's representative.

Patton was buried next to a 3rd Army private, John Prozywara of Detroit.

As taps slowly rose over the gravesite and the services came to an end, thousands of Luxembourgers, including three hatless men wearing the black and white uniforms they had worn in a German prisoner of war camp, passed by Patton's grave to pay their respects to the man whose bravery and Army had liberated their country.

"The nation mourns his untimely end," said an editorial in The Sun. "It can be thankful at least that, living dangerously as he did and with so little thought for his personal safety, he was spared during those days when his especial genius was so necessary to the achievement of victory."

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