Military history

Chapter 20



APRIL 17, 1945


George Patton and Winston Churchill are simpatico. They both believe that the Soviet Union is now the biggest threat to the world and to democracy. Patton is convinced that Churchill is the only man in power who knows what the world is “walking into.”

For now, Patton keeps his comments to himself. Volatile words could get him fired—or even killed. Patton is a man of strong beliefs, and as he will tell the press in a few weeks, he is utterly sure of the Russian danger: “Churchill had a sense of history. Unfortunately, some of our leaders were just damn fools who had no idea of Russian history. Hell, I doubt if they even knew [that] Russia, just less than a hundred years ago, owned Finland, sucked the blood out of Poland, and were using Siberia as a prison for their own people. How Stalin must have sneered when he got through with them at all those phony conferences.”1

This morning, Patton sits at his desk in one of the small trailers that form his mobile command center, thinking about his future. Unless he finagles a command in the Pacific, he knows that his career is all but done.

Still a powerful force, the Third Army was poised to wheel north to capture Berlin, just as they made the hard left turn for Bastogne until Eisenhower stopped them.


Patton believes that letting the Russians have Berlin is folly. And he told Eisenhower this a few days ago. Americans should not only take Berlin, Patton said, but keep on pushing as far to the east as possible. In time, the entire world will come to realize that he is right.

But by then it will be too late. The Russians have already pushed through Austria and are now approaching Fortress Berlin from the south and east. Soon they will take total control of Eastern Europe—a stranglehold they will maintain for the next fifty years.

Fear of the Russians is spreading throughout Germany. Millions of civilian refugees flee toward the American lines—only to be turned back.2 More than a half million German soldiers have raised their hands in surrender so that they will not have to face the Russians. In fact, so many Wehrmacht fighters are giving up that the Allies no longer accept all prisoners of war, because it is impossible to house and feed so many men. When the men of the once feared Eleventh Panzer Division attempt to quit the war, the Third Army will accept them as prisoners only under the condition that they bring their own food.

As Patton sips coffee in his headquarters, he knows that his future may lie as a civilian. He has once again appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and is at last getting the kind of public respect and glory he so desperately craves. Should Patton enter politics, he will be a formidable force.

But the war isn’t over. For the first time in recent memory, the Third Army is not being ordered to go on the defensive. In fact, the opposite is true. Patton has just been given an additional three armored divisions so he can spearhead the final American attacks of the war in southern Germany.

“There was a big meeting yesterday and we got the ball for what looks like the final play,” he writes to Beatrice. As a general, he is not subject to having his letters read by the military censors. Yet his wording is deft, nonetheless: he alludes to what is about to happen yet does not violate national security, lest this letter somehow fall into German hands.

His letter to his wife continues: “Sometimes I feel that I may be nearing the end of this life. I have liberated ‘J.’ and licked the Germans. So what else is there to do?”

The “J.” to whom Patton refers is his son-in-law, thirty-eight-year-old Col. John Waters, who was captured in Tunisia two years ago.

*   *   *

On the surface, Task Force Baum, the “Hammelburg mission,” was simply a daring attempt to rescue American prisoners of war. Shortly after crossing the Rhine in late March, Patton received word that the POW camp near the German town of Hammelburg held three hundred U.S. soldiers—many of them officers. Its location was sixty long miles from Patton’s army. Among them was Col. John Waters, the husband of Patton’s beloved daughter Beatrice.

After conquering the Polish town of Szubin, Russian soldiers had discovered the remains of a hastily abandoned POW camp. The Allied prisoners had been marched three hundred miles west in the dead of February to prevent their falling into Russian hands. Prison records showed that Waters was once incarcerated there.

Patton will later insist that he did not know Waters was incarcerated in Hammelburg. Yet the truth is he was informed of this fact by the American Military Mission in Moscow on February 9. Furthermore, on the eve of the attack, Patton specifically wrote to Beatrice, “Hope to send an expedition tomorrow to get John.”

Patton’s staff questioned his plan to rescue the prisoners, stating that Patton needed at least thirty-five hundred men to liberate the POW camp, rather than the mere three hundred who were being deployed. Even the hero of Bastogne, Lt. Col. Abe Abrams, thought the mission so foolish that he turned it down, giving the command role to Lt. Harold Cohen. But Cohen didn’t want it, either. He told Patton that he was incapacitated by hemorrhoids. Patton called Cohen’s bluff, ordering that he be taken into the next room and examined by a doctor. Only when the hemorrhoids were confirmed did Patton give the lead role to Capt. Abraham J. Baum, the twice-wounded twenty-three-year-old son of a Brooklyn blouse maker.


Baum and his rescue force were already exhausted from the Rhine crossing. They were handed just fifteen maps for fifty-seven vehicles. It was possible that Task Force Baum would not even find Hammelburg, let alone the POW camp.

Yet Patton, normally such a meticulous planner, ordered the rescue mission to proceed. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had received a great deal of media exposure for liberating thousands of Allied POWs in the Pacific, and Patton hoped to “make MacArthur look like a piker.”3

German opposition was heavy, and soon half the task force lay dead or dying.

But the Americans got through. Less than twenty-four hours after setting out, Task Force Baum miraculously arrived at the gates of Oflag XIII-B, as the camp was known. Seeing gray uniforms, they began firing at what they mistakenly believed to be German guards. Instead, the uniforms belonged to Serbian prisoners of war being interned at the camp. The German commandant, Gen. Günther von Goeckel, took pity on the Serbians and requested that a contingent of American prisoners march out the gates and tell their rescuers to cease firing. Meanwhile, von Goeckel and the remaining German guards fled. They no longer had any interest in defending the camp.

At 6:15 p.m., Patton’s son-in-law Colonel Waters marched out the front gate carrying a white flag of surrender. Several American officers and a lone German officer were by his side. Waters was noticeably gaunt from more than forty pounds of weight loss. He walked slowly, intending to tell Captain Baum to stop firing.

Waters never made it. A German guard in a camouflage uniform, not knowing that a truce had been arranged by the camp commandant, steadied his rifle atop a fence post and took careful aim. The bullet entered John Waters’s right hip and exited through his left buttocks. He collapsed to the ground, where he lay until he could be carried back into the camp. There, fellow POW and chief surgeon of the Yugoslavian Army, Radovan Danic, quickly removed the bullet.

As Task Force Baum stormed the gates to the camp, cheered by hundreds of American prisoners, one thing became quite clear: Col. John Waters wasn’t physically capable of going anywhere.

Captain Baum soon found himself faced with another dilemma: instead of three hundred POWs, there were well over a thousand. The task force simply didn’t have enough vehicles to carry every single prisoner back to freedom. The convoy needed to turn around and race back to the American lines under cover of darkness before the Germans could counterattack.

An estimated seven hundred prisoners soon draped themselves atop tanks and halftracks, gorging themselves on K-rations the task force had brought along for just that purpose.4 Those well enough to walk followed along behind the column.

The Germans counterattacked at sunrise the next morning. The strength of the Nazi reprisal was terrifying. Swiftly and efficiently, they destroyed the American column and began rounding up the POWs for their return to Oflag XIII-B. Many who were not prisoners of war before the rescue attempt now found themselves in German captivity. Wehrmacht soldiers used dogs to hunt down the Americans now scattered across the countryside. Captain Baum was burned when a rocket hit his tank, and suffered a gunshot wound to the groin, yet he managed to evade the Germans for almost twenty-four hours before being captured and led into captivity.5

Nine days later, the American Fourteenth Armored Division liberated the POW camp. Patton’s initial raid, which had cost thirty-two men their lives, was all for naught.

George Patton immediately visited his son-in-law at a hospital in Frankfurt, where Colonel Waters had been taken to recuperate from his wounds.

Upon seeing Patton, the colonel burst out, “Did you know I was at Hammelburg?”

It was the first question out of Waters’s mouth, because he well knew that many considered him to blame for a horrible waste of American lives. Thirty-two Americans had been killed, and almost three hundred more wounded or taken prisoner. In addition, sixteen tanks, twenty-eight halftracks, twelve jeeps, and a medical vehicle known as a Weasel were destroyed.

“Not for sure,” came the answer from his father-in-law.

*   *   *

Patton has sworn a professional oath of honor that does not allow lying, cheating, or tolerating those who do so. Covering up the real reason for Task Force Baum was not the first of George S. Patton’s untruths. One lie, in particular, broke his wife Beatrice’s heart and almost cost him his marriage, and may now be coming back to haunt him. For the beautiful young woman with whom he was secretly unfaithful has once again entered his life.

The year was 1935. The place was Hawaii. Jean Gordon was visiting the Patton family on her way to the Orient. A willowy unmarried young woman who spoke fluent French, she was the daughter of Beatrice Patton’s half sister, and thus the general’s niece by marriage. She also served as maid of honor at the wedding between Patton’s daughter Beatrice and John Waters. Patton was old enough to know better, a career soldier and the father of three children who had long enjoyed the love of a wife who understood his unusual temperament. Beatrice was a remarkable woman in her own right, capable of making conversation in German, French, Spanish, and Italian. She had written a book, and had a passion for music and drama. And her ferocious passion for her husband was such that, on one occasion, she physically attacked an officer who had disparaged her beloved Georgie. Patton had to pry her off the man when she knocked him down and was banging his head on the tile floor.

When the eighteen-year-old Jean began flirting with her husband, Beatrice was unaware. George Patton was flattered. So it was that when Beatrice Patton fell ill shortly before a planned journey from one Hawaiian island to another, Jean went in her place. There was no chaperone to prevent what occurred next.


Jean Gordon in her Red Cross uniform

When a heartbroken Beatrice learned of the tryst, she told her daughter Ruth Ellen, “It’s lucky for us that I don’t have a mother. Because if I did, I’d pack up and go home to her now.”

That might have been the end of it, because for all intents and purposes the relationship between George Patton and Jean Gordon seemed to have run its course.

But in the summer of 1944, Jean arrived in England as a Red Cross volunteer and wasted no time in reconnecting with Patton. When Beatrice learned that Jean was in England, she wrote to her husband that she was aware that Patton’s former lover had returned to his side, but Patton denied spending time with the young woman. Still, once the Third Army began its drive across France, Jean managed to get assigned to the task of Red Cross “donut girl” for the troops, visiting them and providing them with donuts, hot coffee, and conversation. She became a regular at Patton’s headquarters, where she often spoke fluent French with the general.

Infatuated, Patton confided to a West Point classmate, “She’s been mine for twelve years.”

On March 31, 1945, Beatrice wrote to her husband wondering why Jean Gordon was still in Europe. Patton replied, “I am not a fool. So quit worrying.”

When, soon after, Patton learned that Jean Gordon was also having an affair with a young officer serving in a safe headquarters position, the general, as competitive as ever, ordered the young man transferred to frontline combat.

*   *   *

Late on the afternoon of April 17, Patton flies to Paris. His son-in-law has been moved to a nearby hospital, and he sits with Waters for a long discussion. The controversy surrounding the Hammelburg incident seems to be blowing over. Dwight Eisenhower reprimanded Patton, but little else is being done. It appears there will be no further repercussions.

Patton sits for breakfast the next morning with his old West Point classmate Gen. Everett Hughes. The two men are very close, and it is to Hughes that Patton confides his relationship with Jean Gordon.

The waiter hands Hughes a copy of the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Hughes smiles at an announcement printed in the paper, but says nothing as he hands the newspaper over to Patton.

Patton suddenly grins broadly as he reads the news that President Harry Truman has just nominated him for the rank of four-star general. He leans back in his chair as those all around him in the dining room who’ve already read the news wait to see his response.

“Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

*   *   *

The biblical David was also a great general. He was said to be “a man after God’s own heart,” despite the fact that he slept with his best friend’s wife, lied about the act, and then ordered the husband sent to the front lines so that he might be murdered in battle.

Yet David ultimately paid a steep cost for his behavior, losing a son at a very young age and eventually losing his entire kingdom.

Like David, George Patton knows himself to be a flawed yet God-fearing man. His recent bouts of duplicity have also cost more lives than the duplicities of of King David. But as Patton flies back to his headquarters in a plane newly decorated with insignia denoting his four-star rank, it appears that he will not endure the divine punishments that befell David. In fact, Patton has weathered the storm unscathed.

But as the devout general well knows, David once thought the same thing, too.

*   *   *

Patton’s single-engine L-5 Sentinel propeller plane flies low over the German countryside, en route to his headquarters. It is the quickest way to travel from one place to another, allowing the general to visit several of his units each day. Suddenly another aircraft drops down on him like an avenging angel. Guns blazing, the Spitfire fighter bears the markings of the British Royal Air Force, and attacks head-on.

Patton’s L-5 is an American-made plane. Yet with its wings mounted above the fuselage and the slow speeds caused by its fixed landing gear, the L-5 also bears a distinct resemblance to the German Fi-156 Storch.

Tracer bullets fly past the right side of Patton’s L-5. The small plane has no weaponry, and thus no chance of fighting back. The Spitfire misses on the first pass, almost colliding with the L-5 as it roars past, but is soon banking high into the sky and coming around behind them for another strafing run.

It is either a case of mistaken identity or a bold attempt to murder George Patton in broad daylight.

Patton reaches for his camera. He snaps several pictures of the RAF plane, even as his pilot takes desperate evasive measures that make the Spitfire miss them a second time. Patton is so terrified that he forgets to take the lens cap off the camera. His aircraft is no match for the Spitfire, which was so famously effective at defeating German Messerschmitt fighter planes during the Battle of Britain.

But the pilot who has been assigned to fly General Patton on this April morning is extremely good at his job. He pushes the stick forward, pressing the L-5 down almost right against the earth. Just one slip of his fingers and the plane will nose into the ground.

The Spitfire comes in low and shoots again. The shots miss, and the careless Spitfire pilot realizes too late that his angle of attack places him too low to the ground. A split second later, the British fighter plane crashes into the German soil.

“It flew so close to the ground that it could not pull out and crashed,” Patton writes in his journal that night. “The planes in this group had RAF markings on them, and I believe they were probably a Polish group flying for the RAF. Why there were out of their area, I don’t know.”

George S. Patton has lived to fight another day. “Four other planes were circling over us, but did not engage in the attack.”

Patton must now contemplate an obvious nagging question: Was the Spitfire attack an accident?6

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