Military history

Chapter 27



DECEMBER 9, 1945

6:00 A.M.

The man with twelve days to live has awakened.

His longtime orderly, African American sergeant William George Meeks, draws the bedroom curtains in George Patton’s mansion on the Höhenweg Road. Morning light floods the room as the general stirs and says good morning. The weariness that rimmed his blue eyes the last year of the war is gone. He still has the spot on his pale pink lips from smoking one too many cigars, but he has once again kicked the habit—at least temporarily. Patton has also lost weight through diet, exercise, and giving up tobacco, and looks more athletic than he has in years. He is a rejuvenated man, completely ready for whatever the future might bring.

The morning wake-up is a routine that Patton and Meeks have followed throughout the war, but now that routine is soon to end. George S. Patton is going home to America. Official army orders are directing him to return home, where he has arranged to take thirty days’ leave and celebrate Christmas with his family. After that, he plans to leave the military.

Meeks will return to America with Patton, soon to settle into civilian life in Georgia. Tomorrow morning, the two men will travel by car to Paris, then on to the coast of France, where they will board a U.S. Navy battleship for the five-day Atlantic crossing. Patton has been allowed one hundred and sixty-five pounds of luggage, which Meeks has already packed. Meeks has just finished laying out Patton’s clothes for his last day in Germany, but there is soon to be a change in wardrobe.

Sergeant Meeks informs Patton that last night’s dinner guest, the general’s close friend and commander of the Seventh Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Keyes, has been called back to his headquarters on urgent business.

Patton is disappointed. Keyes is one his few friends remaining in Europe, and was a stalwart armored commander on whom Patton depended greatly during the Sicilian campaign. Patton has nothing to do today, and was hoping a morning of conversation with Keyes would help allay the boredom and restlessness that has accompanied the end of the war.

Patton’s mansion is surrounded by a dense forest. Rattling around all day with nothing to do holds no appeal for him. So before going downstairs to his waiting breakfast, Patton orders Meeks to assemble a hunting party. There are fields a hundred miles south in Mannheim, where the pheasant hunting is very good, and Patton has spent an occasional Sunday there since taking command of the Fifteenth.

Meeks knows exactly what to do.

*   *   *

“Get the limousine ready,” Meeks orders. “The General and General Gay are going hunting.”

As the intercom once again goes silent, PFC Horace Woodring quickly rises from bed and obeys the order. The handsome, lantern-jawed Kentucky native is Patton’s new driver. He likes the job so much that he has just enlisted for an additional year so that he can continue to drive the general. The nineteen-year-old son of a dairy farmer, Woodring has always had a passion for speed. He grew up racing stock cars and flying stunt planes. But if not for the fact that he suffered frostbite and was deemed incapable of remaining in the infantry, he wouldn’t have been assigned to the motor pool. Twice the crime of having relationships with local German women has seen him busted down from sergeant to private, but Patton has taken a shine to his new young driver.

“Woodring is the fastest,” Patton marvels of the man he calls Woody. After three years of the overly cautious John Mims at the wheel, Patton revels in Woodring’s daredevil driving. “He’s better than a Piper Cub to get you there ahead of time,” says the general.

Today will be Woodring’s last day as Patton’s military driver. However, Patton has hinted that he would like to hire him as his personal chauffeur after they both leave the service.

The summons to go hunting is unexpected. As with most Saturday nights, Woodring was out on the town carousing the evening before. But he knew better than to overdo it, just in case the general should call. Now is such a moment. Woodring will be driving Patton and his longtime chief of staff, Gen. Hap Gay.

Woodring pulls on his uniform, making sure to dress warmly for a day outside. Patton’s house is across the street from where his household staff sleeps. The “limousine” is parked on the street, due to lack of garage space. It is a dull green 1938 Cadillac Model 75, one of four cars Patton makes use of since assuming command of the Fifteenth. The vehicle’s interior is spacious, with six feet of legroom between the backseat and the window partition separating the driver’s compartment from the back. Woodring normally spends hours making sure that all Patton’s vehicles are spotless inside and out, knowing that despite their somewhat informal relationship Patton will have no trouble chewing him out if the car is the slightest bit unkempt.

The morning is exceptionally cold. Woodring waits ninety minutes before Patton steps outside with Gay; their breaths are visible in the frigid morning air. Both men are dressed in thick military coats and gloves. Heavy boots add two inches to Patton’s six-foot-two-inch height, making the general even more imposing than usual. With nothing else to do these past two months, he has spent the time traveling throughout Europe, riding and hunting whenever he could. Patton turned sixty just four weeks ago, and celebrated with a lavish party thrown by his staff at Bad Nauheim’s Grand Hotel.

Never at a loss for words, even at this early hour, Patton walks to the sedan and jokes with Woodring, who holds the door open while the two men take their seats in the back. A jeep driven by another of Patton’s aides, Sgt. Joe Scruce, pulls into line behind them. The rifles for today’s hunt are loaded in Scruce’s car, along with a hunting dog.

Patton gives Woodring directions to the hunting ground but first orders the driver to go to the ruins of a first-century Roman fort near Saalburg. Shortly before 9:00 a.m. the caravan pulls out, leaving behind the forest-lined road.

Few local Germans possess a vehicle, so there is very little traffic on the autobahn this morning. This allows Woodring to indulge his penchant for speed. At Bad Homburg, he exits onto a side road that Patton has suggested, then carefully navigates his way up a hill to the site of the ruins.

Woodring is not surprised when Patton insists on getting out of the warm car and exploring the site up close. The general’s boots are not waterproof and are soon soaked as he climbs through the snow and frozen mud. Upon returning to the Cadillac after a half hour, he moves up to the front passenger seat so the car’s heater can warm his sodden feet.

Woodring enjoys defying authority whenever he can. So when the Cadillac comes upon a military checkpoint on the country road known as Route 38, he initially attempts to race through without stopping. The four stars on the car’s license plates should tell the military policemen all they need to know. But suddenly an MP stops Patton’s vehicle. “The guy must be crazy,” Woodring mumbles as he gets out of the Cadillac.

But Patton is only a few steps behind him. Rather than punish the sentry, who has drawn the unfortunate job of manning this lonely post on a frozen Sunday morning, Patton pats him warmly on the back. “You are a good soldier, son. I’ll see to it that your CO is told what a fine MP you make.”

On his way back to the warmth of the front seat, Patton makes a decision that will change everything. He spies the hunting dog in the other car. “The poor thing is going to freeze to death in your goddam truck,” he yells to Sergeant Scruce, referring to the hunting dog.

“Woody,” Patton orders his driver, “go and bring that dog inside the car. He looks cold.”

With the hunting dog safely in the front seat, Patton returns to his perch in the back.


The journey, now in its third hour, continues. Patton is in no hurry to go hunting, and relaxes as Woodring is forced to stop for a freight train. The Cadillac is at the back of a long line of U.S. military vehicles.

The landscape is now far different from the wooded stretch where Patton’s journey began. Bad Nauheim was untouched during the war. But now Patton sees vivid reminders of the war’s destruction. Countless disabled trucks, jeeps, and tanks line the road. Just before Woodring stopped for the train, Patton got a glimpse of a Polish displaced persons camp housing thousands of people who now lack a country. He has visited many of these facilities and witnessed firsthand the filthy living conditions the residents must endure. As they wait for the long train to pass, Patton sits on the edge of his seat, as if poised to leap out of the vehicle. He peers out the window at the destruction, and simply tells Gay, “How awful war is.”

At 11:45, the crossing bar goes up as the train disappears.

Woodring slowly accelerates.

Six hundred yards in the distance, on the side of the road, two U.S. Army “deuce and a half” (2.5 ton) vehicles are parked on the shoulder. As Patton’s limousine approaches, the trucks pull onto the highway.

*   *   *

Behind the wheel of the first truck, Tech Sgt. Robert L. Thompson is a little drunk. He is a nervous man whose thick glasses give him an intellectual appearance. He wears his olive-drab uniform cap at a jaunty angle. His pants are bloused into his boots, and he wears a thick army-issue coat and gloves.

Thompson stayed up all night drinking beer with a couple of military buddies. He will later tell investigators that they spontaneously commandeered a Signal Corps deuce and a half for a few hours of joyriding through the German countryside.

But in fact there is evidence that Sergeant Thompson has stolen the truck. With the war over, and the black market providing a lucrative way to make a few extra bucks, there is a very good chance that this vehicle will never be returned to the Signal Corps. Stealing an army vehicle, of course, is a strict violation of regulations. Another violation is in Thompson’s two pals riding in the cab with him, both of them apparently hungover. Army rules strictly state that only two soldiers may ride in the front seat of army trucks.

But Tech Sgt. Robert L. Thompson will go completely unpunished for the violations. Soon he will vanish without a trace, as will the official accident report detailing the destruction he will cause.

*   *   *

Sergeant Scruce’s jeep overtakes Patton’s limousine. Scruce is the only one in the hunting party who knows the way to the special fields outside Mannheim where Patton likes to hunt; Woodring will follow Scruce the rest of the way.

Woodring is driving just twenty miles per hour. George Patton is looking out the right-side window of the limo, while Hap Gay stares out the left. No one has time to react when Robert Thompson abruptly swerves hard to the left, driving his vehicle directly into the path of Patton’s Cadillac. His motives for making the abrupt turn are unclear—there is no driveway or road in the direction he is pointing the heavy army truck. “To this day,” Woodring will remember years later, “I don’t know where the truck was going.” The sudden turn comes without warning, and both Gay and Woodring will later note that Thompson did not signal before taking the action.2

PFC Horace Woodring, for all his years behind the wheel, cannot avoid the collision. He slams hard on the brakes, bracing for impact, and grips the steering wheel tightly with two hands. “He just turned into my car,” Woodring will later tell the military police, who will soon evaluate the evidence and conclude that the collision was simply an accident. “I saw him in time to hit my brakes, but not in time to do anything else. I was not more than twenty feet from him when he began to turn.”

In the truck, Sgt. Robert Thompson makes no attempt to brake. Instead, he steps on the gas.

As the truck’s front bumper crashes into the Cadillac, Woodring hears the thump of flying bodies in the compartment behind him. General Gay, remembering that the best way to avoid injury when falling from a horse is to completely relax his body, does just that. He falls to the floor behind Woodring, uninjured.

In the right backseat, George Patton is thrown forward, his head slamming violently into the steel partition between Woodring’s driver’s compartment and the backseat. His nose breaks. He feels a sharp pain in the back of his neck, but no sensation in his lower body. Instantly, George Patton knows he is paralyzed.

Ever the leader, Patton immediately checks on his men. “Is anyone hurt?”

After being assured that Gay and Woodring are fine, Patton says in a weak voice, “I believe I am paralyzed.”

He sits slumped in an upright position. Hap Gay has his right arm around him, directing Patton’s head to his shoulder. “Work my fingers for me, Hap,” Patton commands Gay.


General Patton’s car after the accident

After five long minutes, an MP named Lt. Peter K. Babalas of Boston, Massachusetts, happens on the scene. He opens the rear door to the Cadillac and is shocked to find himself staring at George S. Patton, still being supported in an upright seated position by General Gay. “My neck hurts,” Patton tells the lieutenant.

A distraught Private Woodring is outside the car surveying the damage, and standing guard until an ambulance arrives. Radiator fluid leaks on the ground, the car’s right fender is crumpled, and the engine has been dislodged from its mount. But the rest of the Cadillac is untouched. The windshield is not even cracked. “Do you realize who you hit?” Woodring screams at Thompson, who has stepped down from the truck. Woodring is close enough to smell the liquor on the private’s breath. “This is General Patton and he is critically injured.”

Thompson grins drunkenly. “General Patton,” he says to his companions. “Do you believe it?”

Others have now been alerted to the crash and race to the scene. Members of the 290th Engineer Combat Battalion soon arrive with an ambulance and a doctor.

Meanwhile, blood pours from the top of Patton’s head, where a flap of skin extending from the bridge of his nose to the peak of his forehead has peeled back from his skull as if he has been scalped.

“I’m having trouble breathing, Hap,” Patton tells his chief of staff. Gay turns to look at Patton with his good eye. In 1922, Gay was blinded in one eye in a polo match and has fooled army doctors about his condition ever since. Now he stares at Patton out of his left eye and studies his bleeding friend.

“Work my fingers for me,” Patton commands Gay once more. “Take and rub my arms and shoulders and rub them hard.”

Gay does as he is told.

*   *   *

At 12:43 p.m., George Patton’s ambulance arrives outside the brand-new U.S. Army 130th Station Hospital. Patton has not spoken a word throughout the twenty-five-minute ride from Mannheim. His face is growing pale, and his feet are extremely cold—although he himself cannot feel them.

*   *   *

There is no medical staff waiting to rush Patton into surgery, no crack team of spinal specialists assembled to deal with this life-threatening traumatic injury. For some reason, no one at the hospital answered the radio call from the accident site. So it is just a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Heidelberg, where the Neckar River flows slow and green past the legendary Philosophers’ Walk.

When the ambulance arrives, all this changes.

Patton mumbles something as a young doctor leans over him.

“Is there anything you want, sir?” the doctor asks.

“I don’t want a damned thing, Captain,” Patton tells him. “I was just saying Jesus Christ, what a nice way to start a vacation.”

George S. Patton is wheeled into an examining room, and eventually Allied authorities are given the top-secret information that one of America’s great heroes is incapacitated. Two days later, his wife, Beatrice, and a spinal cord specialist arrive in Germany to be at his side. Doctors believe the strong general will survive his injuries and might be able to regain some mobility.

At the very least, he should be able to travel soon.

They are wrong.

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