Killing Patton – Review

Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General. New York: Holt, 2014. Print.

The title of Killing Patton caught my attention because the other titles I was familiar with in this series were all about people who everyone knew were assassinated or set up, even if the specific theories varied: Lincoln, Kennedy, and Jesus. But Patton? He died in a car wreck, but was he deliberately killed?

My uncle thought so. He was a retired Army Lt. Colonel who served under Patton in North Africa. He would receive both the Silver and Bronze Stars later in the war for commando and intelligence operations. He spoke very highly of Eisenhower, Wainwright, and Patton. But he also believed Patton’s death was suspicious. What would O’Reilly and Dugard have to say about this?

It must be noted that the first half of the book is largely about Patton’s last year, especially his successes in the Battle of the Bulge and the relief of Bastogne. It is a remarkable story, and the authors give Patton a lot of credit. His audacity worked on the battlefield, but not so much in the bureaucracy. Eisenhower comes across as not so much weak but politically motivated. We are reminded more than once that Eisenhower never had any direct battlefield experience. Patton is frustrated time and again because Eisenhower orders him to wait—mostly to keep British and Soviet allies happy.

There are many interesting tidbits of information. I was familiar with the slogan of the 101st Airborne: “They’ve got us surrounded, the poor bastards.” Killing Patton tells us its origin. The 101st Airborne led by Gen. Anthony McAuliffe was the unit surrounded by German Panzers in Bastogne. One of the officers was talking about their situation and said, “They’ve got us surrounded.” A medic who happened to be present gave the famous rejoinder.

McAuliffe was offered terms of surrender by the Germans. Today he is best known, not for his battlefield prowess, but for his response to the German proposal that he surrender. The messenger who turned the German letter over to McAuliffe had to wake him up. McAuliffe, like many other people wakened early from a sound sleep, muttered, “Nuts!”

When he was awake and dressed, McAuliffe, who was not going to surrender, asked aloud, “How do we answer their letter?” Someone suggested he reply with what he had said earlier. Killing Patton gives the actual text of his reply. Besides the usual heading, salutation, and closing, the letter simply had his one-word reply: “Nuts!” When the Germans received it, even the America-trained English translators did not understand the message. The American couriers used much stronger language and more words to communicate the gist of McAuliffe’s letter.

For better or worse, McAuliffe even today is best known for that simple reply in spite of his distinguished service. After the war, he would sometimes get annoyed because no matter where he went someone would bring up the subject of “Nuts.” Once, a few years later, he attended an evening party and was having a wonderful time because no one mentioned it the whole evening. As he was leaving the party, the thanked the hostess profusely. She replied, “Thank you and good night, General McNut.” (325)

I recall discussions in the sixties and seventies about why and by whom “we lost China” to the Communists. During the war, the United States supported Gen. Chiang of the Kuomintang against the Japanese but also reached out to Mao and the Communists. After all, we were allies with the Soviet Union.

“Wild” Bill Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services of Military Intelligence, contacted Mao and asked him how much money he needed for weapons to help against the Japanese. The sum that Mao quoted was outrageously higher than what the arms would cost—in fact, it was the same figure as the OSS’s entire annual budget. When Donovan asked him what figure would he settle for, Mao came back with an even higher number. This told America that Mao was either looking to feather his nest or that he was not really serious about fighting the Japanese.

Killing Patton includes chapters keeping the readers abreast of what some of the key figures in the war were doing, notably Eisenhower, Donovan, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and, after FDR’s death, Truman.

The second half, leading to Patton’s death, is sad. It is clear that O’Reilly and Dugard believe that if FDR and Eisenhower had listened to Patton, less of Eastern Europe would have become Soviet and that the Americans could have made it to Berlin first. Truman seemed to be the only one who would admit that Patton was right, but Truman disliked anyone who was as flamboyant as Patton. (Though they do not mention this, that may have been why Truman took a dislike to MacArthur in the Korean War.)

We read of the rather pathetic events leading up to Hitler’s death. We read of Roosevelt’s death. Killing Patton notes that even Stalin was visibly upset on hearing the news about FDR from the American ambassador and then recommended that they should do an autopsy to insure he had not been poisoned. Paranoid? Truly, but the book details the various ways the Soviets developed untraceable poisons which they mostly used against their own people. (Judging from news reports, the Russians apparently still use them today.)

The circumstances of Patton’s death are certainly weird. A stolen U.S. Army vehicle driven by a drunk driver appears out of the woods heading straight for a building strikes the car in which Patton is riding. The driver tells three completely different stories each time he is questioned and then disappears.

Reilly and Dugard present pretty convincing evidence that Stalin wanted Patton dead. But there is reliable testimony that Donovan, who was at least sympathetic to Russia, also wanted him dead. After he was hospitalized, doctors were confident that Patton would probably recover. He died ten days after the accident. Was the accident a setup? Might he have been poisoned afterwards? Was it the Russians? The OSS?

One other interesting observation—and there are many in the book—occurs at the Potsdam Conference when Truman told Stalin about the atomic bomb. Churchill and Truman both noticed that Stalin had no reaction. Of course, we would all learn later that it was not news to Stalin thanks to highly placed spies, notably Klaus Fuchs and Alger Hiss. At Potsdam Truman also learned, though, that Stalin could not be trusted. Potsdam set the stage for the Cold War.

Some readers might criticize Killing Patton for its lack of specific documentation. O’Reilly and Dugard appear to try to avoid it to make the book less pedantic and more readable. Still, there are many editorial footnotes, and the writers are careful to give the sources of the lesser known or more controversial points they make such as Donovan’s desire to get Patton out of the way.

Killing Patton is a great battle story as well as a fascinating tale of intrigue. Whether he was ultimately correct or not, my uncle was not just blowing smoke when he spoke of Patton’s death.

As a postscript, I cannot help think of the famous film Patton starring George C. Scott in the title role. In the film, Patton gives a speech where he says that the soldier is not supposed to die for his country. He is to get the enemy soldier to die for his country. Patton’s actual speech which is quoted in its entirety in Killing Patton is much more colorful and patriotic.

There is also a brief scene in the film where Patton gives the order to a chaplain to pray for certain weather during the siege of Bastogne. While Patton may have done that, Killing Patton lets us know that Patton prayed a very specific prayer himself. The subsequent attack succeeded even though the weather did not change. When Patton saw that the weather affected the Germans more adversely than it did the Americans, he admitted in a subsequent prayer that he had made a mistake and thanked the Lord for knowing better. Even today, that is a wise approach to unanswered prayer. As has been said, “The will of God is exactly what I would do if I knew all the facts.”

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