General George S. Patton’s military career in the army began long before WWII. One of the greatest Generals in the history of the US military, Patton first enlisted in the US Army in 1909 and served until his untimely death in 1945. He is undoubtedly one of the most infamous Army General’s in the history of the United States.
George S. Patton was born in 1885 into a family with quite a bit of military history. He embarked upon his own military career in 1902 when he wrote to Senator Thomas R. Bard requesting an appointment to the US Military Academy. Because Patton had a lifelong struggle with reading and writing, he feared he would not do well on the exam. This lead to Patton and his father applying to several other universities that offered Reserve Officer’s Training Corps programs. He was accepted into Princeton University and Virginia Military Institute. In 1903, he chose the latter of the two.
Patton continued to struggle with the reading and writing portion of the courses at VMI, but he excelled in the appearance and military drill portion, earning the respect of his fellow cadets and upperclassmen. On March 3, 1904, Patton – after continuous letter-writing – finally did well on the entrance exam for West Point and received his much anticipated recommendation from Bard.
Patton’s first year at West Point provided a routine to which he easily adjusted. However, he still struggled academically. He failed mathematics the first year, and was required to repeat the year. That summer, Patton spent a great deal of time studying, which paid off as he showed considerable academic improvement when classes resumed. The balance of his scholastic work at the Academy would remain marginal, but Patton always excelled at military drills.
By his junior year at West Point, George Patton was a cadet sergeant major. He reached cadet adjutant during his senior year. Though continued injuries restricted his football participation, George signed up for track and field and became a member of the Sword Team. He was soon one of the best swordsmen at West Point.
George S. Patton graduated from West Point Academy 46th from a class of 103. On June 11, 1909, he was appointed second lieutenant in the cavalry.
Life Begins Beyond West Point
Patton was first appointed to the 15th Cavalry at Ft. Sheridan in Illinois. He quickly gained a reputation for being a hard-driving leader, a reputation which impressed his superiors. Towards the end of 1911, he (along with his family) was transferred to Ft. Myer, VA. A number of the senior leaders from the US Army were also stationed here. While at Ft. Myer, Patton befriended Henry Stimson, Secretary of War and served as his aide when Stimson attended social functions. This duty was over and above his appointed responsibilities – quartermaster for his troop.
His fencing and running experience at West Point made Patton the perfect candidate to participate in the very first pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Patton competed with 42 others finishing overall in fifth place.
After the 1912 Olympics, Patton went to France and to learn additional fencing techniques from Adjutant M. Clery. Clery was a ‘master of arms’ as well as the fencing instructor at the cavalry school in France. Afterwards, Patton returned to Ft. Meyer and redesigned the saber combat doctrine of the US cavalry, as well as a sword that better matched the new techniques he had learned. The saber, known as the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber was often referred to as the “Patton sword”. After additional studies in sword techniques, Patton became the first US Army officer designated as a ‘Master of the Sword’. Patton moved on to teach fencing to other cavalry officers, including some senior to his rank.
Patton was to be shipped out with the 15th Cavalry – bound for the Philippines - in 1915. On his leave just prior to being shipped out, fearful his assignment would stifle his career, he traveled to Washington DC where he convinced some of his influential friends to reassign him to the 8th Cavalry at Ft. Bliss, TX. Patton anticipated the volatility in Mexico could easily escalate into a full-blown civil war. He had originally been slated to take part in the 1916, but the start of World War I forced their cancellation.
Prior to World War I
Before the start of WWI, Patton became the personal aide to Pershing, who would be heading up the expedition against Pancho Villa. Patton’s eagerness and dedication to assist in organizing the expedition was well received by Pershing. Patton mirrored his own leadership style after Pershing – strong, decisive and commanding from the front.
In April of 1916, Patton requested an opportunity to command troops. He was assigned to the 13th Cavalry Regiment’s Troop C and assigned the task of hunting for Villa and his men. It was in this position that Patton experienced his first combat experience – May 14, 1916. Coincidentally, it was also the first motorized attack in the history for US warfare. Patton’s participation gained him notoriety with both Pershing and the media in general. On May 23, 1916 Patton – a member of the 10th Cavalry – was promoted to first lieutenant.
World War I
Patton spent some time after the Pancho Villa expedition at Front Royal, VA. Once the US became involved in WWI, Patton requested to join Pershing, who was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. On May 15, 1917, Patton was given a promotion to captain. He then joined Pershing’s party, who was shipping out to Europe. For the next few months, Patton directed the training of the US troops until eventually being sent to Chaumont. Here he quickly became dissatisfied with his post adjutant position. During that time Patton began taking an interest in tanks. Pershing, however, was interested in having Patton command one of the infantry battalions. It was a bout with jaundice and a chance meeting with Colonel Fox Conner (who encouraged Patton to pursue his interest in tanks over infantry) that changed Patton’s military path.
In November of 1917, Patton was given the task to start an American Expeditionary Force (AEF) Light Tank School. He reported to a training school in France and later that
month, the British would launch the largest to-date tank battle of World War I. On December 1st, Patton had finished his tour and reported to Albert where he was briefed on the result of the tank battle by Col. Fuller, the chief of staff for the British Tank Corp. On January 26, 1918, Patton became a major. In March, he received the first of his tanks – ten in all – at the Langres, Haute-Marne Tank School. As the only soldier who had any experience driving tanks, Patton backed out seven of the tanks off the train himself. Patton was responsible for training tank crews to operate in support of the infantry troops. He was also able to promote this concept and gain acceptance among the infantry officers. In April of 1918, Patton received another promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Several months later, Patton was put in charge of the US 1st Provisional Tank Brigade – known as the 304th Tank Brigade from November, 1918 forward. He oversaw the logistics of the tanks in WWI (the first combat use of tanks by US forces). After scrutinizing the first target area, Patton issued an order that no US tank should be surrendered.
Patton made sure he was visible throughout the tank battles, leading them in, riding on top and even walking into a town on foot. Patton was wounded in the thigh as he led six of his men and a tank in an attack against German machine guns. Pvt. 1st Class Joe Angelo was credited with saving Patton, and as a result, later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. Before being evacuated for medical treatment, Patton continued to command the battle as he lay in a shell hole. As he was being evacuated to the hospital, he first stopped at the rear command post to turn in his report.
While recuperating, Patton received yet another promotion – colonel in the Tank Corps of the US National Army. Less than two weeks later on October 28th, Patton was able to return to duty but experienced no further action as the war ended with the armistice on November 11, 1918. As a result of his actions and wound in WWI, Patton received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Purple Heart – which was issued to him later as it was not created until 1932.
George S. Patton’s military career did not stop at the end of World War I. In fact, most would probably agree that it was just the beginning. Read about his continued career after WWI and into World War II.