Part 47: Bill Mauldin’s meeting with General Patton
From the accounts of Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek as told by his son, Glen Palecek
While the fighting was going on in France, Dad’s friend, war correspondent and cartoonist Sergeant Bill Mauldin drove to meet Patton at his command post. Now, you might think Patton was up-front with his soldiers, or at least in a tent close behind their lines. If this is what you think, you have a delusional vision of Patton. When Sergeant Mauldin went to see Patton, the general had taken over and set up his headquarters in the fanciest place possible, the royal palace in Luxemburg. It can be argued it is not the proper place for a commanding general to be at the front. However, it is totally wrong to write that Patton was. Some generals were actually at the front. General Lucian K. Truscott, for example, spent half his time at the front. Truscott also had a deep raspy command voice, which was aided by acid he had swallowed as a child — compare that with the shrill, whiny voice of “Old Blood and Guts.” Patton spent most of his time in luxury homes far behind the lines. When Patton was not in a fancy house or hotel, he had a trailer to sleep in — compare that with the muddy foxholes the common soldier had to endure. The general only occasionally went near the front for the benefit of his photographers and biographers. The documentaries you see with Patton were staged to portray the illusion he was fighting with his men.
The reason Patton agreed to a meeting with Sergeant Mauldin was Mauldin was showing the life of the everyday dogface soldier in his many cartoons and articles, which were printed in the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Patton thought reporting should focus on him and portray him as the one winning the war single-handedly. Mauldin’s cartoons were also printed back in the States, giving the public a glimpse of the everyday life of the front-line soldier. The two main cartoon characters, Willie and Joe, were well known by every American soldier in Europe. Patton wanted the public to have an image of soldiers that was clean, neat, and well-disciplined. Willie and Joe were anything but what Patton wanted. Old Blood and Guts tried to get any news that was negative toward him censored and even tried to keep copies of Stars and Stripes from his men. General Eisenhower overruled Patton because he thought the paper was good for morale and ordered it be continued to be given to the troops. Patton was not above threatening reporters who dared question one of his false reports.
It was agreed upon the meeting would be soldier to soldier — no rank. Mauldin had to return his fancy, customized jeep back to its original state and make sure every part of his uniform was in perfect order. He remembered well the list of fines Patton had imposed in Sicily for having a less-than-perfect uniform. Even so, Patton’s aids spruced him up even more before the meeting.
Mauldin was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (twice) and you can find a full account of his meeting with Patton in his book, “The Brass Ring.” In this book, Mauldin describes the color of Patton’s face as pink, an appropriate color for someone who spent his days inside luxury homes. Mauldin also describes the famous Patton scowl, with the corners of his mouth turned sharply downward and his lower lip sticking out like a spoiled child. This description is appropriate, given “Old Gutsy Blood,” as Mauldin once called him, was indeed raised a rich, spoiled child. It must have been quite a contrast to see the boy-faced Mauldin next to the flamboyant Patton. Mauldin wrote Patton had a chest so full of medals and ribbons they seemed to climb over his back.
The meeting took place in a vast, carpeted room in the palace. Patton’s dog, Willie, kept a close eye on Sergeant Mauldin and gave him dirty looks.
At their meeting, Patton tried his best to intimidate Mauldin, but was unsuccessful. Mauldin was not part of Patton’s Third Army and the general had no authority over him. Old Blood and Guts gave Mauldin a 45-minute lecture on how important discipline was in the Army and a history of Army discipline throughout the ages. For his part, Mauldin explained his articles and cartoons showed the average dogface soldier he was not alone — there were many others going through the same ordeals and thinking the same thoughts. In the days after their meeting, Mauldin, undaunted, continued with his articles and cartoons. One example of Mauldin’s jabs at the general was a cartoon of two officers, one presumed to be Patton, at a lookout in the mountains with one saying to the other, “Beautiful view! Is there one for the enlisted men?”
In my opinion, Mauldin’s books, cartoons, and other writings give a more honest view of the war than any other works I have read. Mauldin spent a lot of time up front with the 45th Division, which gave him a first-hand view of the war. Ernie Pyle also spent time at the front with the Thunderbirds and may be better known today, but I don’t think Pyle ever wrote a bad word about anyone. Thus, Pyle’s work tends to sugarcoat the ugliness of the war. If you want to know how the average soldier really lived and felt, Mauldin’s works are even better than Pyle’s. Each cartoon and story is based on a real-life experience during this terrible war.
General Bradley wrote Patton’s Third Army soldiers in France and Germany liked Patton much better than those who served under him in Sicily. From talking with several soldiers from Patton’s Third Army, I think the explanation is quite simple: in Sicily, soldiers were much more aware of things Patton did and what was going on. Learning from this, Patton kept his Third Army soldiers in the dark as much as possible. He tried hard to make them only aware of situations that glorified him. Some were fooled so much they actually thought he was up front somewhere.
The public has also been so badly fooled that when CBS aired two documentaries showing Old Blood and Guts as he really was, the station was bombarded with complaints and hugely exaggerated accounts of Patton’s greatness. One complaint even gave a completely untrue story of Patton having 14 soldiers killed while driving jeeps for him. I’ll bet that complainer was unaware of the luxury car Patton had shipped from the states. Patton definitely had, and still has, many die-hard fans. They are so caught up in the Patton myth there is no way anyone will ever convince them of the truth. Even new documentaries today, which want us to believe they are factually accurate, echo the legend and bury the truth. None mention the prisoners who were lined up and shot under Patton’s general orders or the trials of the men who carried out these crimes. That information is available, but to include it in these new documentaries would spoil the myth of Patton’s greatness.
Most Patton writers also fail to tell you, near the end of the war, Old Blood and Guts wanted Americans to join the Nazis and wage war on the Russians! Can you imagine Americans and Nazis on the same side, or starting a war with Russia when both the U.S. and Russia were developing the atomic bomb? Oh, the things today’s writers want to keep from you about General Patton. The few writers who dare tell you of Patton’s plans to fight the Russians say the world would be much different if Patton had been allowed to wage this war. I agree, but would the world be better or worse?
After the war, Patton was once again relived of his command, this time of the Third Army. To help him save face, he was given command of the 15th Army, which was a non-combat unit. General Hodges, on the other hand, retained command of the First Army and went on to fight the Japanese.
Patton finally died in a very mysterious “accident” involving his chauffeur-driven Cadillac and an Army truck. Even though there is substantial evidence this may have been an assassination, including confessions, officially it is still listed as an accident. My own theory is that they could not try Nazis for war crimes and not do something about Patton. Dad, for one, made it known he was willing to testify against his former leader.
In the next episode, I hope to get back to Dad and the things he did in France.