by Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek; from Glen Palecek
Just recently, I watched the movie, “Patton,” starring George C. Scott, for the first time. I had been going through Dad’s letters from the battlefields. I also had been looking at notes from some of his sermons and some of the history papers he had written as a student at Northwestern College and the University of Minnesota. There were also lesson notes he wrote as a history teacher, both in high school and at Winona State.
The part of the movie that is based on Patton in Sicily is mostly based on facts that are backed up by what Dad wrote and told me. However, Hollywood cleverly twisted the facts and left out some important details.
To understand the campaign in Sicily, you first have to understand its objective. The beachhead was made from the southern shore of the island. The British, under General Montgomery, were to advance up the east coast and capture the city of Messina, thus cutting off the Axis’ escape route back to the mainland of Italy. Messina sits at the end of a peninsula in the shape of a triangle as close to the mainland as is possible. In fact, it is only a mile and a half across the Strait of Messina to the toe of the boot of Italy (see map).
Sicily is extremely mountainous. Dad said, “Everything was on edge.” Patton’s 7th army was to attack the Axis armies west of the British and take a much longer route through the rugged middle of Sicily and capture the capital city of Palermo. Patton was to make sure Montgomery had captured Messina and had the escape route sealed before he took Palermo. Palermo is a port city on the north shore of Sicily and close to the west coast. Once Patton’s army crossed through the rugged mountains of Sicily to Palermo, it would still have almost as far to get to Messina as Montgomery did from the start.
The plan seemed flawless; the Germans and Italians would be trapped in the center of the island and forced to surrender. However, there was one thing Allied leaders did not count on, and that was the sheer madness of Patton.
Patton was a true nutcase. He thought he was the reincarnation of Julius Cesar and other famous generals of the past. The movie accurately has him visit an ancient battlefield and declare that he had been there before, thousands of years ago. Patton came from a rich family, and he, himself, owned several yachts, homes, and horses. This could be part of the reason he thought so much less of the lives of the soldiers than he did of himself.
Because Patton believed he was the same person re-created many times, he used the same tactics that he thought he had done in the past – basically, to attack relentlessly. Also, he believed, as the ancients did, that combat was all about the fame of the conquering general. The lives of the combat soldiers meant nothing, and were to be sacrificed for the glory of their leader. In ancient Roman times, the highlight of any general’s life was when he could ride his chariot down the main street of Rome with trumpets blaring, followed by his enemy’s leaders in chains and by his triumphant legions of soldiers. Many of the enemy would be hung on crosses on all the roads leading to Rome as a symbol of the general’s power and might. The glory of this march meant so much to Roman generals they would sometimes fight each other in fierce battles where the only soldiers killed were Romans.
The movie wants to portray Patton as a hero, so it conveniently leaves out the main objective of the battle for Sicily. To its credit, it does include many of the above facts, but also trys to twist them enough so as not to dim the image it wants you to get of Patton.
The part that makes me very angry is where the movie has Patton claim that many more American lives would have been lost if it were not for his aggressive tactics. This is surely not true as Dad told me several times of how Patton would send suicide squads into the teeth of German artillery like he did at the Biscari Airport. So many men were lost because Patton would not wait for air support, which always drove the Germans back. In all likelihood, had the Allied invasion gone as planned, all the German and Italian soldiers on the island would have surrendered. If they didn’t, they could have been bombed relentlessly until they did. Patton didn’t want the Germans to surrender, he wanted to kill them. To illustrate this point, let me give you the following profanity-laden quote Patton made in a speech on June 5, 1944, the day before the invasion of Normandy in France:
“We’ll win this war, but we’ll win it only by fighting and showing the Germans that we’ve got more guts than they have – or ever will have. We’re not just going to shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living God-d---ed guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.”
Patton clearly showed the real man he still was when he stated the words above, and that he was not the hero Hollywood and the press has made him out to be.
After the Biscari massacre, the Italians did surrender in very large numbers. Dad wrote, “The Italians ran toward them with hands in the air, while the Germans ran from them with hands in their hair.” Dad stated in his letters to Mom that even though the Italians were allies of Germany at the time, they would shake the American soldiers’ hands with vigor and thank them over and over, obviously not wanting to be shot.
In the movie, Patton slaps a soldier, calling him a coward. This really happened as Dad actually was near enough to hear the loud commotion, although he did not know what was happening until later. The movie doesn’t tell you that Patton actually did this twice in two separate incidents. The Army tried to keep this under wraps, but both times reporters were there and the second time the incident was broadcast by NBC, causing a public outcry. The soldiers Patton slapped were suffering from what Dad called shellshock. Cases of this are sometimes so severe that soldiers would have a complete nervous breakdown and shake uncontrollably. The other soldiers knew the two who were slapped were not faking and the news of this spread throughout their ranks.
Once again, against orders, Patton marched his army to Messina and arrived before Montgomery. Most of the Germans escaped the island of Sicily on small boats from Messina to the mainland of Italy, and the battle for Sicily was over on or around Mom’s birthday, August 18.
Patton was driven in triumph through the streets of Palermo and again in Messina. He was overcome with glee and very proud of the 45th division and the many brave battles they fought for him in Sicily. In fact, he issued this statement: “The 45th Division is one of the best, if not actually the best division in the history of American arms.”
While Patton marveled in his victory, others were not happy. Patton had completely messed up the plan to trap the German armies in Sicily. General Montgomery and other British officials complained bitterly. General Eisenhower, who was commander of all Allied forces in Europe, was also extremely upset. Patton had deliberately disobeyed orders. Because of Patton, the Allied forces would have to fight against the same German soldiers again on the mainland of Italy. Since the news at the time had the American public angry over the soldier-slapping incidents, President Roosevelt and Congress used it as reason to take Patton’s command away and remove him from the war. Patton and his staff were sent in exile to the small island of Malta which is south of Sicily (see map).
General Omar Bradley, who had served under Patton up until then, was promoted to take Patton’s place. Dad thought, or should I say hoped, the shooting of prisoners had something to do with Patton’s demotion.
Patton missed a huge part of the American campaign in Europe and many of its biggest battles. He was eventually brought back to use as a decoy to make the Nazis think the D-Day invasion of France would not start at Normandy. Not until after the Normandy invasion did Patton re-enter the war. That’s another interesting story I hope to include later.
While Patton was out of the war for the Allied invasions of Italy and France, Dad was not. Next time, I’ll take time out from the battles to tell you more about Dad and how he kept his Christian values throughout the war. In so many ways, Dad was as opposite as Patton as a man can get.
To read all the episodes in this series, go to winonapost.com and in the search box in the archives type “silver star.”