For General Patton’s Family, Recovered Ground

Famed World War II Gen. George S. Patton’s grandson finds his calling in the ashes of his fathers journals

Benjamin W. Patton stands with his father, Gen. George Patton in 1978 at the North Africa American Cemetery in Tunisia. His grandfather, Gen. George S. Patton commanded the U.S. II Corps in 1943. (Benjamin W. Patton)
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One thing my father resolved to be was a family man. Even though he became a general himself and was often immersed in his military duties, he went out of his way to spend time with us. And while he never claimed to be an expert in anything nonmilitary, he was a first-class enthusiast. If he went hunting or fishing with friends or fellow soldiers, he often took me or one of my siblings along. He played the guitar at family parties (a self-proclaimed "three-chord man") and taught us how to ski, sail and play tennis. Sailing, he'd invite my friends and me to stay up half the night playing poker in an invariably smoke-filled cabin. He encouraged my brother George, developmentally delayed from birth, to compete in the Special Olympics and also become a champion barrel racer. During rare visits from my sister Margaret, who had become a Benedictine nun over Dad's initial protests, he'd get up early to pick blueberries for her breakfast. He wrote my mother silly but heartfelt poems.

People often said he had the voice my grandfather wished he had—my grandfather's voice was high-pitched with a slightly patrician lilt, while my father actually sounded like George C. Scott. But even when I clashed with him as a teenager, I saw through his tough, hard-edged persona.

At 21, I was just starting to appreciate the fact that my father was—and always had been—one of my biggest supporters and closest friends. Everyone had a story about him. With our audiotaping project, I would get to hear them firsthand.

Over the next six years we spent many hours talking, with me picking his brain for every detail and vignette he could remember. Once we got going, it was as though a massive vault had been opened, and the stories began to pour out. He spoke of being bounced on Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing's knee as a young boy, walking Gen. George C. Marshall's dog and being pulled out of school by his father to attend a talk by British soldier T. E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia). At 13, my father sailed from Hawaii to Southern California aboard a small schooner with his parents, a few of their friends and a professional mate. "We went through a school of blackfin tuna for four days straight," he told me. "They stirred up so much phosphorus [in fact, bioluminescent plankton] in the water that you could actually read a book on deck at night."

He also told me about a fellow West Point graduate who had served under him when my father commanded the storied 11th Armored Cavalry ("Blackhorse") Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. His unit had performed poorly under fire, and the young captain asked to be relieved. After a long talk with my father—a colonel at the time—he changed his mind and asked for one more chance to get his outfit into shape before re­linquishing command. In a subsequent firefight, the captain earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor in combat. "Although terribly costly to him, he chose the harder right rather than the easier wrong," said my dad. "And that's what wins battles. That's what wins wars."

I didn't need to ask about the captain's fate. The John Hays plot at our family's farm in Massachusetts is just one of many that my dad named for soldiers killed under his command. To us, the hand-painted signs all over our property mark just how deeply Dad felt the loss of his troops. Even today, veterans come and quietly wander our fields.

What our taped conversations helped me realize was that my dad was every bit the soldier that his father was. He saw more actual frontline combat and was just as highly decorated by his country for valor. He commanded more than 4,400 men—the largest combat unit led by someone of his rank and age during Vietnam—and more than once landed in his helicopter in the middle of a battle, pulled out his revolver and led the charge. Along the way, he earned the nation's second- and third-highest medals for bravery—twice each—and a Purple Heart. When he retired to Massachusetts in 1980, Dad started a produce farm on the family property. Today, Green Meadows Farm, north of Boston, is a thriving organic operation with the participation of more than 300 local families.

My father didn't boast about his achievements, and he didn't want to be seen as iconic. Maybe that's why he never worked in my grandfather's home office, with its voluminous library and perfect replica of Napoleon's desk. "Too much damn traffic," Dad would say. Then he'd head off to his plywood-walled office in the basement, every surface a collage of photos of fellow soldiers and family.

Re-examining his life had always kept him engaged; now, our interviews revived him. Eventually, Dad gave the transcripts to a biographer, and a book about his life—Brian Sobel's The Fighting Pattons—was published after all.

I disappointed my father when I chose not to follow him into the military, and I frustrated him even more when I dawdled about a career. But here's the strange thing: after our taping was finished, other families with stories to preserve began to find me.


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