“On December 21, 1945—75 years ago today—in the stillness of his waning moments in a German military hospital, General George S. Patton Jr. pondered his life.”
Editor’s note: Although based on actual events, this is a fictionalized account (with some artistic liberties taken) of the last night of General George S. Patton Jr.’s life by Robert Orlando, the director of the 2018 film Silence Patton.
n December 21, 1945—75 years ago today—in the stillness of his waning moments in a German military hospital, General George S. Patton Jr. pondered his life.
In the darkness of his Heidelberg hospital room, a Christmas tree nearby, Patton the warrior, lying face down, experienced the unfamiliar—a lack of control. This could, indeed, serve as a metaphor for the moments during the war when his Third Army was commanded to proceed no further on its would-be, triumphant march to Berlin. His own words now echo over the beats of his electrocardiogram: “I don’t want any messages saying, ‘I’m holding my position.’ We’re not holding a f—ing thing. Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing. Allow Monty and the Brits to receive the glory now that the war is coming to a final settlement?” Patton had rushed to save Eisenhower’s early plans in Bastogne and to prevent Adolf Hitler’s last desperate chance to prolong the war. Patton had witnessed countless Nazis surrendering in his race across France. He was aware of the German commanders’ desire to surrender. Instead, however, he would have to wait and watch as the Soviets approached from the East.
Patton had already imagined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ghost visiting his hospital room. He received a grin from Churchill wishing him well; the Prime Minister, too, had wanted to push back Stalin as far east as possible. Something moves in the dark, and Patton becomes aware of Stalin’s presence, a ghostly figure showing its red uniform in the ambient light. Patton’s thoughts fire at Stalin like daggers: “I could have defeated you, Genghis Khan! We promised the Eastern Europeans freedom. It would be worse than dishonorable not to see they have it. This might mean war with the Russians, but what of it?” The prescient Patton knew all too clearly that Russia was now the real enemy.
Patton, like any other wartime general, was aware that he would be remembered only in the actions he took to win. If Alexander the Great had not been victorious in his adventure beyond the borders of Macedon, we would not know his name. If Caesar had not defeated the Celts or barbarians, he would not have become Caesar. The same is true of Rommel’s original winning tank campaign across France.
Patton’s prowess on the battlefield made him the feared target of Nazi leadership, who followed his every move. The general was quick to mention his sense of being one in a line of many great generals. He spoke of his intuition for battle as something akin to a sixth sense.
In his final moments, with only a nurse to check on him, Patton would seek to make peace with the God of his bible, the one from whom he had asked for help during his efforts to save Bastogne. And he waited expectantly for the great cloud of witnesses, whose approval he so hoped to win—a list of military legends he had imagined since he was a child. Patton had said: “All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble players, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players, the toughest boxers.” Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Caesar, Napoleon, Washington. He knew all of their great battles. Now, he waited for them to pay homage at his bedside.
Patton’s voice from the past is a reminder of the many recurrences of human frailty and even horror, a general’s Christmas Carol.
He could only murmur lines from one of his poems, “Through a Glass, Darkly”: “Through the travail of the ages/Midst the pomp and toil of war/I have fought and strove and perished/Countless times upon this star.”
He envisioned himself as a Roman legionnaire fighting with Caesar against the Parthians in the Middle East under Marc Antony: “Of that blistering treeless plain/When the Parthian showered death bolts/And our discipline was in vain/I remember all the suffering/Of those arrows in my neck/Yet, I stabbed a grinning savage/As I died upon my back.”
Next, he was a Viking raider being taken to the afterlife in Valhalla. He was a French knight fighting the English under Edward III. “And still later as a General/Have I galloped with Murat/When we laughed at death and numbers/Trusting in the Emperor’s Star/Till at last our star faded/And we shouted to our doom.”
In a moment, Patton is transported to recent history, to North Africa after the Allies left to invade Sicily. He hears British General Sir Harold Alexander’s words, “If you had been alive in the Nineteenth Century, Napoleon would have made you a marshal.” Patton replies to the voice, “But I was. I was there.” Patton’s poem continues: “So forever in the future/Shall I battle as of yore/Dying to be born a fighter/But to die again, once more.”
Perhaps in his final moments, he was haunted by the thought that he would not die as heroically as once hopes. Still he rested knowing he had been a brilliant strategist, able to lead an army of tanks (his version of galloping mechanized horses) and fight without fear, facing down death for so many young men under his command. As he closes his eyes, he finds peace knowing those who had trusted him returned home with stories to tell as they hung Christmas stockings or sat before a warming fire.
Civility is a luxury we have become accustomed to during our unprecedented times of peace won by our fighting men and women, who paid for it with blood and treasure. Bravery, honor, code—these ancient ideas endured in the West. At the dawn of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin looked with hostility upon such noble values as freedom and self-destiny. He executed his war against his own citizens, then his own peers, and finally the world. But the American Experiment prevailed, and his empire came crashing down. The irony of our modern world is that those who have tasted war are usually the last ones to start ones unnecessarily, even as they warn we must remain vigilant to keep the peace.
Patton’s voice from the past is a reminder of the many recurrences of human frailty and even horror, a general’s Christmas Carol. It is destiny’s outstretched hand or, at least, one of salute. It is an urgent plea never to forget how life is won and lost—and that redemption is forever sought in our mission to serve those sacred ideals beyond ourselves.
Patton asked a priest, James Hugh O’Neill, to write a prayer on December 8, 1944, just before the Christmas holiday, as well as the Battle of the Bulge, where the Americans would suffer staggering losses:
“Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.
To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I Wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God’s blessings rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day.”
In his final moments, Patton was not alone. He was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who bowed their heads in honor, welcoming one of their own.
Robert Orlando was the director of the 2018 documentary Silence Patton. His book Citizen Trump, which is based on his 2020 film of the same name, is scheduled to be released next year with Simon & Schuster.