In just four days, on Tuesday, Nov. 11, we will be commemorating Veterans Day, the annual federal holiday which honors America’s military veterans who have served us so heroically and unflinchingly in times of peril.
Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., the acclaimed and vivid World War II combat leader, was one of those hero-veterans.
And he had the good sense to be born of Nov. 11.
His birth year was 1885, 34 years before the U.S. holiday Armistice Day came into being, a holiday which commemorated the Nov. 11, 1919, World War I armistice between the U.S. and its allies with their enemy, Germany.
In 1954, at the request of President Dwight Eisenhower, Congress changed the name Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
Patton, who was born in Southern California 129 years ago, is making news today with the recent release of the book “Killing Patton” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Published by Henry Holt and Co., the book is currently No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction.
The book alleges that Patton, who died at the age of 60 on Dec. 21, 1945 after suffering critical injuries when his chauffeur-driven 1937 Cadillac limousine was struck by a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck near Mannheim, Germany, in actuality was murdered by a dose of poison furtively given him in his hospital room by agents of Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator of the Soviet Union.
Patton was recovering from his injuries, according to O’Reilly and Dugard, but Stalin ordered him killed in order to silence the fervent anti-communism Patton was preaching following the end of World War II when the Soviets were spreading their communist grip throughout the captive nations of Eastern Europe.
Although Stalin’s alleged “poison plot” has been dismissed as fiction by Patton’s relatives and most historians, several other books also have claimed that Patton was assassinated.
The 2008 book “Target Patton” by military historian Robert Wilcox, for example, states that Patton’s death was arranged by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, whose head, Army Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, ordered the car crash staged and also had Patton shot by a marksman stationed near the crash site.
The Wilcox book charged that Patton, however, lived through both the crash and wounds from the marksman’s bullet, but met his death in his room at the Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, after being poisoned by Soviet agents working in collusion with the OSS.
Why did the OSS want Patton dead? Because he was threatening to expose alleged allied complicity with the Russians that had cost many American lives during WW II, wrote Wilcox.
Conspiracy theories have evolved throughout history concerning the deaths of virtually all prominent and controversial figures, and those attempting to seek the truth must weigh the evidence and qualifications of the authors making the conspiratorial allegations in an effort to separate fact from fantasy.
In any case, Veterans Day and Patton’s birthday will soon be upon us, and recently I visited the General Patton Memorial Museum, about 40 miles east of Palm Springs, to reacquaint myself with the famous general, a 1909 West Point graduate who also was a decorated veteran of the 1916 Army expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico and WW I against Germany.
The museum, located off Interstate 10, is built adjoining the site of Patton’s former headquarters at Camp Young, one of 10 divisional camps in Southern California, Arizona and Southern Nevada which trained more than 1 million Army personnel in desert warfare from 1942 to 1944.
Patton set up and then commanded the far-flung operation, known as the California-Arizona Maneuver Area, until reassigned to lead “Operation Torch,” the U.S.-British invasion of Nazi-held French North Africa.
The sprawling museum, opened on Veterans Day, 1988, contains an astonishing collection of weapons, historical military books, newspaper articles and photographs, and Patton memorabilia (including his famous silver-handed pistols). The outdoor exhibit areas display a dozen or so WW II military vehicles and tanks, including a M-47 Medium Tank appropriately named the “Patton Medium Tank,” and Camp Young’s original stone chapel and administrative buildings.
The museum will hold its annual Veterans Day celebration Tuesday, and thousands of visitors turn out each year to honor the famous general, who is memorialized by his giantic statue that can be seen from the freeway, and to visit the museum and adjacent Army airfield from where Patton piloted his own airplane to observe tank, infantry and artillery training.
Gen. Patton’s former headquarters and the museum are set in the desolate Mojave Desert where temperatures range throughout the year from 115 degrees to below freezing. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., this is a fascinating place, to be sure.
Publisher Emeritus David C. Henley is the author of “The Land That God Forgot: The Saga of Gen. George Patton’s Desert Training Camps” published by the Western Military History Association.