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Patton, MacArthur, and the St. Mihiel Offensive

Ian Harvey

The afternoon of September 12, 1918, is one that would be marked in the history books. On an exposed hill near the French town of Essey, two giants of American military history would meet. They were Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton and Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur. It was not an ideal location or time for such a serendipitous meeting: the American Expeditionary Force and the German Army were currently engaged in bloody battle. Yet neither man suggested moving away from the hill and conducted a calm conversation with tanks and infantry maneuvering past on either side of them.

The lieutenant colonel had a Colt .45 pistol with an ivory grip and his engraved initials, a pipe clenched in his teeth, while the Brigadier wore a barracks cap and a muffler his mother knitted for him. At the time of their meeting, Patton was thirty-two years old, and MacArthur was thirty-eight. As their conversation progressed, a barrage of German artillery opened and began marching towards their position. While infantrymen beside them dove for cover, the two officers remained standing, still talking to each other.

Although both men were West-Pointers, the two had never met before that day; their careers had simply taken different directions. Patton had been in the Army for nine years and MacArthur for fifteen. Both would become famous for their bravery and daring acts in World War II, and both would set the precedent for courage under fire during the First World War.

It is an undisputed fact that Patton and MacArthur met that afternoon, but what they precisely talked about has remained unclear. Luckily, by examining the various stories about this encounter that developed, some of the myths can be cleared out.

General MacArthur holding a crop at a French chateau, September 1918 Source:Wikipedia/public domain

General MacArthur holding a crop at a French chateau, September 1918 Source: Wikipedia/public domain

First, some of the facts. Lieutenant Colonel Patton arrived in France before MacArthur on June 13, 1917. Although MacArthur arrived later in the same month, his division, the 42nd Rainbow Division, was the first to see action. Their duty was to plug the gaps in the Allied line. At the time, the Germans were making their last bid to take Paris and end the war before larger numbers of American troops arrived. When Patton and MacArthur met during the St. Mihiel Offensive, MacArthur had been on the front for five months.

The St. Mihiel Offensive is the first battle in which the American Army would fight as its own unit, with its own sector and leading officers. Before then, there had been attempts to integrate the Americans into the British and French troops. On June 24, 1918, the American First Army was formed. The first test of this army was at the St. Mihiel Offensive. Their goal was to disperse the “bulge” of German-occupied territory.

On September 12, beginning at 0100 hours, Allied guns unleashed a five-hour artillery barrage across the salient. Immediately following the bombardment, the doughboys of the 42nd, supported by Patton’s 327th Tank Battalion, started toward their objectives. MacArthur personally moved forward to maintain control of the units on the battlefield. By 0630, MacArthur was in the Sonnard Woods, 800 yards into enemy territory, where he was pushing forward elements of the 84th Brigade. At about the same time, Patton was advancing his command post to the town of Seicheprey, about 300 yards southwest of MacArthur’s position. When reports came saying that the tanks were bogging down in the battlefield, Patton went to assess the situation. His reaction to being shelled along the way was fairly reasonable. “I admit that I wanted to duck and probably did at first, but soon saw the futility of dodging fate.” He said.

So what did they talk about on that hill? No one is quite sure. The participants themselves give different accounts. Unfortunately, the further away from the actual incident, the more fictitious stories pop up. With careful analysis, however, one can begin to peel away the fiction from fact.

Patton wrote of his meeting with MacArthur four days later in a six-page letter to his wife. “I met General MacArthur commanding a brigade; he was walking about too.” He said, “I joined him, and the creeping barrage came along towards us, but it was very thin and not dangerous. I think each one wanted to leave, but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us. We stood and talked, but neither was much interested in what the other said as we could not get our minds off the shells.” Patton’s letter, despite all its bombast, managed to be magnanimous to MacArthur’s unwillingness to seek shelter. “I was the only man on the front-line except for General MacArthur who never ducked a shell.”

MacArthur’s version, on the other hand, was included in his memoir, Reminiscences, that was completed forty-seven years after the meeting. He doesn’t dwell on the incident very long either, dedicating only two sentences on it. “We were followed by a squadron of tanks, which soon bogged down in the heavy mud. The squadron was commanded by an old friend, who in another war was to gain worldwide fame, Major George S. Patton.” Admittedly, MacArthur’s memoirs are a bit self-serving and tend to focus on everyone’s failings but his own. It isn’t surprising then that he referred to Patton and the problems with his tanks. He also erred by referring to Patton as a major when he was actually a lieutenant colonel. Historians, such as Martin Blumeson suggest that the title “old friend” was used in the Army between officers, even if they had not previously met.

These aren’t the only difference. In 1961, an article writer named Jack Pearl, who also wrote commercials and early television scripts, penned Blood-and-Guts Patton for the Monarch American Series. In this version, Patton supposedly walked up to MacArthur and saluted, but then ducked from a nearby shell. MacArthur told Patton “Don’t sweat over ’em, Colonel. If they’re gonna get you, they’re gonna get you.” When Patton asked him about the situation up ahead, MacArthur offered: “Why don’t you go up ahead and have a look around?” Patton then climbed onto a tank to ride into Essey.

This account contains two disputable points. The first is that there is little proof that Patton ducked—Patton’s account stated the futility of such an action. The second is that Patton did not ride a tank into Essey. Again, the evidence is found in Patton’s own account. Patton wrote that he walked into Essey and took a tank into the next town. “When we got to Pannes some two miles [away] the infantry would not go in so I told the sergeant commanding the tank to go in. He was nervous at being alone so I said I would sit on the roof. I got on top of the tank to hearten the driver. This reassured him, and we entered the town.” These two points are enough to call into question Pearl’s management of the facts and his reliability as a reporter.

Perhaps under pressure from historians, Pearl would later write another book, General Douglas MacArthur. This time, as the title suggests, the focus was on MacArthur. This version was different than Pearl’s initial version. Instead of saying, “Don’t sweat over ’em, Colonel. If they’re gonna get you, they’re gonna get you,” Pearl claims that MacArthur said, “Don’t worry, Colonel, you never hear the one that gets you.” This time, he also added more details. When MacArthur saw that Patton was disheartened from the “ribbing” the infantry brass was giving him as his tanks wallowed in the mud, MacArthur offered, “Don’t let them get you down, Colonel. These tanks of yours will dominate the character of war for the next hundred years.” Patton responded, “I’m grateful someone besides me thinks so, sir.” It appears that Pearl thought MacArthur could benefit by acting paternal towards Patton, as well as being a great military visionary. In both versions, Pearl does not cite his sources for the quotes from their conversation. This leads to severe doubt in their validity.

The next writer to take up the narrative was Jules Archer in 1963. In his Front-Line General, Douglas MacArthur, Pearl’s story of the Patton-MacArthur meeting was used, but, again, the quotes were not cited —they only cite Pearl’s work. For some reason, Archer’s use of this quote seemed to legitimize it; William Manchester would later repeat the quotes in American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, in which he cited Archer as the source. Manchester goes further, however, and called the chance encounter between Patton and MacArthur an inevitable “macho duel.” The most recent biography on MacArthur, Geoffrey Parret’s Old Soldier’s Never Die, was intended to correct some of the myths around the general, but sadly fell into the same trap.

D. Clayton James, however, refused to use the fictitious quotes in his three volume biography. Carlo D’Este follows suit in Patton: A Genius for War, calling Manchester’s account “nonsense.” Although, D’Este may have thought that Manchester interviewed MacArthur for his book because D’Este blames the false story on MacArthur’s faulty memory, “with the result that he and his biographer incorrectly identify Patton as a major.”

In reality, what Patton and MacArthur talked about was probably remembered by neither. The battlefield was not exactly a prime place for a conversation — German shells combined with infantry and tank noises would have made a deafening amount of sound. While both these men regarded their own personal histories in high esteem, they probably never thought the few words they exchanged on that hill would ever be considered as important.

Patton in France in 1918 with a Renault FT light tank Source:Wikipedia/Public domain

Patton in France in 1918 with a Renault FT light tank Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Meanwhile, MacArthur was heading north through the Sonnard Woods, towards the same location as Patton. When they reached the area, Patton spotted MacArthur on a small hill situated between the woods and the town and walked over to join him. It was then that the barrage started towards their position.

 

It is not clear from either Patton or MacArthur’s accounts if they advanced together or separated as the Americans advanced and Germans retreated. Either way, they would have passed dead Germans, horses, smashed artillery pieces, and other debris of war. When Patton reached the town, he found five tanks that were reluctant to continue for fear of being shelled. He was, in a word, infuriated. He then proceeded to lead the tanks into the town on foot. In town, the tanks stopped again. They refused to cross the only bridge because it might be mined. To prove that it was safe, Patton crossed the bridge. It was only after he crossed that he saw the explosives under the bridge. Luckily, the wires had been cut, thus rendering the explosives useless.

After the tanks had crossed, Patton returned to the town center where he witnessed a group of German soldiers emerge from a dugout and surrender to MacArthur, who did not mention this incident in his memoirs. Rather, he reflected on the signs of a panicked retreat by the Germans: the musical instruments of a regimental band laid out, a battery of guns left behind still stood in their station, and, in a nearby barn, a horse fully saddled for a German officer.

The two men, reunited, discussed the possibility of continuing the attack to the town of Pannes, two-hundred yards to the north. They agreed to continue, and Patton left to lead his tanks to the new objective. MacArthur stayed in Essay, helping round up the 100,000 prisoners his unit captured. This was the last recorded time that the two men would meet. Their careers would take them to very distant places and battlefields. They would not meet again, although both would be involved in the last campaign of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Their meeting on the Hill on September 1918 might have been significant to both Patton and MacArthur, but Patton might have been more affected by the day’s action. Whereas MacArthur had been on the front for five months, that was Patton’s first time at war—this would explain his detailed account of the day’s events (as opposed to MacArthur’s rather brief one).

The accounts of both men reflect their personalities accurately. Patton’s account is straightforward. He brags about his bravery, yet admits his fears. He even gives full credit to MacArthur for sharing his act of bravery. MacArthur’s account is shorter, more aloof, and shrouded in mystery. He seems to enjoy mentioning the sight of Patton’s problems in overcoming the terrain which had bogged down his tanks. He makes a patronizing point by mentioning the tanks were following his infantry. If MacArthur’s was the only account of the battle, it would seem that tanks had little part in the offensive. MacArthur’s version, so vague in its details, only becomes murkier as later conflicting stories emerged.

Although there is a chance that Jack Pearl interviewed Patton before his death, it is highly unlikely. There is no evidence that Pearl served in Patton’s Third Army or even as a reporter in Europe. Martin Blumenson, the Third Army’s historian and one of the most respected Patton scholars, has no recollection of Pearl’s presence in the European theater. On top of that, Pearl himself changes MacArthur’s quotes from one book to the next, within the same year. This dissolves the credibility of his tales. Unfortunately, many researchers are willing to believe his story, probably due to the drama it portrayed.

Nevertheless, the chance encounter between Patton and MacArthur is one of those unique scenes of war recorded for history. It is no stretch of the imagination to picture these two giants of military history standing side-by-side on a hilltop while explosives detonated around them. Exactly what Patton and MacArthur said to each other, however, as the German shells rained down has been and will remain lost to us.

This article has been adapted from a paper presented by Kevin Hymel, for the 1997 Annual Meeting of the Society of Military History.