Answer Man

Gen. Patton’s death was an unfortunate end for a war hero

Soldiers lay flowers at the tomb of U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commander of the 3rd US Army and liberator of Luxembourg, who died after a car accident in Mannheim, Germany. Patton’s last wish was to be laid to rest among his men who died during the Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg.
Soldiers lay flowers at the tomb of U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commander of the 3rd US Army and liberator of Luxembourg, who died after a car accident in Mannheim, Germany. Patton’s last wish was to be laid to rest among his men who died during the Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg. Associated Press

Q: I found your recent column on overseas American military cemeteries quite interesting. It reminded me of an oddity I remember hearing one time about Gen. George S. Patton’s grave in the Luxembourg American Military Cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg City. I seem to remember the reporter saying what a problem Mrs. Patton went through having him buried there after his tragic death. The oddity was that his grave is the only one with an individual fence around it because the citizens revered him so much. But since then, I’ve been unable to find whether this is true. Can you?

Jack Spengel, of Overland Park, Kan.

A: In fiction, the captain goes down with the ship or the hard-nosed sarge is killed charging up Hamburger Hill as they make one last valiant attack. So it seems particularly cruel the ending that fate had in store for Gen. George “Old Blood and Guts” Patton.

It was Dec. 8, 1945. World War II had been over for months. Patton should have been savoring his victory, having led the U.S. Third Army in its march to liberate France and drive the final nails into Hitler’s coffin in Germany. But his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay, noted Patton’s continuing despondency over his make-work assignments in post-war Europe, according to Alan Axelrod’s 2006 biography.

To try to cheer him up, Gay asked Patton to go on a pheasant hunt, an invitation the four-star general readily accepted. According to Axelrod’s biography, Patton took note of derelict cars on the side of the road as they made their way to the hunting grounds and lamented, “How awful war is. Think of the waste.”

Moments later, the car in which Patton was riding collided with an American Army truck. It was a low-speed collision, and Gay and others were only slightly injured. But Patton hit his head on a glass partition in the back seat, opening up a gash on his head. Complaining of paralysis and breathing problems, Patton was rushed to a hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, where X-rays revealed that he had suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injuries that had paralyzed him from the neck down.

Placed in traction to decrease the pressure on his injured spine, he was allowed no visitors, save his wife, Beatrice, who was flown in from the States. For nearly two weeks, Patton’s body fought against the grave injuries as Patton himself had fought the Nazis. But he seemed to know what was coming. “This is a hell of a way to die,” he reportedly said at one point. At about 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 21, Patton passed away quietly in his sleep, a victim of congestive heart failure and the resulting buildup of fluid in his lungs.

His body was taken to a mountain villa overlooking Heidelberg, where it lay in state on Saturday. Meanwhile, his widow was asked if she wanted him buried at the military cemetery at St. Avold in France, where his company had fought, or in the cemetery in Luxembourg, which he had helped liberate. She chose Luxembourg, which had served as a headquarters for her husband.

So after services at Christ Church in Heidelberg, his steel-gray, flag-covered coffin was loaded on a half-track that he had once used on his drive through France and driven to the train station. Once loaded on a special funeral train, his remains were given a 17-gun salute. Taps were blown by a GI whose division had been saved by Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. After a slow, nighttime trip to Luxembourg City, thousands marched behind the funeral cortege as it made the four-mile trip to the cemetery. There, Patton was buried on Christmas Eve day with full military honors.

But Patton’s battle to rest in peace was just beginning. At first, he was buried alongside his own troops in one of 30 plots at the cemetery, Scott Desjardins, the current cemetery superintendent, told the Luxemburger Wort just three weeks ago. But later the government gave families the option of having their war dead disinterred and returned to the United States. Nearly 70 percent of the bodies were dug up and shipped back.

With his section reduced to nine plots, it was decided to rebury Patton among the general population. However, as tens of thousands continued to stream into the cemetery to pay respects to their liberator, nearby graves were becoming trampled and otherwise desecrated. As a result, Patton’s casket was dug up in 1947 and buried by itself behind the rows and rows of simple white crosses marking the other graves.

It was supposed to be temporary. According to Desjardins, the plan was to eventually move it back to a plot alongside the others, because cemetery policy requires that all soldiers to be buried together regardless of rank. But when his widow learned of this second move that would lead to yet a third burial, she angrily said that she would rather have the remains of her late husband shipped back to California.

Her protests gained the ear of her friend and Luxembourg Grand Duchess Charlotte, who offered a final resting place in the Grand Ducal crypt at Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Perhaps embarrassed by the controversy over one of the nation’s most celebrated war heroes, the U.S. government gave in and allowed Patton’s casket to finally stay put.

And that’s where it remains today, by itself and behind the 5,075 other graves. However, it is not surrounded by a fence. Only a small chain is draped across the front of the plot in an attempt to keep the 79,000 people who visited the cemetery last year from walking on the grave. But other than bouquets of flowers that frequently are left in tribute, only a white cross marks his final resting spot. It says simply, “George S. Patton Jr, General Third Army, California Dec. 21 1945.”

To see it yourself, you can hunt for videos on YouTube or see a picture of Patton’s granddaughter Helen at the grave site at www.wort.lu/en/community/american-military-cemetery-hamm-general-patton-s-grave-and-how-luxembourg-nearly-lost-it-58b67262a5e74263e13ab4cd. You also can find a pamphlet and complete information on the 17-acre cemetery at www.abmc.gov.

Today’s trivia

In what event did George Patton compete at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm? How did he do?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Although disputed by many historians, Perley Nutting reportedly fashioned the world’s first neon sign. It allegedly said “neon” — and was displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Expedition, better known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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