Imagine, military historian Kevin Hymel writes, if George Washington or Ulysses S. Grant had carried a camera and photographed war as he experienced it. How important would those images be as documents of history?
Gen. George S. Patton, the brilliant but often-troublesome U.S. Army commander of World War II, did just that during his campaigns across North Africa and Europe from 1942 through 1945.
Patton, an amateur photographer who carried an Army-issued Leica camera, took hundreds of photos of the war he lived: ruined towns, dead soldiers, destroyed tanks, civilian refugees, ancient monuments, his palatial headquarters in Sicily (where, he said, all the maids gave him the fascist salute) and, sometimes, soldiers simultaneously taking pictures of Patton as he photographed them.
Those images today reside in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. Patton died following a car accident in Germany just months after the war ended, and in 1964 his family donated his papers – and photo albums – to the Library.
Hymel appeared at the Library on Nov. 18 to discuss the photos and his own book about them, “Patton’s Photographs: War as He Saw It.” The event was sponsored by the European Division.
The general, Hymel said, mailed the photos home to his wife, Beatrice, to build a historical record of his experiences.
“I’m going to send you photographs and letters so that some future historian can make a less-untrue history of me,” Patton told her.
Beatrice wrote captions and placed his photos into albums along with images of the general taken by others: Patton wading ashore during the Sicily invasion; meeting with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; playing with his pet bull terrier, Willie; posing beside a tank in headgear of his own design – a gold football helmet bearing the stars of his rank.
“His photo albums are just like yours and mine,” Hymel said. “They’re photographs that we take and photographs that other people take that we like and put into our albums.”
The albums also chronicle Patton’s time in limbo following two infamous incidents in the Sicily campaign – he slapped soldiers suffering battle fatigue, drawing the wrath of Eisenhower and Congress. Awaiting a new assignment, Patton restlessly toured forts in Malta, pyramids in Egypt and battlefields and cemeteries in Sicily.
“A year ago, I commanded an entire corps,” he wrote after visiting the 2nd Armored Division cemetery. “Today, I command barely my self-respect.”
Patton claimed one photo saved his life. The general stopped to photograph artillery in action and, seconds later, a shell landed in the path ahead – just where, Patton said, he would have been if he hadn’t stopped to use his camera.
Patton took the near-miss as a sign that God was saving him for greater achievements.
“It’s only a few days later,” Hymel said, “that he gets the call to come to England and command Third Army for the invasion of France and the eventual invasion of Germany.”