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Inquiring Minds: World War II, Through Patton’s Lens

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George S. Patton. Prints and Photographs Division.
George S. Patton. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

GIs get stuck in the mud in France. George S. Patton Papers. Manuscript Division.
GIs get stuck in the mud in France. George S. Patton Papers. Manuscript Division.

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.”

U.S. Army engineers pose on a bridge they built over the Sauer River into Germany. George S. Patton Papers. Manuscript Division.
U.S. Army engineers pose on a bridge they built over the Sauer River into Germany. George S. Patton Papers. Manuscript Division.

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.”

Comments (8)

  1. How interesting, I’d love to see more of these!

  2. I was a really fan of Patton during the world war II. In my consideration one of the best of all our generals in that tragic period of our nation. Much critic call him conflicting but he only had the courage to say what many hadn’t gut to say.

  3. No doubt in my mind Patton was the best “combat general” of them all bar none. He was respected and feared by the enemy like no other. Ike gets all the glory and Bradley tried to take credit for many of Pattons accomplishments but real historians know who made the real difference.

    Pattons legacy continues to live just look at the way our military enjoys superior armor (tank’s) and armor tactics.

  4. Great role model inspirations, for the now and the future, light up, whenever a George S. Patton lesson is carefully described.

    The defence of liberty, individual freedom and democracy is never far away from both his military and life lessons. We need a much more resourced discovery of George S. Patton.

  5. good contents

  6. Good morning fellow Americans,
    I am a decorated Korean War veteran. I just say that to let you know that I know about combat.
    I am an admirer of General Patton, also of General Ridgeway, who replaced General McArthur shortly before I arrived in Korea.
    I believe General Patton may have been killed on purpose because of what he knew about the covert agreements between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Of course, I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.
    We are at war with Islam but our government either refuses to acknowledge that, or are naive about that. I don’t think they’re naive about it for one minute. I could tell you why, but it would take too long to tell you in this email.

    But, the bottom line is that I admire General Patton. I’m currently reading a book titled “Killing Patton,” by Bill O’Reilly. It is very interesting.

    Well thanks for ‘listening,”
    George Phelps
    League City, Texas

  7. I have a picture of general Patton and my great great uncle the commander of the french military in ww two

    My grandmother she took the picture, my grandmother had the one copy and has the negative. Signatures of both of them on the back, how much is that worth?

  8. Ok, Patton was not ‘feared’ like no other. The German high command (OKW) didn’t know of him until the disaster at Metz. He was a rogue commander, if he was that good why did Eisenhower not allow him into Normandy until July? Because he couldn’t be trusted, and when he got there he did exactly what Ike feared, rather than going for his objective which was Cherbourg, he turned east and went on his own way. Try Googling ‘Task Force Baum’. It was a private rescue mission to save his Son in Law.
    There is so much myth and fantasy around GSP that seems to now be accepted facts.

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