World War II — Through Patton’s Lens

George S. Patton in an undated photograph. Prints and Photographs Division.

For centuries, history’s great commanders have documented their wartime experiences in diaries and memoirs, in their own words.

But what if we could see war through their eyes, as if Caesar, Napoleon or Grant had carried a camera and photographed war as he experienced it?

Gen. George S. Patton, the brilliant but troublesome U.S. Army commander of World War II, did just that during his campaigns across North Africa and Europe from 1942 through 1945.

A troop of Army bridge builders. Photo: George S. Patton. Manuscript Division.

Patton, an amateur photographer who carried an Army-issued Leica camera, took hundreds of photos of the war he saw — ruined villages and fleeing refugees, ordinary soldiers and illustrious commanders, humble camps and his palatial headquarters in Sicily, where, he wrote, the maids all gave him the fascist salute.

Those photos today reside in the Library’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 — including his wartime diary and photo albums — to the Library.

The general had mailed the photos home to his wife, Beatrice, to create a record of his wartime experiences — and, he said, to help set the record straight. “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.

Troops struggle to push a jeep out of deep mud. Photo: George S. Patton. Manuscript Division.

Beatrice wrote captions and placed his photos into albums alongside images of the general taken by others. In the albums, GIs cross a snowfield near Bastogne, German prisoners march toward the rear, soldiers dig a jeep out of bumper-deep mud; Patton wades ashore during the invasion of Sicily, meets with Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, plays with his pet bull terrier, Willie.

The albums and diary also chronicle Patton’s time in limbo following two infamous incidents during the Sicily campaign in August 1943 — Patton twice slapped soldiers suffering battle fatigue, setting off a public furor and 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 to Beatrice 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, which indeed soon came.

Only a few days later, he was called to England, where he eventually took command of the Third Army for the campaign that followed the Normandy invasion. Patton led Third Army on a rapid, highly successful drive across France, engineered the relief of besieged American troops at the Battle of the Bulge and, by the end of the war, pushed his army deep into Nazi Germany.

He captured it all, in his own words and through the lens of his own camera — today, preserved for posterity in Library collections.

Soldiers marching across a snow covered field. Photo: George S. Patton. Manuscript Division.

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