The Death of a General: George S. Patton, Jr.

General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America’s greatest battlefield commanders, died on December 21, 1945 in an Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.

Top Image: General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America’s greatest battlefield commanders died on December 21, 1945, in an Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

At 6:00 a.m. on December 21, 1945, General George S. Patton, Jr. passed away in his sleep. A blood clot in his paralyzed body had worked its way to his heart, stopping it and ending the life of one of America’s greatest battlefield commanders.

The 60-year-old general had led a life of adventure, fighting in almost every major American twentieth century conflict. His career climaxed with World War II, where he led corps and armies from North Africa, to Sicily, to the continent of Europe. He often led from the front, and he almost always delivered victory. His swift conquest of Sicily, his race across France, his relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and his drive into Germany destroyed German armies, saved American lives, and captured the collective imagination of the American public.

Yet, all his laurels could not protect the General from a simple car accident eight months into the peace. Twelve days before his death, on December 9, 1945, Patton was sitting in the back of his limousine when his driver, PFC Horace Woodring, sped too fast over a railroad crossing in Manheim, Germany, and plowed into the passenger-side of a left-turning Army truck headed into a depot.

The intersection where Patton had his car accident. The black car stands at roughly the position of the US Army truck, prior to it turning left into a depot, denoted by the cobblestone driveway. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

No one was hurt except Patton, who, despite a nasty gash on his head, immediately realized he had been paralyzed. He asked his chief of staff, Major General Hobart “Hap” Gay, who was sitting next to him, to rub his fingers. When Gay did so, Patton barked, “Go ahead Hap, work my fingers.”

Patton was rushed to the 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, 12 miles away. There, he was x-rayed, revealing two crushed vertebrae. Simply put: Patton had broken his neck. For the next 12 days, Patton lay in traction, at times with painful fishhooks implanted into his cheeks on either side of his upper jaw, attached to weights to stabilize his neck. His wife, Beatrice, flew in from Boston to be at his side and read him books and letters from well-wishers. Showing a few signs of recovery, his doctors put him in a body cast to prepare him for a flight home to the United States. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his paralysis and breathed his last before the move could be made.

With the General’s passing, Beatrice had to decide where his remains would reside. She wanted the body returned to the United States and buried near their Massachusetts home. The French government, grateful for Patton’s role in liberating their country, offered to bury him in Napoleon’s tomb, where a number of great marshals were laid to rest. But at the recommendation of Major General Geoffrey Keyes, Patton’s deputy commander in North Africa and Sicily, Beatrice made up her mind. “Of course,” she declared, “he should be buried here. Why didn’t I think of it? I know George would want to lie beside the men of his Army who have fallen.” She decided her husband would be buried at the American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg, which was filled with Patton’s Third Army soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge.

Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes escorts Mrs. Beatrice Patton to her husband’s funeral in Hamm, Luxembourg. Behind them are Beatrice’s brother, Frederick Ayer, and Major General Hobart “Hap” Gay, who was with Patton at the time of his car accident. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

On December 22, an Army ambulance brought Patton’s body to Villa Renier, where it would lie in state to be visited by friends, soldiers, and the general public. The next day, people lined Heidelberg’s streets (and some roofs) to watch Patton’s funeral procession on its way to the Episcopalian Christ Church. Cavalry reconnaissance vehicles led the way, followed by an Army ambulance and staff cars holding dignitaries. An M3 half-track bore Patton’s flag-draped gunmetal casket, escorted by helmeted soldiers wearing white gloves. Allied friends and acquaintances walked behind the casket. At every block, sentinels at present arms kept the crowds at bay.

After a ceremony at the church, pallbearers placed Patton’s casket back onto the half-track for the trip to the train station. Pallbearer Master Sergeant George Meeks, Patton’s long-serving enlisted aide, could not hide his grief at losing his commander and friend. At the station, the casket was placed on a train for Luxembourg. Before it departed, seventeen Army cannons roared a salute to the fallen general.

Upon arrival in Luxembourg, a light rain fell as the casket was brought to the cemetery on December 24, the day before Christmas. Locals removed their hats as the casket passed. A horse with boots backwards in the stirrups joined the journey to the cemetery. In the gray skies above, an aircraft circled, attempting to bring Lieutenant General Walton Walker, one of Patton’s former corps commanders, to the funeral, but low cloud cover prevented it from landing.

Pall bearers, including Master Sergeant George Meeks, carry Patton’s casket on its last leg of the journey to his burial spot in the American cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

Under a large tent to keep the rain away, the pall bearers placed Patton’s casket over a grave dug by German prisoners of war. Out in the rain, an honor guard fired volleys. Although there was no eulogy, various holy men, including a group of rabbis wearing their concentration camp uniforms, prayed over Patton’s grave. When a reporter asked the rabbis why they prayed for an anti-Semite, they explained that Patton’s generalship ended the war months earlier than it would have without him, thus saving the lives of thousands of concentration camp victims. The brief ceremony over, Beatrice exited the tent clasping the tri-folded flag that had covered her husband’s casket.

A group of rabbis, still dressed in their concentration camp uniforms, offer prayers at General Patton’s grave. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

Patton did not remain in his plot for long. Hordes of well-wishers tore up the cemetery grounds making the trek to his grave in the back corner. To remedy the situation, cemetery workers moved his casket to a more central location, but it was hardly the cure, as people still made a path to the grave. Finally, the general was moved to the front of the entire cemetery, where, today, patio stones protect the ground and a white chain-link barrier preserves the grass around Patton. His cross faces those of the men he led, as if he were leading them again for one last battle.


Meet the Author 

Kevin M. Hymel is a historian for the US Army. He is the author of Patton’s Photographs: War As He Saw It and Patton: Legendary World War II Commander (with Martin Blumenson). He is also a historian/tour guide for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, where he leads tours of Patton’s European battlefields. Mr. Hymel has also worked as the director of research for WWII History and WWII Quarterly magazines, as well as the associate editor of ARMY magazine. He earned a Master’s degree in American History from Villanova University and resides in Arlington, Virginia.

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This article is part of a series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by the Department of Defense.