By George Morris
When he got the idea to write a book on Gen. George S. Patton Jr., former University of New Orleans professor Richard Stillman received some honest, if indelicate, encouragement.
“As my younger son put it so well, we’re a fading group,” Stillman said.
Certainly, few alive today worked so closely with the famed World War II general — and Patton himself was an original.
So, in 1998, Stillman, then 81, wrote “General Patton’s Timeless Leadership Principles,” a work that is part biography, part self-help book and all the culmination of Stillman’s two-fold career. After retiring from the Army as a colonel in 1965, Stillman became a management professor at UNO, retiring in 1982. Stillman died in 2008.
“This was a great American hero,” Stillman said. “I consider him perhaps the most outstanding army commander that our country, and perhaps any country, has ever produced.”
Stillman got to be part of the last 19 months of Patton’s most epic leadership, his command of the U.S. Third Army. By this time, however, Patton already was famous — or, to some, infamous.
Before being assigned to Third Army, Stillman had brief encounters with Patton. Mostly, though, he knew of Patton by reputation. In a field hospital in Sicily, Patton made headlines and jeopardized his career by slapping two soldiers he accused of malingering. Patton’s preference for splendid military attire also preceded him.
“There was some talk about the ‘Green Hornet,’” Stillman said. “He’d wear this fancy uniform that he designed with ‘Hell on Wheels 2nd Armored Division’ at Fort Benning. Some of the old-timers would ridicule him, but he was starting to make a reputation.”
Stillman was alerted for overseas duty in January 1944. Third Army had been commanded in the United States by Gen. Courtney Hodges, but that was about to change, as he discovered as the headquarters staff prepared to ship out for England in March.
“A letter came from Mrs. Patton to ‘Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., c/o Third Army Headquarters,’” Stillman said. “The military postman picked that up and it was through our camp in a matter of minutes that George Patton was our new commander. We sure as hell knew who George Patton was.”
Stillman was secretary for the general staff and occupied the office next door to the commander. Stillman received people and correspondence and directed them to Patton or the appropriate subordinate.
Tall, handsome and resplendent in pink riding breeches, gleaming helmet liner and ivory-handled pistols on his hips, Patton insisted on military spit and polish among his soldiers, too. His addresses to the troops — the most memorable of which was re-enacted by George C. Scott in his Oscar-winning title role in the movie “Patton” — were noted for their profanity.
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. watches the 3rd Armored Division cross the Seine River on Aug. 26, 1944. (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)
Stillman said the general was not nearly so profane in his normal speech and believes that Patton’s cursing served a purpose. Unlike Scott’s, Patton’s voice was unusually high-pitched. But Scott and Patton had one thing in common. The general was something of a thespian himself. He practiced hard to produce the “fighting face” for his posed photographs. At parties, he dressed up as Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind.
“He was an actor. He admitted that he played the part,” Stillman said. “He recognized this role, that you have to play a leader. A good leader is a good actor. In fact, his whole personality changed from this sweet, gentle man to this almost ruthless, tough image that he wanted to give to scare the hell out of the enemy.”
He had the Germans’ attention. When the Allies prepared for the European invasion, Patton was the focal point of an elaborate ruse. With the Germans expecting him to lead the invasion at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest crossing of the English channel, Patton was given charge of a fictitious army. It fooled the enemy so well that when the real thrust hit on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, German troops remained in Calais, believing D-Day was just a diversion.
A month later, he led a charge through the German lines so rapid that it was difficult to keeping them supplied. By December, Patton was just outside Germany.
But a German counterattack at a weak point in Allied lines became known as the Battle of the Bulge. When the Allied supreme commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, summoned generals to a meeting, Patton brought Stillman.
Patton’s forces were 100 miles south of the Bulge, and weather was horrible — snow, ice, fog and clouds grounded airplanes. Before the meeting, though, Patton instructed his staff to work on plans to pull his 200,000-man force out of its battles, change direction and attack the German flank.
When Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to attack, Patton said 72 hours. Stillman heard a wave of disbelief.
“Eisenhower’s comment was, ‘George, now what can really be done? How long will it really take?’” Stillman said. Patton’s reply: “Seventy-two hours.”
“There was this gloom and doom just pervading the room,” Stillman said. “Patton looked at it as a great opportunity.”
He was right. The German forces had overextended themselves, and Third Army cut them off from behind and began the process of eliminating them.
“He called that his greatest achievement,” Stillman said. Yet, with Patton, controversy was never far away.
He deeply disliked the Soviet Union, though it was a wartime ally. After Germany’s surrender, Stillman said, Patton wanted to continue the war and drive the Russian forces back inside their borders.
“He felt if we didn’t fight them now we’d have to fight them later, and we were at the peak of our power,” Stillman said. “This is perhaps one of his reasons for wanting to retain the remnants of the German forces to assist, to support, to help us.”
Stillman attended the Sept. 22, 1945, press conference that ended Patton’s command of Third Army. New York Herald Tribune reporter Carl Levin asked why Patton’s had not removed all the doctors who had been Nazi party members. Denazification was the official Allied policy.
Patton said the doctors were treating German wounded, a task that would otherwise fall to Allied doctors. But he didn’t stop there, saying the Nazis were a political party, “like the Republicans and Democrats.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Stillman said. “That was what the reporters wanted … something sensational.
“As we walked back down the hall, he turned to me and said, ‘Stupid goddamn mistake. I knew better, but I wouldn’t give the son of a bitch the satisfaction of knowing it.’”
Comparing the Nazis to American political parties caused an enormous uproar. Patton held another press conference. He apologized for the misunderstanding, affirmed his support of denazification and explained that many professional people joined the Nazi Party because it was in power and only gave it lip service.
A few days later, a letter from Eisenhower crossed Stillman’s desk marked “General Patton eyes only.” His last in a long line of gaffes was too much. Patton was relieved of command.
“The tragedy was putting him in a position that was beyond his capability,” Stillman said. “He was the greatest fighting general, but he had no political acumen.”
Stillman said there were tears in the eyes of Patton and his officers when they said good-bye at a train station. Stillman soon returned to the U.S., while Patton remained in Germany. On Dec. 8, Patton broke his neck in a traffic accident. He died 13 days later.
“The press then changed their attitude toward him, recognized his greatness from a military leadership position,” Stillman said. “His death culminated in this huge sympathy.”
Though books and an epic movie depicted Patton’s life, it didn’t occur to Stillman to write about the general until the 1990s. He had 17 other books published on business and military subjects. He said this was the most difficult.
“This was the culmination of all my experiences in life, of how to show, first, what Patton’s principles were, then to weave in how anyone could use them to do better in their careers and lives.
“It’s really taken me all this time to come up with what I felt was a suitable approach. No one else had ever done it before.”
As Stillman’s son noted, few can ever do it again.