Magazine article USA TODAY

Old Blood and Guts Earns His Nickname

Magazine article USA TODAY

Old Blood and Guts Earns His Nickname

Article excerpt

ON SEPT. 26, 1918, Col. George Patton once again had disobeyed orders to remain at his command post. Two weeks earlier, on the night before the offensive of Saint-Mihiel, Patton's commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Rockenbach, carefully had instructed him: "There is no question of personal courage in this wax, it is a business proposition where every man must be in his place and performing his part. Keep control of your reserve and supply; you have no business in a tank and I give you the order not to go into this fight in a tank" Patton chose to interpret his orders literally--he did not to go into battle in a tank He went on top of a tank.

Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the French Supreme Commander of the Allied armies, had ordered the U.S. First Army to shift its operations from Saint-Mihiel to the Meuse-Argonne. Patton's First Tank Brigade was slated to play an important role in an offensive to be launched there on Sept. 26, and Patton sensed that the battle would be tough. The territory was 1,000 feet above sea level and carved with deep ravines and bluffs. Its German defenders enjoyed a powerful advantage, which they had exploited skillfully by establishing three defensive belts in front of the main Hindenburg line. On the right flank of the position was another barrier, the Meuse River. The First Army's chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Hugh A. Dram, called the enemy position "the most ideal defensive terrain I have ever seen or read about_" Because of its formidable defenses, the sector largely had been inactive. Parties of soldiers from both sides casually hunted squirrels in no man's land, observed only by the uniformed skeletons of soldiers killed four years earlier. The German defenses along the 24-mile front were manned lightly with only five divisions.

Before the battle, in order to avoid trouble with his commander, Patton made special preparations to maintain communications with Rockenbach. On the morning of Sept. 26, he assembled his reconnaissance and signal officers, 12 enlisted runners, a number of carrier pigeons, field telephones, and a large quantity of telephone wire. At 2:30 in the morning, the Allied artillery barrage began pummeling the German position. In the three hours preceding the attack, 2,800 Allied guns expended more ammunition than both the Union and Confederate forces fired during the entire four years of the American Civil War. Patton offered up a prayer of thanks that he was not at the receiving end of the powerful barrage.

At 5:30 a.m., under the cover of dense fog, the Americans had advanced from the relative safety of their muddy trenches into the German lines. For the first hour, Patton resisted the impulse to go forward with his men but, at 6:30, he led his command group on, closely following the tracks of his leading tank companies. The U.S. artillery was firing smoke shells, which, combined with the fog, limited vision to a mere 10 feet and forced Patton to navigate the treacherous landscape with a handheld compass.

By 10 o'clock, Patton and his men had advanced to a crossroads on the southern edge of Cheppy. A few minutes later, when the fog began to lift, Patton discovered that he had advanced beyond his own tanks, many of which now were entangled in a trench barrier more than 100 yards to his rear. As the protective shield of fog lifted, Patton and his troops were subjected to withering fire from all directions. The defending Germans had pre-positioned at least 25 machine gun nests to protect the town.

The capture of Cheppy was an objective for the Thirty-fifth Division, a unit comprising National Guardsmen from Kansas and Missouri, on the first day of the offensive. Under the intense German fire, the division's inexperienced soldiers panicked, became lost, or fled back to friendly lines. The troops now were leaderless. When Patton discovered that he was the only officer, he ordered the soldiers to remain with him. Eventually, he gathered several hundred scared doughboys like a mother hen gathering up scattered chicks. …

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