The Sicily campaign was to demonstrate very clearly what could be achieved by a General with determination. George S. Patton had moved his driven his forces on with great speed to take Palermo in the north. Now he was competing with Montgomery in a race to push the Germans to the eastern tip of the island at Messina. Yet for all his achievements Patton was was to suffer as a consequence of two relatively small incidents.
On the 3rd August Patton had been involved in an incident at a Field Hospital. The initial diagnosis of Private Charles A. Kuhl was that he was suffering from “psychoneurosis anxiety” and when Kuhl was confronted by Patton as he toured the wards he said ” I guess I can’t take it”. Patton became enraged and slapped him around the head with his folded gloves, calling him a ‘coward’ and physically threw him out of the tent. He demanded that the doctors send the soldier, whom he called a “gutless bastard”, back to the front. A subsequent medical examination found Kuhl to be suffering from ‘malaria, chronic diarrhoea and a fever of 102.2 degrees’.
There was then a second incident on the 10th August, very similar to the first. This involved Private Paul G. Bennett who was “dehydrated and feverish” but who had been evacuated from his artillery post against his will because he was “confused, weak and listless”. This was Patton’s version of events:
During the attack on Troina, I drove to the headquarters of General Bradley, who was conducting the attack, accompanied by General Lucas. Just before we got there I saw a field hospital in a valley and stopped to inspect it. There were some three hundred and fifty badly wounded men in the hospital, all of whom were very heroic under their sufferings, and all of whom were interested in the success of the operation.
Just as I was leaving the hospital, I saw a soldier sitting on a box near the dressing station. I stopped and said to him, ‘What is the matter with you, boy?’He said, ‘Nothing; I just can’t take it.’ I asked what he meant. He said, ‘I just can’t take being shot at.’ I said, ‘You mean that you are malingering here?’ He burst into tears and I immediately saw that he was an hysterical case.
I therefore slapped him across the face with my glove and told him to get up, join his unit, and make a man of himself, which he did. Actually, at the time he was absent without leave.
I am convinced that my action in this case was entirely correct, and that, had other officers had the courage to do likewise, the shameful use of ‘battle fatigue’ as an excuse for cowardice would have been infinitely reduced.
However the incidents had been seen by a number of witnesses including some journalists. Although efforts were made to keep the incidents quiet it eventually became apparent that it was necessary for something to be seen to done.
By the 17th August, just as the campaign was ending so successfully, Eisenhower had to take some formal action. Patton was unremorseful:
After lunch General Blesse, Chief Surgeon A.F.H.Q., brought me a very nasty letter from Ike with reference to the two soldiers I cussed out for what I considered cowardice. Evidently I acted precipitately and on insufficient knowledge.
My motive was correct because one cannot permit skulking to exist. It is just like any communicable disease. I admit freely that my method was wrong and I shall make what amends I can. I regret the incident as I hate to make Ike mad when it is my earnest desire to please him.
General Lucas arrived at 18.00 to further explain Ike’s attitude. I feel very low.
Went to church in Royal Chapel at 10.00. At 11.00 I had in all the doctors and nurses and enlisted men who witnessed the affairs with the skulkers. I told them about my friend in the last war who shirked, was let get by with it,‘and eventually killed himself. I told them that I had taken the action I had to correct such a future tragedy.
Patton subsequently apologised to both Kuhl and Bennett and went on to make public apologies to the soldiers under his command. However the damage had been done and he was to be sidelined as the campaign in Italy commenced. Eventually, even though the entire Press corps assembled in Sicily knew about the incidents at the time, the story broke in the USA in November. The incidents continues to attract some controversy.
For a thorough examination of the episode see Rick Atkinson: The Day Of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-44 .