Published December 19, 2008
Was General George S. Patton murdered?
On December 21, 1945, America's iconic four-star General, who had triumphed from the deserts of North Africa to Hitler's doorstep, was pronounced dead at the 130th Field Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany. He was 60-years-old.
Twelve days earlier, General Patton had set off on a pheasant hunting trip near Mannheim when his Cadillac staff car collided with a two-and-a-half ton U.S. Army truck. Patton was immediately paralyzed from the neck down. His driver, PFC Horace Woodring and his chief of staff, General Hap Gay, walked away with barely a scratch. Was it just a freak automobile accident as the Army concluded or was it, as some conspiracy theorists believe, a calculated assassination attempt by the Russians or the OSS?
In "War Stories Investigates: The Remarkable Life and Mysterious Death of General Patton," we tried to uncover the truth. Our investigation uncovered very few records from the accident. When we dug through Patton's military personnel file at the National Archives in St. Louis, out of more than 1300 pages of documents, a mere 15 were devoted to the car crash. Strangely, the Army accident report went missing shortly after the accident.
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We traveled to Germany with Oliver North to the scene of the crash and to the hospital room where Patton spent his last days. We also stepped inside Patton's restored 1939 Cadillac, which is on display at the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor at Ft. Knox in Kentucky.
Several of Patton's grandchildren spoke to us, including grandson James Patton Totten, who said, "My grandmother had hired several private detectives to investigate it and they didn't find anything to substantiate the rumor."
We met up with Patton's granddaughter Helen Patton Plusczyk in Heidelberg at the Christ Church where her grandfather's funeral was held. She recalled one of the conspiracy theories she'd heard over the years: "The most outrageous one came from a mysterious colonel, who had been a spy for the Russians, the Germans, and Americans during the war, operating radio stations in Normandy. That a nurse, or a medical aide, had been instructed by someone, to — as soon as my grandmother would leave the hospital room — open the windows of Grandpa's room, so that he would contract pneumonia."
We tracked down Bertha Hohle, the 24-year-old nurse from Minnesota who cared for the general in the hospital: "He said to me once, 'Why can't I feel my hands?' That's really hard to tell somebody that, look at that, you can't use your arms." Bertha did not feel that Patton was murdered. She believed he died from pulmonary edema and congestive heart failure, which were cited as the official causes of death. An autopsy was never performed.
One person who strongly believes Patton was murdered was military author and journalist Robert Wilcox. Speaking publicly for the first time, Wilcox told "War Stories Investigates" that OSS spymaster William "Wild Bill" Donovan ordered an agent to kill the often outspoken general because he wanted to drag America into another war… with Russia. Wilcox told us: "[Douglas] Bazata is a world class marksman. And he shot, at close range, a special weapon into that car and that's what broke his neck."
When the accident failed to kill Patton, Wilcox said that a Russian agent snuck into Patton's room to poison him." Military Historian Kevin Hymel disagreed strongly with Wilcox's theories: "Yes, he did have enemies. But did he have enemies that were so afraid of him, that they would kill him? That's a pretty far stretch."
While General Patton's death may forever be shrouded in mystery, one thing is certain, he was a brilliant military leader. Retired Brigadier General Albin Irzyk, a tank commander who led Patton's 3rd Army to Bastogne, said it best: "He's the purest warrior we've ever had, I think he's by far the greatest field commander we've ever had. He couldn't have been a Marshall, he couldn't have been an Eisenhower, he was Patton. He climbed his mountain. There's nothing left for him to conquer."
— Cyd Upson is "War Stories" senior producer. Michael Weiss is "War Stories" producer