General George S. Patton: War Hero and Olympic Pentathlete

General George S. Patton on the warfront.

I recently learned that one of the Olympians from the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden was General “Old Blood and Guts” George S. Patton – American military hero from World War II. As this wonderful Wired article relates, Patton put in a wonderful effort in the modern Olympics first modern pentathlon. The pentathlon is composed of shooting, swimming, fencing, horse riding and running – the concept being that the officer of that time might have to do all those kinds of things in order to get a message safely to its receiver in a time of war.

In 1912, Patton was a promising junior officer with a reputation for being dedicated, and a hard-driving leader. And despite Patton’s short time to prepare, he finished fifth in the pentathlon, behind four Swedes. Here are a few remarkable anecdotes related to one of the most well-known military leaders of the 20th century.

Patton had a bigger gun: Patton fired 20 bullets with a .38 caliber pistol, while his competitors were using .22 gauge pistols. When judges examined the paper target and saw only 17 holes, Patton claimed that all of his shots hit the target, but because of his higher gauge bullets, larger holes were found in the target. Patton claimed that the missing shots went through existing holes. The judges did not agree, and so he finished 20th, instead of first if he was to be believed.

Patton entering the stadium after his pentathlon run at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Games.

Patton was doped up: The final event of the pentathlon was the 4k race (about 2.5 miles), although it included a run through a thick forest and very muddy pathways. Patton, who had known for only two months that he was heading to Stockholm to represent the US in the pentathlon was not in the condition he would have preferred. But Patton was a ferocious competitor, training hard on the ship – SS Finland – from US to Europe, and then applying a level of energy and aggressiveness that could only be described as all out. In the 300-meter run, he simply swam to exhaustion, but took seventh. In the 4k run, the US trainer decided that Patton could use a little help with a bit of “hop”. That was the nickname for opium, a legal pick-me-up back in the day. Patton ran hard, ended up walking into the Stadium, crossing the finish line in third, and promptly passing out, for several hours.

Patton was an aggressive fencer, but not as aggressive as his wife: Patton approached fencing like he approached warfare – aggressively. In fact, Patton placed fourth in fencing, defeating the French fencer, Jean de Mas Latrie, who had lost only to Patton. As the Wired article quotes a Patton biographer, “Throughout his career, disdain for defense was a Patton trademark. To attack was to succeed, to defend was to invite defeat.” But in this passage from Michael Keane’s book, George S. Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer”, Patton was no match for his wife, who was preparing for the family’s move from France to the US, after Patton’s assignment to the École Militaire in Saumur, France.

George and Beatrice Patton
George and Beatrice Patton

As the family prepared to return to America, Beatrice was left to pack their belongings while George attended the fencing academy. The day before they departed, Patton casually remarked to his exhausted wife, “I hope you remembered to pack all those swords under the bed.” Walking into the bedroom, Beatrice discovered dozens of swords and scabbards of which she had been completely unaware. Frustrated that her husband had not appreciated her efforts or informed her of the swords he had been collecting, she angrily picked up one of the weapons and began chasing him around the house. A frantic Patton scurried over chairs and tables, pleading with his furious wife, “Don’t! Don’t! Please don’t!” Beatrice eventually brought the sword down on a table, missing her husband, but hard enough to embed the sword in the edge of the table. A newly compliant husband now offered to help his wife pack his collection.

Here is a clip from the movie, Patton, which has nothing to do with the Olympics, but is still fun to watch.