How General Patton Flew His Jeeps

by William B. Mellor, Jr.


In newspaper and magazine articles, he invariably is referred to as a "tank commander" the hell-for-leather old cavalryman who, buttoned up tight in his star-spangled M-4, charges headlong at the enemy and bowls him over by sheer weight of metal and fire power.

But George Smith Patton is far more than that. He is a general who knows intimately every facet of his many-sided war machine. He is a general who fights not with iron monsters alone, but with every other arm--aerial as well as earth-bound--which goes to make up the complex army of today.

"Old Blood and Guts," indeed, is one of the most air-minded of our ground generals, and it was to the air that he looked for the protection of the flanks of his long, slender column of armor when he took his 3d Army on its breathtaking dash across France and into Germany.

"Without the close co-operation of General 0. P. Weyland's XIX Tactical Air Command," he said afterward, "we wouldn't have dared to leave our flanks hanging in the air, deep in Nazi territory, and our drive might have been stopped far short of the German frontier."

General Patton's reliance on the airplane, however, dates from long before that dramatic episode, for he was one of the first general officers in the United States Army, if not the first, to utilize the light plane as a means to achieve the spectacular marches and lightning attacks which since have kept his name, and that of his army, blazoned in the headlines.

It was his personal plane, a little Stinson Voyager, which blazed the aerial trail down which thousands upon thousands of flying jeeps later were to wing their way, to create a new chapter in light plane history.

Patton first used the little craft back in the summer of 1940, to keep a paternal eye on the training maneuvers of his armored brigade at Fort Benning, two years before the field artillery and the Tank Destroyer Command adopted the light plane for observation and reconnaissance.

Since then the flying jeep has become the Army's aerial handyman, performing a multitude of chores and doing them more efficiently than ever before. In every theater of war, Stinson L-5s are doing courier service between Army headquarters and front line units, evacuating wounded from jungle airfields too small to accommodate the larger Army planes, carrying mail, rations and supplies to groups isolated behind, enemy lines. And it was Patton and a small group of other forward-looking ground officers who showed the way.

General Patton first learned to fly in an old Curtiss Jenny back in 1921 when, as a major of cavalry; he was quartered at the Army Polo Center at Mitchell Field, Long Island, with an Army polo team.

Engrossed as he was then with polo, hunting and racing, however, the dashing young major gradually lost interest in flying, and allowed his license to lapse.

Then came the summer of 1940. Europe was aflame, and it appeared inevitable that America would be sucked into the maelstrom. The War Department sorely needed an answer to the Nazi panzers which had swept across Poland, Holland, Belgium, and France. They found that answer in Georgie Patton, who had commanded the only American tank brigade to see action in the last World War, and had been an ardent advocate of armor ever since.

Patton was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, to help build and train an armored force which could take on the German panzer units and beat them at their own deadly game.

In World War I, Patton had only 157 tanks to look after. In Georgia he was to have under his command 325 tanks, 800 six-by-six trucks, 500 motorcycles, as many half-tracks, 360 peeps, and hundreds of other vehicles. And the tough old cavalryman was a leader who liked to have a finger in every pie. He wanted to see for himself what was going on, not to have to depend on the reports of his subordinates in the field.

Finding it impossible to cover the vast maneuver areas in remote sections of the huge Fort Benning reservation effectively in a peep or command car, he learned to fly again, at the age of 55, and bought himself a "Voyager". From then on, every man in his command was kept on the jump.

Patton was everywhere at once, with a blistering torrent of profanity for the goldbricker, a helping hand for the novice, a pat on the back for the man that did a little better than his best. It became legendary among his troops that wherever trouble developed, there, in a few minutes, would appear the Old Man, usually skipping in over the tree-tops in his private plane, to straighten things out.

Once, during a simulated attack on a village, which involved a river crossing, one of Patton's units which had received a lively and profane briefing from their hard-boiled commander back at the base, was astonished, on arriving at the river, to find him there ahead of them.

Standing in the middle of the bridge in the cold light of early dawn, he waved them on, shouting "Come on, goddammit!! Get those tanks across. Hurry, dammit, hurry!"

He had flown there ahead of them in his Stinson to see for himself that his instructions were followed.

Patton's greatest military asset always has been the ability to stamp his men with the impression of his own dynamic personality, and with the aid of his flying jeep, he was able to be everywhere at once during those hectic days of preparation; driving, cajoling, leading. The results of that personal leadership still are to be found in the esprit de corps of the 2d Armored, although that division long since was transferred to another command.

When General Patton took his armored troops into the large scale maneuvers of 1941, through the swamps of Louisiana, the mountains of Tennessee, and the pine forests of the Carolinas, his little Voyager went with him, and it wasn't long before he discovered its effectiveness in tactical use, as well as for training.

Unlike the heavier and faster observation planes, which had to stay upstairs to perform their missions, Patton was able, in his sturdy little ship, to sneak up on the "enemy," flying very low; take a peek at them over the crest of the nearest hill, and speed away, still skimming the tree-tops, before any effective fire could be brought to bear on him. It gave his units a big edge in the war games, and it wasn't long before commanders of other units were utilizing the Stinson, too.

By the summer of 1942, General Andrew D. Bruce was using them extensively at his newly-created Tank Destroyer School at Camp Hood down on the Texas prairies. Borrowing pilots from the Air Corps to fly them, he utilized the little, slow-flying planes to lead his destroyers across country in search of advancing tank units, and he immediately found them invaluable for that mission.

Soon every branch of the armed forces was calling for light planes. General Jacob Devers wanted them for all his tank units. Lieutenant Colonel J. C. L. Adams, an infantryman, wrote a complete manual for their operation, and visualized them as replacing gliders in air-borne operations. The Field Artillery adopted them in the winter of 1942 for observation.

General Patton sold his "Voyager" before he embarked for Casablanca in October, 1942, but after the North African coast was secured, he had several Stinson "Flying Jeeps" shipped to him and used them in Tunisia, Sicily, and in Europe. In the fall of 1944, when his 3d Army had run right off its tactical maps in its dazzling dash across France, it was a light plane which carried a new set of charts to the stalled columns of armor.

One day, just before the 3d Army smashed into the German Westwall fortifications, General Patton witnessed a startling demonstration of just how valuable a light plane can be. Standing on a hilltop, the General saw a B-26 crash behind the German lines on a shell-pocked field where no plane could have landed safely. But one did.

The pilot of a cruising light plane also saw the B-26 go down, so he dropped in too, while only a few hundred yards away German soldiers were rushing to capture the bomber's crew.

The little observation plane picked up the co-pilot of the bomber, bounced across the rough field, and got into the air just before the Germans arrived. After dropping his passenger safe safely behind the American lines, the courageous pilot rounded up six other flying jeeps and the seven fliers--armed only with .45 automatics--started back to try to rescue the rest of the bomber's crew from their captors. They turned back, however, when the commander of the B-26 waved them away. All of the fliers later were recaptured by armored units of the 3d Army.

Today, there is hardly a military use to which the flying jeep has not been put. But it took a tanker to learn their capabilities, and to make of them one of his most valuable weapons.