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“You Will Be Afraid”

April 2024
7min read

Next to Winston Churchill, Gen. George Patton gave the war’s most famous speeches. But nobody knew quite what he said—until now.

Millions of people have seen the movie Patton, which begins with a view of the general standing before a giant American flag giving a speech to his troops. The actor George C. Scott gave a superb performance in this film; all who ever saw the general in action will agree that he came as close to being George S. Patton, Jr., as is humanly possible. The script for the movie speech itself was a fair representation of the talks to soldiers that Patton actually gave on several occasions.

But it was not exactly the speech I remember hearing as a member of the 65th Infantry Division, 3rd Army, as we were about to enter combat in the late winter of 1945, standing in the square of a little French town named Ennery. We were 30 or 40 miles west of Saarlautern, where the 65th was soon to attack the Siegfried Line. That speech was probably never reported, and the reason for that may be found on page 231 of Gen. Omar N. Bradley’s book A Soldier’s Story:

“Few generals could surpass Patton as a field commander. But he had one enemy he could not vanquish and that was his own quick tongue. It was this unhappy talent of Patton’s for highly quotable crises that caused me to tighten the screws on press censorship at the time he joined my command.

“‘Public relations will cuss me for it,’ I told Bill Kean, ‘but the devil with them. I’ll take the chance. Tell censorship that they are not to pass any direct quotes from any commander without my approval.’”

Since Bradley was Patton’s superior at the time (as his Army group commander), this is the reason why the speech to the 65th Division men almost certainly never saw the light of print or broadcast, for it was full of language that was objectionable, particularly in the climate of the 1940s. In polite society Patton was said to be an erudite, urbane, perfect gentleman. But when he spoke to soldiers, his speech was laced with profanity, obscenity, sacrilege, blasphemy—anything to make his words memorable.

And it worked. I certainly remembered. Of course I had had some training in remembering. I had worked for a while as a newspaper reporter in the days when there were no portable tape recorders. Everything had to be written down on the folded sheets of copy paper we carried in our pockets. Early that evening—six or seven hours after hearing Patton’s speech—I went back to my billet and wrote it all down. There is something about hearing such a talk on an ominously gray winter day with war just over the horizon that sharpens one’s senses remarkably. The speech had made such an impression on me that I am sure I got it down almost word for word.

In his book Patton: A Genius for War, Carlo D’Este includes a chapter (38) titled “The Speech.” This reproduces parts of speeches given to troops just prior to the invasion of Europe. In the Notes section of the book D’Este names his sources: “There is more than one version of Patton’s famous... speeches. The version cited here is primarily from a speech titled ‘A General Talks to His Army,’ copy in the Patton file, VMI archives; and another... alleged to have been taken down verbatim by one of Patton’s officers, who was also a former court reporter. There are some minor variations in other versions of The Speech,’ including one published in 1963 by an admirer named C. E. Dornbusch, titled Speech of General George S. Patton, Jr., to His Third Army on the Eve of the Normandy Invasion .”

There must be other privately recorded versions of the speech. But I believe my record has unique value as a historical document. I have the date as March 5. A division history gives the date as March 2. One of us has it wrong. But it was obviously late in the war; the 65th was one of the last divisions to enter the combat, so this was one of the last and possibly the last “fight talk” that Patton gave. Therefore it is logical to assume that the general—always the consummate showman—had by that time sharpened and polished it to perfection.

When General Patton arrived in the square shortly after 1100 hours, we were called to attention. He quickly appeared on the stand overlooking the crowd. He was dressed in a combat jacket, matching olive drab trousers, and a helmet adorned by three stars. There appeared to be 10 or 12 ribbons on his left breast. He looked just as he did in news photos.

General Patton, after a brief introduction by the division commander, spoke very nearly as follows:

“Officers and men of the 65th Infantry Division, rest.

“You are now on a winning team. But you have never played. Therefore you must listen closely to what I have to tell you.. You think that you are disciplined, but you will never know whether or not you are disciplined until you hear a bullet go past. When you hear that bullet go past your ear, you will know whether or not you are disciplined.... Now a lot of people don’t know why we have discipline in the Army. They think that discipline is the Army and the Army is discipline, and that’s that. But I’ll tell you why we have discipline in the Army. It is because you must act from habit , and the habit must be stronger than the fear of death.

“Forget about hitting the ground. You must shoot at the German and keep on shooting....”

“You will be afraid. But you must attack—quickly and decisively. Forget about foxholes. Forget about hitting the ground. You must shoot at the German and keep on shooting. If you don’t know where he is, shoot at where you think he is.... But if you go out there holding your gun in one hand and getting up and lying down and wandering around, then I will have to write letters to your wives and mothers and sweethearts saying that Willie Jones got his goddamn ass shot off because he didn’t do as he was told.

“Here’s the way it works. The soldier goes out, and pretty soon one of those guys’ guns goes g-r-r-p, and the soldier lies down. That’s just what the German wants him to do. He has mortars zeroed in on that point. So down come the mortars, and the soldier gets blown to hell.... But if you shoot and keep shooting, the German keeps his head down, and your chances of survival are 90 percent better.

“The rifle is the deadliest goddamn weapon in the world, and the German is scared to death of it. So use it.... If you will resolve to fire 100 rounds every time you go into battle, you will live forever.... A rifle or a machine gun that does not fire is of about as much use as a pecker to the pope.

“You will be afraid. Any man who says he is not afraid in battle is either a fool or a liar, but there is a difference in being afraid and being a coward. You must have a desperate determination to close with the enemy. Because when you do, he has a desperate determination to get the hell out of there.... Don’t wait until you see the whites of his eyes. The sons of bitches’ eyes are yellow.

[Here the listeners roared with laughter, and General Patton’s normally scowling face changed into a slow, catlike grin.]

“Friend of mine, General Scott, a little fellow about so high [here the general held his hand out level with his lower rib], once said to me, ‘I would be willing to get into the ring with Joe Louis if the son of a bitch would promise to defend himself.’ It was his way of saying that defending yourself is the surest way in the world to get yourself killed. You must always attack, attack, attack.

“If a German tries to surrender, make him come to you. We’ve had a number of men lost because some German came out with his hands up and our soldiers said, ‘Goody, goody. There’s one. Let’s go get him.’ And when they ran out, they were mowed down by machine guns.

”... If you have a man who thinks he is a psychoneurotic, make fun of him, kick his ass....”

“A while ago there was a truckload of German prisoners brought by where I was standing. They had been searched, but one of them pulled out a pistol from somewhere—I don’t know where, he must have had it stuck up his ass—and he shot one of my captains. Some guns around there went off by mistake and, do you know, every one of the Germans in that truck was killed.

“Now I do not advocate standing Germans up against the wall and shooting them. We are a superior race, and that is not a sporting thing to do. So shoot the sons of bitches before you get them to the wall.

“Another thing: Take care of yourself. The only reason for getting trench foot is carelessness. And a soldier has to live with his feet for the rest of his life.

“I want to say a word about those low characters known as psychoneurotics. They are sons of bitches, bastards, and lice. In the last war they had ‘shell shock,’ and in the next war they will have some other kind of shock. But every one of them that quits means that more of a burden is thrown on you brave men who continue to fight. So if you have a man who thinks he is a psychoneurotic, make fun of him, kick his ass, and shake him out of it.

“There is another low, cowardly bastard known as the SIW, or self-inflicted wound. It is usually the middle finger of the left hand or a middle toe of the left foot. So if you see a man wounded in one of those places, you know he is probably one of those SIW bastards.

“You, the American soldier, are the greatest soldier in the world. You are part of an army that has done the greatest thing in the world. You are fighting for the greatest country in the world. And now the fight is won and almost over, so you can’t help but be goddamn heroes.

“You men are lucky, very lucky. Now, when you go back home, and in later years when your descendants ask you, ‘Grandpop, what did you do in the Second World War?’ you won’t have to say, ‘Well, sonny, I shoveled shit in Alabama.’”

At about this point the chimes in the clock tower of the church began to strike and General Patton concluded his talk.

“You have the makings of a good division. Right now you are a better division than the best American division at the close of the First World War, and I know, because I was part of that division. You have the best equipment of any soldiers who ever lived. And you have the best reason for fighting that any people have ever had.

“But you must remember what I have told you. Namely, shoot and keep shooting. Attack quickly and decisively. Take care of yourself. Never trust a German.”


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