On Aug. 3, 1943, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton slapped a soldier who was hospitalized for psychoneurosis, accusing him of cowardice. The incident nearly ended Patton’s career..
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the Seventh U.S. Army, visited a military hospital in Sicily on Aug. 3, 1943. He traveled past the beds of wounded soldiers, asking them about their injuries. Coming to the bed of a soldier who lacked visible signs of injury, Patton inquired about his health.
The soldier, 18-year-old Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl, had been tentatively diagnosed as having a case of psychoneurosis. He told Patton that he couldn’t mentally handle the battle lines. “It’s my nerves,” he said. “I can hear the shells come over but I can’t hear them burst.”
Enraged, Patton slapped Kuhl across the face and called him a coward.
(scene from the movie “Patton” about the incident)
As Patton left the tent, he heard Kuhl crying and turned back, striking the soldier again and ordering him to leave the infirmary tent. It later emerged that Kuhl had malaria and a high fever.
Patton demanded that Kuhl be sent back to the front, adding, “You hear me, you gutless bastard? You’re going back to the front.”
Patton was heard by a war correspondent angrily denying the reality of shell shock, claiming that the condition was “an invention of the Jews.”
A week later, in a far less publicized incident, Patton slapped Pvt. Paul G. Bennet, who had been hospitalized for his “nerves.” News of both incidents reached Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who on Aug. 17 sent a letter to Patton reprimanding him.
“I am well aware of the necessity for hardness and toughness on the battle field. … But this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the ‘sick,’ nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates,” Eisenhower wrote.
Eisenhower ordered Patton to apologize to the men, but, feeling that he was too valuable a leader to lose, allowed to retain his command. Months later, on Nov. 21, radio broadcaster Drew Pearson revealed to U.S. audiences that Patton had slapped Kuhl. Many members of Congress and the press called for Patton’s removal from command, and outrage over the alleged “cover-up” was also widespread.
The Senate delayed Patton’s confirmation as major general and Eisenhower relieved him of his command of the Seventh Army. He would go on to serve as a decoy during the invasion of Normandy and be given command of the Third Army, which he brilliantly led in an Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge.