Some men are born to greatness. George Smith Patton actively cultivated it. A man of truly breathtaking ambition, Patton’s stated lifelong quest for the Medal of Honor was destined for frustration.
A marginal student but a rapacious reader, Patton enjoyed an almost pathological drive to succeed. In the final analysis, George Patton became arguably the most effective fighting general in American military history. His combat career, however, was nearly cut short during a vicious engagement with Mexican bandits as part of the 1916 Punitive Expedition to defeat Pancho Villa.
In March of 1916 a mob of paramilitary cutthroats under the command of Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, more commonly known as Francisco “Pancho” Villa, attacked and burned the small town of Columbus, New Mexico.
In the process, Villa killed eight American Cavalrymen stationed there along with another eight to ten civilians. He made off with three hundred captured rifles and shotguns but lost a quarter of his force in the process. He also incurred the fulminant wrath of both President Woodrow Wilson and the American people.
Five months later there were 100,000 American troops poised on the border.
The Punitive Expedition was led by John “Blackjack” Pershing and was tasked with capturing Villa.
This military operation was the first in US history to employ motorized ground transport as well as airplanes in a reconnaissance role.
A Hero’s Beginnings
By 1916 Second Lieutenant George Patton had already etched a deep mark. He attended the Virginia Military Institute for a year before entering the US Military Academy in New York. His academic failure in mathematics necessitated his repeating a year at West Point.
An avid swordsman, Patton studied experts in the US and Europe and designed the M1913 Cavalry Saber that became known as the “Patton Sword.”
He was granted the title “Master of the Sword” for his efforts. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds awesome.
Lieutenant Patton represented the United States in the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. While the other Olympians ran .22-caliber pistols for the shooting component of the event, Patton elected to wield a .38-caliber Colt target revolver.
The young officer was docked a shot as having missed the target altogether with his final round. Patton claimed that the bullet passed through the ragged hole left by the preceding shots. As he had fired a perfect score the previous day this is not an unreasonable claim.
When the pentathlon was complete, several competitors had fallen away and one actually died. Patton came in fifth overall. Had he gotten credit for shooting up to his typical standard he would have taken the gold.
Concerned that he might miss the pending military action in Mexico, Patton appealed directly to Pershing. Blackjack agreed and made Patton his personal aide. The fact that Pershing was engaged to Patton’s younger sister Nita likely did not harm his prospects.
Eager to command troops in combat, 2LT Patton requested and received a billet to Troop C of the 13th Cavalry hunting Pancho Villa. Julio Cardenas was a Captain in Villa’s band of rogues and his overall 2IC. Cardenas also commanded Villa’s personal bodyguard.
While out scavenging for corn for the unit’s horses, a small party of ten American cavalrymen along with a pair of civilian guides under Patton’s command came to a ranch near the town of Rubio, Mexico. Realizing that Cardenas had family at the ranch, Patton undertook a detailed recon of the area from a variety of vantages. Lieutenant Patton subsequently identified Cardenas and a pair of his henchmen at the facility.
On May 14, 1916, Patton led his small attack force in three Dodge touring cars cross country in the first motorized assault in US Army history. At around noon, Patton staged two of his vehicles as a blocking force, dismounted, and approached the compound by stealth along with two members of his party. He carried a rifle in his left hand and his ivory-handled engraved Colt Single Action Army revolver in his right.
Some weeks before, Patton was at a local watering hole enjoying the nightlife with his issue Colt 1911 automatic pistol shoved into his belt. The weapon discharged unexpectedly and soured the young officer to a degree.
As a result, he privately purchased his famous Colt SAA revolver for $50 and had it customized with ivory grips and extensive engraving. Patton loaded his wheelgun with five rounds, leaving the chamber underneath the hammer empty. This was the state of the weapon he carried as he approached the San Miguelito Ranch.
Patton’s First Gunfight
Patton and his subordinates made their way around the low wall that surrounded the ranch and was eventually spotted by the three bandits. Just as planned, the mounted Mexicans fled the small team only to run into Patton’s well-sited blocking force.
Wheeling their mounts around, the three charged back at Lieutenant Patton and his soldiers, their guns blazing. George Patton leveled his Colt and emptied all five rounds.
One round struck Cardenas in the arm, shattering it. Another felled his horse. Having recharged his sixgun Patton shot the horse of one of Cardenas’ companions as it galloped by, dropping the animal and spilling its rider. Once the bandit disentangled himself from the wounded animal, Patton and his men gunned him down.
The story goes that this man was armed with a lever action rifle that jammed just as he was about to shoot. The young Lieutenant kept the gun and left it in its choked state, insisting that it never be cleared. The gun with its action locked open was on display at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox for decades. Given the remarkable reliability of lever action rifles, Patton saw this fortuitous failure as an example of divine providence.
The third bandit escaped the compound and galloped away as fast as his mount could run. Patton transitioned to his bolt-action Springfield rifle and, along with his men, blew the retreating Mexican out of his saddle. Meanwhile, the wounded Cardenas was attempting to escape on foot.
One of Patton’s guides, a turncoat Villa soldier named E.L. Holmdahl, pursued the wounded man into a nearby field. Cardenas feigned surrender only to draw his pistol, fire, and miss. For his trouble, Holmdahl put a bullet through the Mexican bandit’s brain.
The Rest of the Story
Patton strapped the bodies of the three dead bandits to the hoods of his cars and returned to his encampment forthwith leaving around fifty pursuing Mexican bandits on horseback in his dust. The baking Mexican sun did not improve the state of the three dead men by the time he presented them as spoils of war to his commander, General Pershing. Blackjack wanted little to do with the demised and rapidly ripening Mexicans and had them buried on the spot.
Pershing was, however, quite impressed with the performance of the firebrand Patton, referring to him as “Bandit” informally from then on and promoting him to First Lieutenant nine days later. The engagement found its way into newspapers the world over and poured kerosene on the smoldering flame that was George Patton’s ego. All these things conspired to secure for Patton a billet alongside Pershing when he deployed to France the following year to join the hemoclysm that was World War 1.
Patton’s combat acumen as a tank commander in the First World War and his mastery of the art of maneuver warfare in the Second is well-documented.
George Patton carved a pair of notches in the grip of his Single Action Army to commemorate the two Mexican bandits he helped dispatch. While the inimitable reliability of the venerable Colt revolver clearly left a mark, Patton had not enjoyed having to laboriously reload his weapon under fire.
For this reason, he typically carried a pair of wheelguns in combat later during World War 2.
Patton packed a matched pair of Colts for a time but gifted one to a famous USO performer. He replaced the single action .45 with a Smith and Wesson .357 Registered Magnum sporting a 3.5-inch barrel.
He was also known to carry a Remington R51 .380 as well as a snub-nosed revolver and the occasional M1903 Colt hammerless. During one particularly harrowing engagement, Patton stood in his staff car and fired at attacking Luftwaffe planes with his R51 pocket pistol. What a stud.
The M1A1 Thompson submachine gun that was his constant companion on trips to the front is on display at West Point today.
George Smith Patton broke the mold. A peculiar man of devout faith and spectacular profanity, it was his strange dichotomy combined with a straight-for-the-throat command philosophy that made him the most feared General Officer in the Allied stable. I had a friend who met him twice. He once told me that Patton was every bit the flamboyant character in person that the history books depict. While he likely would not have made it past Lieutenant in today’s woke Army, General George Patton was clearly the stuff of heroes.