General George Patton Museum
RECOIL TAKES AN INSIDE LOOK AT ONE OF WORLD WAR II’S MOST ICONIC LEADERS
Few wars in American military history produced more memorable leaders with distinct personalities than World War II. The global, sinister nature of this particular conflict gave rise to some of the greatest and most controversial flag rank officers that the U.S. military has ever produced.
No small measure among them is General George S. Patton, most famed for his command of the Third Army in France and Germany after the D-Day invasions at Normandy. However, he was also at the helm of operations in Casablanca and Sicily. Less often discussed by most major history texts are his tours of duty in World War I and the Pancho Villa Expedition of 1916 (sometimes referred to as the Punitive Expedition).
Throughout all three of these campaigns, Patton’s participation was inextricably linked to armored combat. The Punitive Expedition was the U.S. Army’s first campaign to include motorized vehicles. In World War I, he was one of the first tank commanders in our new armored divisions. He even taught at America’s tank school in France. Between the two World Wars, he remained an integral part of America’s fledgling armored corps — providing key input on training and doctrine development.
For decades, Fort Knox, Kentucky, was the home of America’s tank force. Our senior editor is personally a twotime alumni of Fort Knox — first for the Armor Officers’ Basic Course, then for the Army Reconnaissance Course. So when he heard that RECOIL was planning to go behind the scenes at
the Patton Museum, he volunteered as tribute. While the current Armor School is now located at Fort Benning, Georgia, any old-school tanker or cavalry scout will tell you that Knox will always be the spiritual home of America’s armored force. By no coincidence, the Patton Museum is still located in the Bluegrass State, adjacent to America’s most famous gold depository.
The structure of the museum itself is interesting. Not entirely chronological, the exhibits are set up to be viewed as a leadership museum — an unconventional yet poignant approach, particularly for the roughly 30,000 ROTC cadets who train at Fort Knox every summer. Different sections of the museum feature handpicked items from the collection, arranged alongside placards describing episodes from General Patton’s life that highlight the various army leadership values.
For those who didn’t have the pleasure of army values being beaten into them the old-fashioned way, they are: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. And yes, as an acronym, they do indeed spell LDRSHIP.
Admission to the museum is free, but it runs entirely off of visitors donations so, if you do make the trip, please consider making a small contribution to their efforts. The experience is completely self-guided, and the staff recommends you budget about an hour-and-a-half to walk the entire place. If you’re a true Patton fan or general military history aficionado, we suggest you allot a little more time than that. We spent the suggested 90 minutes just on the first exhibit alone.
That very first exhibit is Patton’s
’38 Cadillac staff car — the very vehicle he was riding in when he died in 1945. In a practically immeasurable gesture of generosity, we were allowed to get up close and personal with the interior of the car that Patton was in when he suffered an eventually fatal injury in a car wreck.
On December 8, 1945, the staff car collided with a large military truck, throwing Patton head first into the glass partition between the front and rear cabins. This resulted in both a
compression fracture and dislocation of his C3 and 4 vertebrae, as well as a broken neck and cervical spinal cord injury. He spent 12 days in a hospital in Heidelberg before dying at the age of 60 and being buried in Hamm, Luxembourg, alongside fellow war casualties from his former Third Army — this was per his request to be “buried with his men.”
Unbeknownst to us until this particular visit, a multitude of conspiracy theories surround Patton’s death, including that he was assassinated by either the Soviet NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) or our own OSS (predecessor to the CIA). Theories speculate that he was poisoned, shot, or that the truck hit his car deliberately. Extensive discussion with the museum staff assure us that the truth is far more mundane and, in that normalcy, even more tragic.
Almost every individual exhibit in the Patton Museum has a similarly rich, intensely personal story behind it. From his childhood toys that he labeled and dated himself to the 66 individual weapons he collected or was gifted throughout his service, including the machine gun that wounded him in World War I — which he recovered from the enemy machine gun nest and had shipped home.
In an interesting and uniquely Kentucky twist on the life and times of this larger-than-life war hero, our visit to the Patton Museum was followed immediately by a trip to the unique family owned Boundary Oak Distillery in nearby Radcliff, Kentucky. While not officially connected to the Patton Museum, they share a unique overlap via a particularly obscure piece of the General’s legacy.
One of the items on display at the museum is a footlocker General Patton had converted to a portable bar. He was known for mixing a cocktail of his own recipe that he named Armored Diesel. It was allegedly served to all of his staff during meetings. The recipe commonly cited by the museum is simply bourbon, shaved ice, sugar, and lemon juice. Having said that, the actual contents of Armored Diesel
as poured by Patton himself could’ve contained a mixture of just about anything including whiskey, scotch, white wine, and even cherry juice. Fellow veterans may remember similar concoctions under the catchall banner of Grog, served most often at unit-level dining functions.
Boundary Oak produces a somewhat more palatable version of Armored Diesel — they’re tight lipped about the exact ingredients and process. But we’d have been remiss not to give it a taste for ourselves. While it’s definitely far more palatable than a marriage of scotch and wine, it’s wholly unique, even in the heart of bourbon country. You won’t forget you’re drinking it. It’s available by the bottle and in several variations of a collectable presentation box, with historical notes about both the drink and the man.
There are few great leaders who don’t also breed controversy. General
George S. Patton was no exception. But his legacy as a consummate professional soldier and intensely skilled battlefield commander are matched by only a handful across the annals of military history. At time of writing, the Patton Museum at Fort Knox had recently shut down for several months of intensive renovations. The projected re-open date is June 1, 2018. We hope to return for ourselves and take a look at all the improvements currently being implemented. It’s a uniquely personal lens through which to view both World War history and the balancing act of effective combat command.
The Patton Museum shares the outer edge of Fort Knox with the famed gold depository.
But getting inside there is a little more difficult.
General Patton’s staff car — a “1938-and-a-half” model. The front end was rebuilt from a 1939 car after the collision that would prove fatal for General Patton.
Top, right: The only weapon to ever wound George S. Patton: a machine gun that Patton himself recovered from a bunker after being hit by it. Bottom, right: The General’s famed ivory-handled wheelguns. Despite common misconception, they were neither pearl-handled nor a matching set of single actions.
Above: Patton may have been his own best museum curator, going so far as labeling his own childhood weapons for future reference.
Right: This apparent wax statue of Patton is actually carved entirely from a single block of wood. Far right: The personal saddle of Julio Cardenas — Poncho Villa’s second-in-command. Patton took this saddle after shooting Cardenas off of it. You can’t see the blood stains from this angle but, trust us, they’re there. Below: The walkway approaching the museum features several tanks from various parts of American armored history.
The Patton signature Armored Diesel cocktail produced by Boundary Oak comes in a classy “foot locker” style collector’s box. At Boundary Oak, the trucks are aged as thoroughly as the bourbon.
Unlike several others we’ve toured, Boundary Oak defines the boutique distillery — typically producing one barrel per month at the time of this writing.