I have always been fascinated by Gen. George S. Patton, the audacious commander of the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions in North Africa during World War II. “Old Blood and Guts,” as his troops called him, ruled with an iron fist. He was famous for his formidable aggression in battle and his unrelenting discipline. After achieving victory over German Field Marshall Edwin Rommel (the “Desert Fox”) at the Battle of El Guettar in North Africa in March 1943, he was assigned to lead the U.S. 7th Army for its invasion of Sicily and Italy. In early 1945 Patton led his army across the Rhein River and into Germany, capturing thousands of miles of territory. In December 1945, Patton died in an automobile accident near the German city of Mannheim.
Before all of that, however, Patton was part of the 1916 U.S. Army “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico to capture and punish Mexican revolutionary rebel Pancho Villa. At the time, Patton was a 30-year-old First Lieutenant assigned as aide de camp to Brig. Gen. John S. Pershing, the commander of the expedition.
In Book Three of my Finding Billy Battles Trilogy, I introduce Patton to Billy and his cousin, who have joined the expeditionary force in its hapless pursuit of Villa. Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston had asked Billy to join the expedition as his “eyes and ears.” Even though Funston was the overall commander of the expedition, he would not be physically a part of it. Instead, he had made Gen. Pershing the field commander.
A few months into the expedition, Billy joins Patton and a dozen men on a foraging mission to buy corn for the army’s horses. Using three Dodge Touring Cars during that expedition, Patton learned that Gen. Jose Cardenas, head of Villa’s personal bodyguard known as the Dorados (“Golden Ones”), was seen at a nearby ranch. Capturing one of Villa’s top commanders had been a priority, and Patton was not about to lose this opportunity. The result was the American military’s first engagement using motorized vehicles.
What follows is from Chapter 22 of “The Lost Years of Billy Battles”–Book Three of the Finding Billy Battles Trilogy. I hope you will enjoy it.
Excerpt From Chapter 22, The Lost Years of Billy Battles
We had one more day before we would cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, and it gave me time to get to know some of the officers on Pershing’s staff.
His aide-de-camp was a thirty-year-old lieutenant named George S. Patton. One day, I was sitting in the tent cleaning my rifle and Colt revolver when Patton walked by outside and saw me.
“Damn, Major, I see you carry a Peacemaker,” he said, walking in.
“Wouldn’t be without it,” I said, looking up at Patton. I noticed he carried a Colt also, but his was silver-plated and adorned with ivory grips.
Then Patton noticed the model 1876 Winchester lying on my cot.
“Do you mind?” He picked up the Winchester and held it up to his shoulder. “I always wanted one of these. How do you like it?”
“I’ll put it this way. I’ve used it from Kansas to Arizona, New Mexico, the Philippines, to the hell-hole of a place we’re heading tomorrow, and it never failed me once.”
He returned the Winchester to the cot and moved until he stood before me.
“I’m Patton. George S. Patton, aide-de-camp to General Pershing,” he said, holding out his hand.
“William Battles,” I said, rising to my feet. Patton was about an inch shorter than me, lean, clean-shaven, with light brown hair and piercing gray-blue eyes.
“Oh, so you’re General Funston’s man.”
“No, I’m not—” I began as Charley entered the tent.
“Billy Battles is nobody’s ‘man,’” Charley bellowed, walking over to Patton.
Then Charley turned to me. “What do you think, Billy? Do I look like an Army leather bumper in this getup?” Charley brushed at his wool shirt and straightened his pegged breeches. I smiled as I looked at my cousin standing there in leggings, brown riding boots, and a peaked, brown campaign hat.
Patton, on the other hand, regarded Charley closely for a moment. Like most men who dared look Charley in the eye, he could probably tell right away that he was face-to-face with a man-killer.
The two men briefly looked at one another as I introduced them.
“Good to meet you, Sergeant,” Patton said.
It was the first time anybody had ever referred to Charley as a sergeant, and I could tell he wasn’t sure who Patton was addressing.
“Likewise,” Charley said. “What the hell is an aide-de-camp? Do you make the campfire?”
Patton looked at me, bemused and irritated by Charley’s clear lack of concern for military decorum.
“I guess General Pershing hasn’t filled you in on our little trio,” I said.
“No, he only said you were General Funston’s liaison.”
“Well, Charley here is not only my cousin. At various times, he’s been a long rider, a deputy marshal, a buffalo hunter, a cowpuncher, and most recently a rancher. What he has never been is a sergeant in the Army. So you’ll have to excuse his lack of military etiquette.”
Patton regarded us both. “Uh-huh. You said trio. Who’s the other, uh, sergeant.”
“That would be Tom Barkley, foreman of the Morales ranch near Brownsville,” Charley said. “He’s on his way.”
As if on cue, Tom walked into the tent a moment later.
“Goddamn, Billy, I ain’t wearing one of these monkey suits where we’re goin’,” Tom said. “Why, anybody who rides through Chihuahua dressed like this will be sweated down like a tallow candle.”
Charley and I laughed. Patton didn’t.
“Who’s this?” Tom asked, nodding at Patton.
“He’s in charge of the campfire,” Charley said.
“The hell, you say. They got toady officers to do that?”
Patton had heard enough. “Listen, you bunk lizard, I’ve had about enough of this bullshit,” he said. The muscles in his jaw twitched and his lips drew back in a snarl.
Tom regarded Patton momentarily and decided this was not a man to be trifled with.
“Hell, General, I didn’t mean nothing by it,” Tom said.
“It’s lieutenant, not general—at least not yet,” Patton said, shifting his frosty gaze to Charley. Before Charley could say anything, I spoke up.
“Look, this arrangement is out of the ordinary for everybody concerned. I suggest we make the best of it and focus our anger on the man we will be hunting.”
“Suits me,” Patton said. He started to leave but turned back to the three of us. “This arrangement may be peculiar, but remember this is the U.S. Army. So I’d advise you to show some regard.”
Then, looking at me, Patton saluted and said: “See you tomorrow, Major.” I returned the salute and watched Patton leave.
“Jesus, what a tight-ass that lout is,” Tom said.
Before our expedition to Mexico was finished, we would learn much more about Lieutenant Patton.
We were awakened at four o’clock the next morning by the jarring reverberation of reveille emanating from three buglers stationed strategically throughout the camp. After breakfasting on eggs, biscuits, and gravy, we were told to check our kits and weapons and ensure we had everything we’d been provided.
Charley, Tom, and I ate lunch in the officers’ mess one day in early May when Patton joined us at our table.
“I’m going out on a foraging expedition tomorrow. You men want to come along?”
“Foraging?” Tom asked. “You mean for food? Because I’m tired of trackin’ Villa. That’s like huntin’ a whisper in a big wind.”
Patton jammed a piece of pork chop into his mouth, chewed it, and regarded Tom momentarily.
“The objective is to find hay and corn for the horses, but by God, if I get a whiff of Villa’s foul-smelling carcass, I will pursue him.” Patton took a swig of coffee. “You men in or out?”
I looked at Charley and Tom, and they nodded. “We’re in,” I said. “What time?”
“0700. We’ll meet at the motor pool.”
“So it’s automobiles, not horses, right?” Charley asked.
“That’s right. We’re taking three Dodge touring cars.”
“Good. My culo is about played out sittin’ a saddle.”
The next morning, we met Patton, along with ten troopers, four civilian drivers, and two Spanish-speaking guides—one of whom was a former Villista.
As a major, I was the ranking officer, so I was asked to ride in the first car with Patton and the former Villista guide. I asked if Charley could ride with us, and Patton reluctantly agreed. From the time I first met him in Dodge City when I was just eighteen, cousin Charley had a way of rubbing those in authority the wrong way.
I looked for Tom and saw him sitting in the front seat next to the third car’s driver.
“You okay back there, Tom?” I asked.
“At least we ain’t ridin’ drag so that the dust won’t be so bad,” he said.
We drove to three villages and searched unsuccessfully for hay and corn. As we left the last village en route to a town named Rubio, Patton looked at Charley.
“You know, Higgins, it’s a damned good thing you’re not really in the Army,” he said. “I doubt you’d last a week before you got cashiered.”
Charley was sitting on one of the two foldable jump seats that faced the rear seat where Patton and I were sitting. He looked down at his feet and then eyed Patton.
“I expect you’re right, Captain. I never could follow a rulebook when it comes to livin’.”
“It’s Lieutenant, not Captain,” Patton shot back.
I decided to lighten things up a bit and told Patton how we met one night in Dodge City when a couple of drunk Texas drovers were harassing me.
“I didn’t know Charley was kin until we began talking,” I said.
“Was that before or after that bit of gunplay out at your homestead when Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson got you free of the law?” Charley asked, a sardonic smile on his face.
That got Patton’s attention. “You know Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?”
“Hell, Billy here also palled around with Doc Holiday and Billy Tilghman too.”
“The hell you say.” Patton was riveted.
“I knew Bat and Tilghman better than Wyatt and Doc. Masterson and Tilghman helped me out of more than one scrape.”
For the next half hour, Patton pumped me about the three legendary lawmen and Holiday, often called “the deadly dentist.”
I do not know if that conversation fired Patton up more than usual. Still, when we arrived in Rubio, our guide told him that he recognized several men hanging around the town marketplace as followers of Villista commander Julio Cárdenas. Patton’s eyes widened, and his jaw went slack.
Following a tip the previous month, Patton had gone to the Cárdenas hacienda in San Miguelito, some six miles north of Rubio. The Villa commander would be there, the tip said. He wasn’t, but his wife, infant daughter, and an elderly uncle were.
With this latest information, Patton ordered everybody back into the cars, and we drove as fast as the Dodges could over rutted dirt roads.
As we approached the ranch, Patton stood up in the car.
“Look at that,” he yelled. “They’re butchering a cow right in front of the hacienda. Christ, what degenerates.”
He was right, and as soon as the four men who were busy carving up the cow’s carcass saw us, one sprinted inside the house to sound the alarm. Patton motioned for the three other cars to fan out southwest of the gate to block any escape attempts. Our Dodge was parked about one hundred feet northwest of the gate.
Patton, another trooper, Charley, and I climbed out of the car and began walking toward the ranch house. Patton was jogging twenty feet in front of us when three men on horseback two hundred yards away bolted toward us, firing as they did. Bullets kicked up dust all around Patton, but he wasn’t hit.
Instead, he stood his ground, firing five times with his Colt Peacemaker. Then, still standing in the same spot, he reloaded his revolver, and when one of the horsemen was within fifty feet, he took aim and shot the man’s horse.
Horse and rider tumbled to the ground, and when the man was able to pull himself up from under his dying steed, he raised his revolver and pointed it at Patton. At that point, Patton, Charley, and I, along with several other troopers, shot the man dead.
Seeing this, the other two horsemen rode in opposite directions in an attempt to escape, but they, too, were shot and killed. Patton ordered the house searched, but troopers found only Cárdenas’ wife and infant daughter, along with other elderly women. He then rounded up one of the four men who had been butchering the cow and, under “persuasive” questioning, learned that one of the dead riders was Cárdenas.
“Hot damn, we finally got the son of a bitch,” Patton shouted. He then ordered troopers to strap the bloody corpses of the three men to the blistering hoods of our cars. Naturally, Cárdenas’ corpse was on the hood of Patton’s car. Patton also appropriated Cárdenas’ silver-studded saddle, tack, and sword and put them into the car.
As we left, somebody shouted that we were about to have company. Sure enough, twenty armed men on horses were riding hell-bent toward us.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Patton yelled. All four cars roared to life, and our motorcade quickly outdistanced Cárdenas’ horsemen. Moments later, we were out of rifle range.
“Some hood ornament, eh boys?” Patton said, nodding toward the front of the Dodge where Cárdenas’ bloody, bullet-ridden cadaver flopped across the hood like a freshly dispatched antelope.
We drove the 160 miles back to Colonia Dublan in a little more than four hours without incident, even though hundreds of angry Mexicans yelled and gestured at our bizarre caravan as we passed through one village after another. When we drove into camp with the corpses practically frying on the scalding hoods of our cars, correspondents, along with hundreds of troopers, gathered around to hear what happened.
Charley, Tom, and I managed to edge ourselves from the crowd without talking to anybody. We weren’t all that proud to be bringing dead men home like hunters with their lifeless prey.
“Damndest thing I ever saw,” Charley said. “Wasn’t beefin’ ’em enough?”
The incident turned Patton into a national hero, as correspondents wrote highly embellished stories about the shootout. Though I had filed stories periodically for the Record-Herald, I didn’t write anything about this encounter because I was there as a combatant, not a journalist.
General Pershing was pleased that at least Patton had returned the frustrating and ineffective punitive expedition to the nation’s front pages.
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