If you are looking for a good book about some of the generals from World War II, look no further than The Generals by Winston Groom. Winston Groom is a great story teller and has tons of small antidotes that will be sure to entertain you. The author goes through great details of the lives of these three men from before they were born through their deaths.
Because the author jumps from character to character trying to be as chronological as is possible, there were many times that I had to stop and remember which General he was talking about because of just how similar the stories of these three men were.
From their family backgrounds, to the choices that they made to go to military school, to the challenges that they had in school, to their superior understanding in the ways of war, one would say that these men were born to be great leaders.
These men did not just wake up and one day became great generals during World War II. All three men had a long and distinguished career in the military. These men rose through the ranks as leaders long before World War II.
One fact that we often forget is that after World War I, there were a lot of commissioned officers who were demoted because the military was downsized. In Washington DC, the popular thought was that we had just fought the war to end all wars, so why do we need a military. Both Patton and Marshall found themselves demoted and it took them years to earn the ranks that they held in World War I. The only reason MacArthur was saved the demotion was because he was put in charge of West Point to teach the next generation of leaders.
Too often, when you read a biography, the author has a hero complex and only tells the good side of the main character. Winston Groom opens your eyes to both the struggles and the shortcomings of each of these three men. He tells about their failures and their triumphs. When one of these men messed up, it is not covered over. As such, the reader is not left with the impression that these men were perfect and lived at the right moment in history to become great generals. Instead, we see how these men had to overcome their shortcomings in order to rise to greatness.
While this book is chalked full of great stories, I thought I would share just a couple of quick stories from the lives of each of these men. The stories I chose were not war stories as those are the best known about these men. Instead, I chose a couple of the more behind the scenes moments in each of these men’s lives that give extra flavor as to who they were. There are so many more stories that I could share, but if I did, you might not want to read the book and you would be depriving yourself by not reading this book.
George S. Patton: In 1912, Patton competed in the Summer Olympics participating in the Modern Pentathlon. Patton ended up placing 5th overall. Patton’s best event was shooting, but he placed 20th. Several of his competitors claimed that Patton was so good that several of his shots went through the target at the exact same spot of previous shots. Because his bullets did not create new holes, Patton was said to have missed the target completely and thus he ended up in 20th place after the first event. There is actually justification for this belief in that Patton had consistently been putting up the best scores in target practice prior to the event. How the best shot missed the target multiple times was incomprehensible. Had Patton won the shooting competition instead of placing 20th, he would have walked away with the gold medal. In fact, had Patton placed in the top five in the shooting event, he would have won the gold. What is interesting is that this unfortunate event did not seem to have any impact on him later in life.
Douglas MacArthur: In 1922, MacArthur was the Superintendent at West Point. One day he met Louise Cromwell Brooks at a New York fashionable party. MacArthur asked Louise to marry him that very night. The downside of this courtship was that MacArthur’s superior, General John J. Pershing, had a love interest in Louise and had been her escort to many Washington DC events. At that time, it was typical for a Superintendent at West Point to serve for four years. However, MacArthur found his term to be only three years because right after his wedding, General Pershing relocated MacArthur and his wife to the Philippines. General Pershing told reporters that the wedding and the deployment were not related, but one has to wonder. However, before you feel sorry for MacArthur and his new bride, it is because of this experience in the Philippines that we find in World War II MacArthur playing such a prominent role in the Pacific theater.
George Marshall: About a year after the death of his first wife in 1928, Marshall found himself in the company of a Katherine Brown at a friend’s party. Marshall offered to take Katherine back to the house where she was staying telling her that he knew his way around town. After a while, it seemed like over an hour, Katherine told him that he really did not know his way around town very well. Marshall replied that he knew his way around the town well enough to keep her away from the street where she was staying. Marshall ended up marrying Katherine shortly thereafter.
George S. Patton: In 1940, a young man named James Totten asked Patton if he could marry Patton’s second daughter, Ruth. Patton was not impressed because he was short, a field artilleryman, and a Catholic. A few weeks earlier, Ruth had talked to Patton’s sister about marrying Totten. Her aunt was not impressed with Ruth marrying a Catholic to which Ruth replied, well then I will never marry. Ruth’s aunt replied that she should marry Totten at once, as one spinster was enough for the family. Ruth brought Totten to the house and Patton left the house without saying a word and went to the movies. Patton watched the same movie three times that night. Meanwhile, back at home, George Patton’s wife lectured James Totten about the evils of Catholicism and why he should join the Episcopal Church. Ruth sat by and could not say a word as she was mortified at her mother’s treatment of the young man. At the end of the interrogation, Mrs. Patton asked if he was willing to become an episcopalian to which Totten replied, how do you like turncoats. Mrs. Patton replied that she didn’t approve of them. Totten said, “neither do I” and he left. Both Mrs. Patton and Ruth were in tears when Mr. Patton returned home from the movies. Mr. Patton asked if it was over and Mrs. Patton replied that it was because he would not change. Patton said that he knew the young man would not change. However, it was not over, and the young man a few days later came to Mr. Patton and asked to marry Ruth. Patton granted him his request and the young couple were soon married. Ruth Patton was married in the same dress as her grandmother and her mother.
George Marshall: In 1942, George Marshall was at home on a Sunday trying to relax. His wife had another plan for him and insisted that he prune a tree. Because of the war, it was hard to find someone to do yard work. As such, Marshall agreed that he would climb the tree and prune it. No sooner was he in the tree then he received a phone call from the war department. Marshall climbed down the tree and took the phone call. The officer on the other line told him that a German raider was spotted off the coasts of Venezuela, most likely going after the oil there. Marshall instructed the officer to go speak with the President. Marshall then climbed back up the tree when the officer called a second time. Marshall climbed back down the tree and the officer had a bunch of questions about what he was supposed to say to FDR. Marshall then climbed back up the tree when he received a phone call from FDR. Marshall answered, FDR’s questions and went back and climbed the tree a fourth time. Minutes later, FDR called a second time. This time, Marshall climbed down the tree, put the tools away, changed his clothes and went back to his office in DC. This war was not going to give Marshall any time to prune the tree.
Douglas MacArthur: Late in his life, MacArthur decided to retire at the Waldorf hotel in New York. One night, Bear Bryant was in the Waldorf as a part of the Heisman trophy ceremony. Bear Bryant was hosting a party for his fellow coaches. When there was a knock on the door, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches answered the door. The old man asked if it was coach Bryant’s suite. The assistant coach said it was, but coach Bryant was busy. The assistant then asked for a name to which the old man replied “Douglas MacArthur”. The assistant coach was speechless and just stared blankly at the old man. Luckily, Bryant saw what was going on and quickly came and invited Douglas MacArthur in. However, he was only there for a few minutes when Mrs. MacArthur showed up and announced that it was time for the General to go to bed. I would guess that the moral of this story is that it does not matter if you are a five-star general, there is always someone who is going to tell you what to do.
These and many other fun antidotes will be found in this book. Of course, a majority of the book covers the war careers of these three men. This author did such a great job in telling the stories of these three generals that it left me wanting to find out more about each of their lives.
The only negative about this book comes from my desire to know why the author chose these three generals. There were other generals who fought in World War II, why did he select these three? I wish the author had told us why, but he chose not to and thus I am left wondering.