The Slaps Heard Round the World
By David Chrisinger
20 Jul 20

Soon after a quarter million German troops surrendered to Allied forces at the port city of Bizerte, Tunisia—effectively ending the North Africa campaign—Ernie’s bosses suggested he return to America for a much-needed rest. Ernie politely rebuffed their request and insisted on sticking around for the invasion of Sicily, which he planned to cover from the deck of an American warship, the USS Biscayne.

It was during the Sicilian campaign that Ernie first tried to write in depth about soldiers experiencing battle fatigue. I say “tried” because the military’s censors wouldn’t approve the story for transmission back to the States.

Ralph G. Martin was a sergeant in the Army serving as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. One day he found Ernie at a press camp in Sicily, morose and drunk, soon after the censor’s axed his story. Pyle asked Martin to sit down, then read aloud the typescript of the column. “He read it with a great deal of feeling,” Martin remembered after the war.

“He was bitter,” Martin recalled. “He was angry. He was almost in tears.”

Around the same time Ernie wrote that column, General George S. Patton slapped and humiliated two soldiers under his command who had admitted to him they were suffering from attacks of “nerves.”

Pyle knew about the slappings, but he wrote nothing about either incident. Nobody did.

Shortly past noon on August 3, 1943, General Patton arrived at the 15th Evacuation Hospital, near Nicosia. On a stool in the middle of the ward, a private from the 26th Infantry, Charles H. Kuhl, slouched in silence. His medical chart said he was in a “psychoneurosis anxiety state” with a fever of 102.2 degrees. He was also battling malaria and chronic diarrhea.

When the General asked Kuhl where he was wounded, Kuhl confessed he wasn’t physically hurt. “I can’t take the shelling anymore,” he told Patton.

The General flew into a rage and slapped Kuhl across the face with folded gloves. “You coward, you get out of this tent!” he shouted. “You can’t stay in here with these brave, wounded Americans.”

Then he grabbed Kuhl by the collar and dragged him to the entrance of the ward. With a shove and a kick, Kuhl stumbled out into the Sicilian sun. “Don’t admit this sonuvabitch,” Patton bellowed at the doctors who were staring at him in astonishment. “I don’t want yellow-bellied bastards like him hiding their lousy cowardice around here, stinking up this place of honor.”

After a brief evacuation to North Africa for treatment, Kuhl was eventually returned to his unit. He landed at Normandy on D-Day in 1944. After the war, he worked in a factory in South Bend, Indiana and died of a heart attack in 1971.

A week after Patton slapped Kuhl, he was visiting another evacuation hospital, this one near Santo Stefano, when he came across Paul G. Bennett, a gunner from South Carolina. Bennet was dehydrated, feverish, and struggling with having witnessed his best friend being severely wounded.

When Patton came upon the “confused, weak, and listless” Bennet, he demanded to know what was wrong with the trembling man.

“Your nerves, hell,” he shouted in disbelief at Bennet. “You are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son-of-a-bitch!”

“You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. I ought to shoot you myself right now, goddam you.”

The General then upholstered his pistol and waved it in Bennet’s face. After striking him with the flat of his hand, he yelled to the hospital’s commander that he wanted Bennet removed immediately.

Patton then took a breath and turned to leave. Then he stopped. He turned back to Bennet again and clubbed him in the head hard enough to knock Bennet’s helmet liner from his head.

A few moments later, in an adjacent ward, Patton broke into tears. “I can’t help it,” he said through sobs. “It breaks me down to see you brave boys.” With tears streaming down his face, he shrieked, “It makes my blood boil to think of a yellow bastard being babied.”

Once he had composed himself, Patton headed toward his car parked outside the ward. As he was climbing in, Patton told the hospital’s commander that he would not tolerate “cowardly bastards hanging around our hospitals.”

“We’ll probably have to shoot them sometime anyway, or we’ll raise a breed of morons,” he added.

A reporter for the London Daily Mail who arrived at that moment also heard Patton say that, “There’s no such thing as shellshock. It’s an invention of the Jews.”

Ernie didn’t care for General Patton. I have to believe it was because this was how the General treated his men. It wasn’t right.

Patton never exhibited genuine remorse for his actions. After thrashing Bennett, he wrote in his diary that he had likely saved Bennet’s soul—“if he had one.”

Once news of Patton’s actions became common knowledge among the press corps in Sicily, Demaree Bess of the Saturday Evening Post assured General Dwight D. Eisenhower that, “We’re Americans first and correspondents second.” At the same time, however, striking a subordinate was a court-martial offense. “Every mother would figure her son is next” to be slapped, Bess added.

Eisenhower was not to worry, though. The reporters agreed to kill the story “for the sake of the American effort.” Of the sixty American and British reporters in Sicily and North Africa at that time—including Ernie—not one wrote a word.

On Eisenhower’s insistence, Patton was to apologize to the soldiers he slapped.

Private Kuhl later speculated that Patton “was suffering a little battle fatigue himself.”

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