1. Life & Culture

One great idea during WWII changed, and probably saved, lives

Two lieutenants prepare to embark on a suicide mission.
Eugene Patterson during World War II.
Eugene Patterson during World War II. [ Courtesy of the Patterson family ]
Published Mar. 11, 2021
Updated Mar. 11, 2021

I have never bought into the term the “Greatest Generation” to describe Americans who fought their way through the Depression and World War II. My resistance is not just because I am a baby boomer, born in 1948, three years after the end of the war.

Any honest look at history reveals that every generation has its strengths and flaws. The Greatest Generation may have beaten the Nazis, but they left some cleaning up for us to do on such issues as racial justice and gender equality. Subsequent generations have had to clean up after us.

What every generation deserves is an honest accounting of their stories. The normal cycles of life and death have taken from us almost all the eyewitnesses of WWII, a cycle accelerated by COVID-19. They say old soldiers never die, but they do. It’s up to us to make sure their stories live on.

Which brings me to a hotel ballroom in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2003. It was a reunion of the remaining soldiers who made up the Tenth Armored Division. They had stories to tell of their invasion of Europe to fight the Nazis, of their march toward Germany with Patton’s army, and of the climactic battle that helped win the war.

A great German counterattack in late 1944 attempted to break through Allied lines and push back the American forces. The Germans did not break the Allied line, but created a huge bulge in it. History calls that great clash, which took months, the Battle of the Bulge.

The old men sitting around that table in Kalamazoo were just kids when they became the spear point of history.

According to a self-published account by someone who was there, Gen. Joseph McChristian sat at a table with other veterans and their guests. His wife, Dempsie, asked him a question: “Joe, did you ever give an order in World War II that you regretted?”

“One,” he replied.

Against his better judgment and with futile resistance to direct orders from above, he sent soldiers on a suicide mission. He never learned what happened to them.

Across the river into Germany

When Lts. Gene Patterson and Jim Flood learned what the leaders of Army Intelligence (G-2) had in mind, they agreed they could not in good conscience order any soldier under their command to undertake such a dangerous mission. If it had to be done, they would do it themselves.

After continuous battles, American forces encamped on one side of the Saar River, which marked the border between France and Germany. The German troops were on the other side. The river was narrow enough that the enemies could see each other from the opposite bank. There was no shooting — yet. To break the stalemate, G-2 wanted a detailed reconnaissance report of what was on the German side.

Everyone knew there were sentries and minefields. To the higher-ups, it didn’t matter. They wanted someone to cross the river and report back.

Patterson and Flood made an unlikely pair. Patterson was a redheaded 21-year-old Georgia farm boy from the little town of Adel, near another called Sparks. People would say, “Adel is so close to hell, you can see Sparks!”

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Eugene Patterson served in World War II before eventually leading the Times.
Eugene Patterson served in World War II before eventually leading the Times. [ Courtesy of the Patterson family ]

Flood was a young New York City cop. What they shared was physical and moral courage and loyalty to the men under their command. They made plans to cross the river just before midnight.

Patterson was no daredevil. He talked about being “scared to his boots” in battle, but not in front of his men. From atop a tank, he had already shot and killed a German soldier and would say he regretted it. Was there any way now to avoid almost certain death?

He called on a corporal by the name of Herb Stone. Imagine, if you will, a young Jewish man from Brooklyn on the brink of an invasion of Nazi Germany. Stone had aspirations to become a civil engineer and had been trained in a special unit to solve technical problems in the field. When his lieutenant explained the problem, Stone weighed in with a solution.

Patterson and Stone drove along the bank of the river until they came to a building that gave them the best vantage point from a second-floor window to the German side. They had with them high-powered binoculars and scopes, mechanical pencils, maps and onion skin paper, the kind used for tracing.

Patterson looked through his scope and could see everything: bunkers, minefields, trenches, foxholes, even chow lines and latrines. As his lieutenant dictated what he saw, the corporal sketched a kind of blueprint to overlay the map.

It was handed to a sergeant in a fast jeep and driven off to headquarters, with prayers raised and fingers crossed.

By 11 p.m., Patterson and Flood were preparing for their midnight raid. The plan was to cross the river in two rubber boats that were attached to ropes. When they got near the other side, they would exit the boats, which would then be pulled back to the American side. They would learn what they could and, if they survived, swim back across the Saar.

When I first heard the story, I wondered how they could swim suited up in “olive drab caps, dark sweaters and tight pants tucked into tall wool stockings, tennis shoes, pistols cinched tight in shoulder holsters and spare clips wrapped in flannel, knives sheathed tight to shins.” They jumped up and down to make sure they made no sound. They blackened their faces.

Ready to go, they sat sweating next to a stove in a small house where they could hear the boats being inflated outside. This was it.

There was another sound. A jeep. It roared up. The driver jumped out with a message from G-2. They were delighted by Herb Stone’s drawings. The suicide mission was called off.

‘Shall we tell him?’

Yes, said Gen. McChristian, he had tried to dissuade G-2 from sending those boys on a suicide mission. His failure was the one thing he regretted.

By coincidence, at that same table with the general sat two old soldiers, Patterson and Stone. They had stayed in touch over 60 years. Stone had once written of Patterson: “I can honestly say I know of no other officer in the entire division that had more respect and admiration from the men under his command than our ‘Follow Me’ platoon leader.” With a wry smile, Patterson turned to Stone and pointed to the general: “Shall we tell him?” And so they did.

Stone kept in touch with Patterson until Patterson’s death in 2013 at the age of 89. Stone lived the last 43 years of his life in New Orleans, where he built a career in agricultural exporting and served as the first executive director of the Southern U.S. Trade Association. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.

After the war, Patterson left the Army and became a reporter at a small newspaper in Texas. He would go on to become the editor of the Atlanta Constitution and in 1967 won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, supporting civil rights for Black Americans. For 17 years he served as editor of this newspaper, then the St. Petersburg Times. He hired me in 1977 as one of America’s first newspaper writing coaches. If he had been killed trying to cross that river in 1944, I have no idea what would have become of me.

Dark times — like the ones we are living through — create anxiety, fear, resentment. But they can also inspire gratitude. I give thanks for the life and legacy of Gene Patterson, but also for Herb Stone, a man I never met, who one day long ago, standing on the precipice of history, had a great idea.