In early December 1944, Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commander of the United States' 3rd Army, stood with his troops at Germany's doorstep. He'd pushed his men across France toward Germany with furious speed during summer and early fall, but in the last months, as he drove through France's Lorraine region toward the Saar River, progress stalled. Fuel and supplies were running short, and perhaps even more deviling, the weather wouldn't cooperate. Driving rains had mired his troops and grounded the fighter planes and bombers needed for air support.
On Dec. 8, Patton turned to a higher power to clear the skies. He asked Chaplain James H. O'Neill if he knew of a "good prayer for the weather," according to military historian and Patton expert Kevin M. Hymel. "We must do something about these rains," Patton said, "if we are to win the war."
After some thought and research, O'Neill came up with the following:
"Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen."
O'Neill typed the prayer onto an index card, and on the flip side typed a Christmas greeting from Patton. Patton ordered 250,000 copies of the card printed and distributed to every man in the 3rd Army.
Throughout history, soldiers have called upon their gods for protection and victory over their enemies. But Patton's now legendary prayer was extraordinary in its presumption and audacity, said Hymel. "There were four other American commanders in the European Theater during that time, and none of them were asking God to fix the weather."
The prayer also makes one question what led Patton to his conviction that he could control the weather? Some clues might be found in his privileged upbringing in what is now San Marino.
"As a child, if he asked for something, he got it," Hymel said. "Patton got the message early on, if you ask, you will receive."
Patton, born Nov. 11, 1885, and called "Georgie" as a child, was the cherished only son of George Smith Patton and Ruth Wilson. (The couple also had a daughter born two years later, Anne, who was called Anita or Nita.) Patton Sr., a prominent attorney and the first mayor of San Marino, had attended the Virginia Military Institute, which George Jr. attended for a year before transferring to West Point. George Sr.'s father had commanded a Confederate regiment during the Civil War and was killed in Winchester, Va. Wilson's father, Benjamin David Wilson — the namesake of Mt. Wilson — had been the mayor of Los Angeles, a state senator and a powerful landowner.
Patton's childhood was an idyllic one, full of hunting, fishing, riding ponies around his parents' ranch and swimming in Lake Vineyard, which is now San Marino's Lacy Park. He was raised on stories of heroism; at night his father read to him Shakespeare's plays, the Odyssey and the Iliad, Scottish legends, Civil War tales and Bible stories.
Little was denied Georgie. He had his own carpentry shop, a ping-pong table, horses, swords, an army of toy soldiers and a shotgun, Hymel said. Home-schooled until he was almost 12, he was spared from having to compete with his peers. And when he did start attending traditional school, it was rough going as Georgie had trouble reading and writing. Some historians suspect he had dyslexia.
Not only did Georgie possess the unconditional love of his parents, but that of his doting Aunt Nannie, who lived with the family. Her devotion to Patton was twofold: She loved her nephew but she was also "in love with his father," Hymel said. She was so enamored with George Sr. that she even tried to accompany him and her sister on their honeymoon. "Because she could not have George Sr., she devoted her life to George Jr., and praised anything the boy did," Hymel said.
Patton's religious beliefs were also set in childhood. His parents were devout Episcopalians who helped found the first Protestant church in the San Gabriel Valley, the Church of Our Saviour, according to Kenneth Veronda, headmaster of Southwestern Academy in San Marino. Patton used to pray nightly to a painting of two men he thought were God and Jesus but were really Civil War heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Hymel said. "Patton was raised to believe that he had a firsthand relationship with God."
And perhaps he did. In December 1944, his prayer was answered. The weather miraculously cleared (it did eventually snow, but the prayer hadn't mentioned snow), and Patton was able to get his army moving again. When the Germans launched their final attack against Allied Forces, the Battle of the Bulge, Patton swung his men north toward the town of Bastogne, where German forces surrounded American troops from the 1st Army. On Dec. 26, he broke through the German defenses and relieved Bastogne.
Of all of Patton's World War II military successes, it was this effort at Bastogne, said Hymel, that Patton considered his "most brilliant operation and outstanding achievement of the war."