One of the most memorable scenes in the movie Patton (a film chock full of memorable scenes) has the famous World War II general, frustrated over the negative effects of inclement weather on the movement of his troops, ordering his chaplain to compose a "weather prayer." The chaplain responds rather incredulously, telling General Patton that it would take "an awfully heavy rug . . . praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man." Nevertheless, he dutifully composes a prayer. The weather subsides, the army advances, and Patton has the chaplain decorated for meritorious service.
Twenty years before that 1970 Hollywood embellishment,
Monsignor James H. O'Neill, Chief Chaplain of the Third Army under Patton, had
set the record straight in an official government document written in response
to the mythology which was already growing up around "General George S.
Patton and the Third Army Prayer." It was not until 1971 that the paper
received widespread distribution through its publication in the October 6 issue
of Review of the News (probably not a publication I would quote from
except under special circumstances, such as this one).
The incident of the now famous
Patton Prayer commenced with a telephone call to the Third Army Chaplain on the
morning of December 8, 1944, when the Third Army Headquarters were located in
the Caserne Molifor in Nancy, France: "This is General Patton; do you have
a good prayer for weather? We must do something about those rains if we are to
win the war." My reply was that I know where to look for such a prayer,
that I would locate, and report within the hour.
As I hung up the telephone
receiver, about eleven in the morning, I looked out on the steadily falling
rain, "immoderate" I would call it--the same rain that had plagued
Patton's Army throughout the Moselle and Saar Campaigns from September until
now, December 8. The few prayer books at hand contained no formal prayer on
weather that might prove acceptable to the Army Commander.
Keeping his immediate objective in
mind, I typed an original and an improved copy on a 5" x 3" filing
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
I pondered the question, What use
would General Patton make of the prayer? Surely not for private devotion. If he
intended it for circulation to chaplains or others, with Christmas not far
removed, it might he proper to type the Army Commander's Christmas Greetings on
the reverse side. This would please the recipient, and anything that pleased
the men I knew would please him:
To each officer and soldier in the
Third United States Army, I Wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in
your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to
complete victory. May God's blessings rest upon each of you on this Christmas
Day. G.S. Patton, Jr, Lieutenant General, Commanding, Third United States Army.
This done, I donned my heavy trench
coat, crossed the quadrangle of the old French military barracks, and reported
to General Patton. He read the prayer copy, returned it to me with a very
casual directive, "Have 250,000 copies printed and see to it that every
man in the Third Army gets one." The size of the order amazed me; this was
certainly doing something about the weather in a big way. But I said nothing
but the usual, "Very well, Sir!"
Recovering, I invited his attention
to the reverse side containing the Christmas Greeting, with his name and rank
typed. "Very good," he said, with a smile of approval. "If the
General would sign the card, it would add a personal touch that I am sure the
men would like." He took his place at his desk, signed the card, returned
it to me and then Said: "Chaplain, sit down for a moment; I want to talk
to you about this business of prayer."
He rubbed his face in his hands,
was silent for a moment, then rose and walked over to the high window, and
stood there with his back toward me as he looked out on the falling rain. As
usual, he was dressed stunningly, and his six-foot-two powerfully built
physique made an unforgettable silhouette against the great window.
The General Patton I saw there was
the Army Commander to whom the welfare of the men under him was a matter of
Personal responsibility. Even in the heat of combat he could take time out to
direct new methods to prevent trench feet, to see to it that dry socks went
forward daily with the rations to troops on the line, to kneel in the mud
administering morphine and caring for a wounded soldier until the ambulance
Came. What was coming now?
"Chaplain, how much praying is
being done in the Third Army?" was his question. I parried: "Does the
General mean by chaplains, or by the men?" "By everybody," he
replied. To this I countered: "I am afraid to admit it, but I do not
believe that much praying is going on. When there Is fighting, everyone prays,
but now with this constant rain -- when things are quiet, dangerously quiet,
men just sit and wait for things to happen. Prayer out here is difficult. Both
chaplains and men are removed from a special building with a steeple. Prayer to
most of them is a formal, ritualized affair, involving special posture and a
liturgical setting. I do not believe that much praying is being done." The
General left the window, and again seated himself at his desk, leaned back in
his swivel chair, toying with a long lead pencil between his index fingers.
“Chaplain, I am a strong believer
in Prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by
working, and by Praying. Any great military operation takes careful planning,
or thinking. Then you must have well-trained troops to carry it out: that's
working. But between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown.
That unknown spells defeat or victory, success or failure. It is the reaction
of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes. Some people call that
getting the breaks; I call it God. God has His part, or margin in everything,
That's where prayer comes in.
“Up to now, in the Third Army, God
has been very good to us. We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats,
no famine, no epidemics. This is because a lot of people back home are praying
for us. We were lucky in Africa, in Sicily, and in Italy. Simply because people
prayed. But we have to pray for ourselves, too. A good soldier is not made
merely by making him think and work. There is something in every soldier that
goes deeper than thinking or working--it's his ‘guts.’ It is something that he
has built in there: it is a world of truth and power that is higher than
himself. Great living is not all output of thought and work. A man has to have
intake as well. I don't know what you call it, but I call it Religion, Prayer,
He talked about Gideon in the
Bible, said that men should pray no matter where they were, in church or out of
it, that if they did not pray, sooner or later they would "crack up."
To all this I commented agreement, that one of the major training objectives of
my office was to help soldiers recover and make their lives effective in this
third realm, prayer. It would do no harm to re-impress this training on
chaplains. We had about 486 chaplains in the Third Army at that time,
representing 32 denominations. Once the Third Army had become operational, my
mode of contact with the chaplains had been chiefly through Training Letters
issued from time to time to the Chaplains in the four corps and the 22 to 26
divisions comprising the Third Army. Each treated of a variety of subjects of
corrective or training value to a chaplain working with troops in the field.
“I wish you would put out a
Training Letter on this subject of Prayer to all the chaplains; write about
nothing else, just the importance of prayer. Let me see it before you send it.
We've got to get not only the chaplains but every man in the Third Army to
pray. We must ask God to stop these rains. These rains are that margin that
hold defeat or victory. If we all pray, it will be like what Dr. Carrel said
[the allusion was to a press quote some days previously when Dr. Alexis Carrel,
one of the foremost scientists, described prayer "as one of the most
powerful forms of energy man can generate"], it will be like plugging in
on a current whose source is in Heaven. I believe that prayer completes that
circuit. It is power.”
With that the General arose from
his chair, a sign that the interview was ended. I returned to my field desk,
typed Training Letter No. 5 while the "copy" was "hot,"
touching on some or all of the General's reverie on Prayer, and after staff
processing, presented it to General Patton on the next day. The General read it
and without change directed that it be circulated not only to the 486
chaplains, but to every organization commander down to and including the
Three thousand two hundred copies
were distributed to every unit in the Third Army over my signature as Third
Army Chaplain. Strictly speaking, it was the Army Commander's letter, not mine.
Due to the fact that the order came directly from General Patton, distribution
was completed on December 11 and 12 in advance of its date line, December 14,
1944. Titled "Training Letter No. 5," with the salutary
"Chaplains of the Third Army," the letter continued: "At this
stage of the operations I would call upon the chaplains and the men of the Third
United States Army to focus their attention on the importance of prayer.
"Our glorious march from the
Normandy Beach across France to where we stand, before and beyond the Siegfried
Line, with the wreckage of the German Army behind us should convince the most
skeptical soldier that God has ridden with our banner. Pestilence and famine
have not touched us. We have continued in unity of purpose. We have had no
quitters; and our leadership has been masterful. The Third Army has no roster
of Retreats. None of Defeats. We have no memory of a lost battle to hand on to
our children from this great campaign. "But we are not stopping at the
Siegfried Line. Tough days may be ahead of us before we eat our rations in the
Chancellery of the Deutsches Reich.
"As chaplains it is our
business to pray. We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time
is now to intensify our faith in prayer, not alone with ourselves, but with
every believing man, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Christian in the ranks of
the Third United States Army.
"Those who pray do more for
the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is
because there are more battles than prayers. 'Hands lifted up,' said Bosuet,
'smash more battalions than hands that strike.' Gideon of Bible fame was least
in his father's house. He came from Israel's smallest tribe. But he was a
mighty man of valor. His strength lay not in his military might, but in his
recognition of God's proper claims upon his life. He reduced his Army from
thirty-two thousand to three hundred men lest the people of Israel would think
that their valor had saved them. We have no intention to reduce our vast
striking force. But we must urge, instruct, and indoctrinate every fighting man
to pray as well as fight. In Gideon's day, and in our own, spiritually alert
minorities carry the burdens and bring the victories.
“Urge all of your men to pray, not
alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray
alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day. Pray for the cessation
of immoderate rains, for good weather for Battle. Pray for the defeat of our
wicked enemy whose banner is injustice and whose good is oppression. Pray for
victory. Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.
“We must march together, all out
for God. The soldier who 'cracks up' does not need sympathy or comfort as much
as he needs strength. We are not trying to make the best of these days. It is
our job to make the most of them. Now is not the time to follow God from 'afar
off.' This Army needs the assurance and the faith that God is with us. With
prayer, we cannot fail.
"Be assured that this message on prayer has the approval, the encouragement, and the enthusiastic support of the Third United States Army Commander. With every good wish to each of you for a very Happy Christmas, and my persona congratulations for your splendid and courageous work since landing on the beach, I am," etc., etc., signed The Third Army Commander.