(Howard College Entre Nous, 1947)
In 1942, Harold “Bill” Patton’s student days at Howard College were interrupted by a draft notice. After completing basic training (and his final examinations at Howard), he arrived in the California desert where he served as a water engineer for General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Bill remained stateside in California while General Patton’s regiment invaded North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium. Bill Patton was deployed to Europe in 1944 following D-Day, where he rejoined the Third Army. It was here that Patton was captured and seriously injured by German Troops. He survived capture, and received a Purple Heart for his service. He returned to Howard in 1946 to finish a degree in education. Today, Bill gathers each week with a group of veterans at the VA Hospital in Birmingham, to share stories. On a recent afternoon in August, Bill recalled his memories of Howard College and his experience in the war:
Bill: I had to work my way through college [for] 30 cents an hour. I painted Main, [cleaned] the floors [in the] science building, dormitories. During the winter, I had to fire the boiler that kept the campus warm. A big black man did it in the daytime. He and I, in cold weather, would shovel 12 tons of coal to keep the whole campus warm. And I started at 129 pounds and I got this big by shoveling coal, which later on saved my life when three hand grenades went off when I got captured. Not one piece of 52 shrapnel, not one piece, went all the way through my body. They are all still in there except they took one out.
Bill: I was at Howard College on Sunday afternoon, [a] beautiful Sunday. [I] caught the trolley down to the Alabama Theater, saw the movie, came out. The streets were jammed. The 3rd extra edition newspaper was out…Pearl Harbor was attacked that morning. That night, my brother quit college and joined the Marines. Everybody was in shock. Well, you quit college. You go fight. I was young enough,…just turned 17, that I spent most of my time studying so I didn’t let it boonboggle my brain much but everybody was in awe…I stayed [at Howard] for 2 years until I got drafted when I turned 18. I lacked 7 days taking my final exams. They gave me a 7 day furlough to go back to Howard and take…exams and then I got up with my outfit in Ft. McPherson, Georgia.
Bill: I was in the army. I got drafted, I didn’t volunteer. [I served in] the European theater with General George Patton. In fact, after I finished basic training in Mississippi…my first job was to secure all of General Patton’s waterworks in California [and] the desert area. 336,000 square miles. But then General Patton left maneuvers, he went through North Africa and Italy and France and Belgium and I got back with him before I got captured. He would come up to the front and he…[stood] up in his Jeep and his dog and be right there in the front lines. He was awesome…In fact, I named my first son George Patton.
Bill: General Patton had his army on our side of the Rhine River. The other two armies were back in Belgium and France. He heard the Russians were gonna be in Berlin in 5 days…[He] woke us up at midnight [to have us] build him a pontoon bridge across the Rhine River…[It was] a quarter-mile across. We had our 40 boats lined up on our side of the Rhine River. Suddenly, 5 machine guns with tracer bullets set grass afire around all the boats and everybody ran behind a big castle but me and my buddy, we stayed with our boat. Suddenly, my sergeant said, “You’re job now is to go over and wipe out 5 machine guns.” He said, “Take a squad of infantrymen.” I was the first boat across…Halfway across the Rhine River, those 5 machine guns zeroed in on my boat. Killed most of [the people in my boat]. The rest of them were crying. I stood up in the back of the boat with my oar, hit ’em in the head as far as I could reach. They stopped crying and started paddling. But by the time we got across, all of ’em were killed but 3 of us. My buddy landed the boat and said, “Patton help me!” and [then] they killed him. I found myself in the water and lost all my equipment. Finally, I crawled out on the little sandy beachhead and immediately a hand grenade came down the embankment. They looked like a soup bowl with a little handle. [It] landed a foot from my left shoulder. I had time to pull my helmet over my head, it went off, two more came in. I was laying there with 52 pieces of shrapnel in me…The next morning…4 Germans with their guns kicked me, rolled me over, and I came to. [I had been] captured…
Bill: …When they captured me, we walked 20 kilometers through little German towns. Nothing but old men and women and their kids. They’d hit you with sticks and spit on you…That night, a big German officer interrogated everybody but me. I asked him,…”What are you doing with my buddies?” He said, “You just listen.” He put 9 in a pigpen and shot ’em and left two of us hurt real bad…One of the other guys was hurt real bad. But that’s when I made a mistake. I had a letter in my pocket and that’s when he found out my name was Patton. So…they put me in a field hospital with five German doctors [who were] cutting arms and legs off [of prisoners] with no anesthesia. [They] stripped me down naked, put me up on the operating table. Next thing I knew, it was the next day, I was bouncing along naked in a one-horse wagon. An old German man [was] taking me to a big hospital where they operated all morning. [He] fixed my broke back where I could play college ball back at Howard. [They] put me on the 5th floor with 2 other POWs. They were skin and bones. They had been there a long time. Their first meal came: potato peelings and water. I didn’t eat for 6 days. But finally, the medics came. In the meantime, the next day after I got captured, General Patton had my engineers build him a bridge in broad daylight. 76 were killed. They got every name in a book. He came across the Rhine River, stopped, urinated in the Rhine River (got a picture of him). He came across, got in his halftracks, came through a little town…
…[He] put a pistol under my pillow. I figured I was liberated. I say I was prisoner of war 2 days but it took 3 more for the medics to get there. Every day the doctors and nurses came and moved the pistol, [then I would] put it back under my pillow. Finally, medics came, flew us into Paris…[they] put me on the operating table. They said, “Patton you’re blowed up worse than anybody we’ve ever had that lived.” [I] layed there for 2 weeks and recuperated. While I was in the hospital, General Patton and General Eisenhower both came to my bed and gave me my purple heart. In fact, I kept the Purple Heart until I came down to the VA one day and lost it. It’s somewhere here in the VA.
Bill: The streets were jammed, flags were waving from every window. They said, “The war’s over!” May the 8th. They turned our cattle cart around. Put 250 POWs on liberty ships. [It took us] 22 days to get back home. Ran into some icebergs…In those interim 22 days, some of the POWs gained 40 pounds. They had garbage cans full of milkshakes all over the ship. Got to New York City, they stopped traffic, took us right to Grand Central Station, put us on a train to Atlanta, Georgia. Got to Atlanta, hitchhiked back to Chattanooga and had my first party in Chattanooga after I got home. They gave me a 60 day furlough to recuperate and the next morning I got up, hitch-hiked down to Ider and a friend of the family fixed me a lunch, also got me a ride…a log truck to our farm. Got there. Nobody was there. Papa [was] way over in the field so I started towards him and he started towards me…Papa fell down on his knees. But we got together. I hitch hiked and got back and started Howard College in January session of 1946…finished March the 17th, 1948.
Oral History Interview with Howard Patton. Birmingham Veterans Administration, August 2014
Howard College Entre Nous, 1947.