General Patton’s Thoughts on the Power of Prayer


My youngest son has a Living Wax Museum assignment due for his 5th grade class tomorrow. He decided that he would be General George S. Patton, Jr. He’s been working on learning all he can about Patton, but what follows was in none of the books he checked out. I first shared it on the blog back on Jan 20, 2011. What did General Patton think when it came to the subject of prayer? Plenty. So here is the story again, from the archives…

I’ve been a bit martial in this space lately. Don’t let it scare you. Previously, in a post on the Jesus Prayer, I mentioned that when engaged, there is no time for analysis or planning. True, to a point.

But in leading up to the fighting, there is time for this activity. Sometimes hours, days, and even weeks of it. It is vital to the success of military operations that this time be used wisely. And as this story will attest to, here also, the power of prayer is necessary. We may have forgotten how powerful prayer is.

I quipped once that when you don’t know where your next blog post is going to come from, pray. And sure enough, what I share with you today is a story that someone e-mailed me, prompted by, no doubt, the Holy Spirit. It’s a great story summed up by the title of this post. It also reminds me of Our Lord’s short parable about the Kingdom of Heaven,

The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened.

Yeast is what each one of us is. And our mission then is to help the dough of humanity rise, even when the world is at war. And that is what the story of Catholic Chaplain James H. O’Neill is a reflection of. Written in his own hand, the following story was originally published in a government document in the year 1950. Later, around the time the movie Patton hit the theaters, Our Sunday Visitor (August 15, 1971) published the account as well. Chaplain O’Neill was the Chief Chaplain of Patton’s Third Army, in command of over 485 chaplains throughout General Pattons command.

General Patton wrote a book entitled War As I Knew It. His thoughts on prayer don’t account for much there, but you will find out what they are below. Colonel O’Neill’s account could be entitled in a similar way, perhaps as Prayer As I Know It. O’Neill would retire from the Army as a Brigadier General, awarded a Bronze Star by General Patton for the prayer he penned during the Battle for Bastogne leading up to the Battle of the Bulge.

He writes the following account under his title of Monsignor.

The True Story of the Patton Prayer
by Monsignor James H. O’Neill

Many conflicting and some untrue stories have been printed about General George S. Patton and the Third Army Prayer. Some have had the tinge of blasphemy and disrespect for the Deity. Even in “War As I Knew It” by General Patton, the footnote on the prayer by Colonel Paul D. Harkins, Patton’s Deputy Chief of Staff, while containing the elements of a funny story about the General and his Chaplain, is not the true account of the prayer Incident or its sequence.

As the Chief Chaplain of the Third Army throughout the five campaigns on the Staff of General Patton, I should have some knowledge of the event because at the direction of General Patton I composed the now world famous Prayer, and wrote Training Letter No. 5, which constitutes an integral, but untold part, of the prayer story. These incidents, narrated in sequence, should serve to enhance the memory of the man himself, and cause him to be enshrined by generations to come as one of the greatest of our soldiers. He had all the traits of military leadership, fortified by genuine trust in God, intense love of country, and high faith in the American soldier.

He had no use for half-measures. He wrote this line a few days before his death: “Anyone in any walk of life who is content with mediocrity is untrue to himself and to American tradition.” He was true to the principles of his religion, Episcopalian, and was regular in Church attendance and practices, unless duty made his presence impossible.

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 card:

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.

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, or God.”

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.

Later, Chaplain O’Neill writes,

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.

Lest we forget the power of prayer, it’s good to read reminders like this from time to time. Read the rest of Monsignor O’Neills story on prayer and Training Letter No. 5  here.

Updates: Civil War Army Chaplains,
Confederate Chaplain and Diplomat.
Union Army Chaplain declared Venerable.

  • Anonymous

    Just finished reading a novel by Scott Thurow about this very same battle. I mean 'just' like last night! One of the generals talks at length about God. He believed they were fighting Hitler and totalitarianism because God wants each of us to be an individual, not a 'cog'. Odd that these two arrived in my brain in 24 hours.Marilyn

  • Frank

    Marilyn, perhaps this comment of yours is another prompt for me. I've never read any of Scott Thurow's books before. But it looks like I will be reading Ordinary Heroes, for sure.Thanks!

  • M. Heller

    Just came across your blog today via Eric Sammon. I have a little bit of family trivia that confirms General Patton's concern for the prayer life of his troops. My great uncle on my grandmother's side was a Benedictine priest in Germany during the second world war. Along with many of his brother priests he was sent to the Russian front as a medic. After the war, his group of Benedictines was given a monastery in Bad Wimpfen, a medieval town not far from Heidelberg. General Patton sent word to the monastery that he needed an English speaking priest to say mass for the army. My uncle, Fr. Andreas Michalski, was given the assignment. He always spoke of General Patton as someone who had the utmost concern for his men, even to the point of making sure that they were able to attend Mass. I finally got to meet my uncle in the 1970s when the U.S. Army flew him to the States for a visit. So, in my family at least, when we think of General Patton, we think of someone who put a high priority on spiritual matters.

    • http://none Rich Pasco

      Father Andreas played an important part in our Family’s and Troops’s spiritual lives. He obtained permission, on our behalf, to baptize our 3rd child, 2nd son at the St. Peter’s Abbey. He was our contract Troop Chaplain 1965-1967 & 1976-1978 during my 1st and 3rd German tours. I have a few more anecdotes to pass on about this wonderful person and priest if provided an email address.

      • Frank Weathers

        My e-mail address is over yonder. ===>>

  • Frank

    Thank you for that additional slice of life on General Patton and your family history. Those kinds of stories need to be retained by families and passed on. Thanks for sharing it with us here!

  • Ronald M. Herrell

    I was stationed in Heilbronn near Bad Whimpfen, Germany from March 1966 thru Setember 1967. A good friend was the base commander’s driver. He would drive to the monastery in
    Bad Wimpfen each Sunday morning to escort Fr. Andreas Michalski to our kassern for mass. It was my privilage to ride back with them on occasion. To Mr. Heller: Your uncle was a good and kind man who took the time to make us welcome among his community of priests. One special Sunday was were invited to stay and eat the noon meal with them. I have vivid memories of that time, of the food, and how strange their vow of silence seemed to me a non-catholic. I greatly value his introduction to the sacred and unselfish religous life held by the monks. He told me about his meeting Generel Patton in front of the church during the war. That story was in the Stars and Stripes GI paper while I was there. I’m proud to say I saw first hand the community of Bad Wimpfen, the monastery, and hold dear the love expressed by its Catholic leaders.

  • mary plant

    Hi my name is mary plant, nee olsen. My father was commander of the 101st ordnance division in Heilbron Germany. My father and Father Drew (base chaplain in Heilbron) were instrumental in sending your uncle to the united states. My mother still recalls his great adventure (especially him receiving the key to Atlantic City). She told me that everytime Father Andreas requested to visit the US, the abbey would turn him down. I am 55 years old now, and some of my fondest memories as a child were Father Andreas and visiting him in Bad Wimpfen. My folks and there seven children loved him and kept in touch with him and Father Drew when we returned stateside.