Patton's Prayer

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Alex Kershaw
December 23, 2023

George Patton was in a foul mood. His Third Army was stalled in Lorraine, worn out after a fall of depressing attrition. Every day, it seemed, the weather got worse. “There is about four inches of liquid mud over everything,” he wrote his wife Beatrice, “and it rains all the time, not hard but steadily.”

It was high time, he decided, to muster some divine intervention.

The legendary and devoutly Christian George S. Patton before the Battle of the Bulge.

Around 11 am on December 8, 1944, Patton picked up the telephone in his office in the Caserne Molifor, an old French Army barracks in the city of Nancy that was being used as Third Army headquarters.

Patton called 52-year-old Chief Chaplain of the Third Army, James H. O’Neill.

“Do you have a good prayer for weather?” asked Patton. “We must do something about those rains if we are to win the war.”  

This was, of course, a highly unusual request, even from a character as unpredictable and quixotic as Patton.

O’Neill told Patton he would look for a suitable prayer. He couldn’t find one so he created his own, jotting it down on a 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. Amen.

Patton’s prayer card, distributed to some 250,000 men in his Third Army.

O’Neill pulled on his overcoat, walked across the barracks and then stood before Patton.

O’Neill held out the card.

Patton took the card and examined it.

Patton was pleased.

“Have 250,000 copies printed,” he said, “and see to it that every man in the Third Army gets one.”

O’Neill was surprised by the number: “This was certainly doing something about the weather in a big way.”

“Very well, sir!” replied O’Neill.

“Chaplain, sit down for a moment; I want to talk to you about this business of prayer.”

O’Neill did as he was ordered. He had grown to admire Patton. The general cared that his men got hot meals whenever possible, that they had dry socks.

He had once seen Patton looking after a wounded man, injecting him with morphine, remaining with him until an ambulance arrived.

“Chaplain, how much praying is being done in the Third Army?” asked Patton.

“Does the General mean by chaplains, or by the men?”

“By everybody.”

“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.”

“Up to now, in the Third Army, God has been very good to us,” said Patton. “We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats...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.”

Patton concluded the meeting by telling O’Neill that soldiers should pray wherever they found themselves; if they didn’t, they’d sooner or later go to pieces – “crack up.”

O’Neill returned to his quarters and issued a directive, in Patton’s name, which would be distributed to the Third Army’s 486 chaplains, representing thirty-two denominations, and senior officers in more than twenty divisions:

“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 victory. Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.”

On 14 December, the last of Patton’s 250,000 prayer cards were distributed to his men. The timing of their delivery could not have been better.  Just two days later, calamity struck on the Western Front: Hitler launched his last desperate gamble to change the outcome of the war – the surprise strike by over 200,000 troops that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

A depiction of Patton praying during the Battle of the Bulge.

Alone among Allied Army commanders, Patton emerged from the crisis with his reputation enhanced. He brilliantly pivoted his Third Army, sending his favorite division, the Fourth Armored, to relieve the besieged 101st Airborne at Bastogne.

But it was not until 23 December, more than a week into the deadliest battle for the U.S. of WWII, that the tide turned decisively in favor of the Allies. That morning, Patton’s prayer was dramatically answered, the general believed, when the weather finally changed.  

The dawn skies were a glory to behold. The dense cloud cover had gone. In the words of one GI, “it was the war’s most beautiful sunrise.”  

Patton was in his headquarters in Luxembourg City. He looked out of his window, delighted to see blue above, not gray.

“What a glorious day for killing Germans!” Patton would note in his diary.

Air controllers at Allied air bases announced “visibility unlimited.”  A massive armada could finally take to the air. Here was the Allies’ chance to halt Hitler’s forces and destroy their supply lines. The Germans never recovered from ensuing devastation and, by the end of January 1945, the battle would end in what Winston Churchill described as an “ever-famous American victory.”

When the skies finally cleared, the Allies dropped vital supplies to the defenders of Bastogne.

 Patton did not forget to thank his Chief Chaplain for his prayer.  

“God damn!” Patton exclaimed one day. “That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here, I want to pin a medal on him.”

Father O’Neill was brought to see Patton.

“Chaplain, you’re the most popular man in this headquarters,” said Patton. “You sure stand in good with the Lord and soldiers.”

Patton then pinned the Bronze Star on O’Neill’s chest, making him the only man to be awarded a medal in World War II for writing a prayer.

O’Neill recalled: “As General Patton rushed his divisions… to the relief of the beleaguered Bastogne, the prayer was answered… It was bad news for the Germans but was much to the delight of the American forecasters who were equally surprised at the turn-about - the rains and the fogs ceased…General Patton prayed for fair weather for Battle. He got it.”