Patton’s Prayer: A True Story of Courage, Faith, and Victory in World War II

  • By Alex Kershaw
  • Dutton
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by James A. Percoco
  • May 27, 2024

Appealing to the Almighty during the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton’s Prayer: A True Story of Courage, Faith, and Victory in World War II

Readers familiar with the Academy Award-winning film “Patton” (1970) will recall a pivotal moment where General George S. Patton — played by George C. Scott — summons a chaplain to his headquarters. Patton asks the man for a prayer to change the bleak weather conditions in favor of his Third Army, which needed to break through to other American forces besieged in the Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne.

While some might think the scene pure Hollywood, one of America’s preeminent historians of World War II, Alex Kershaw, writes in Patton’s Prayer that the exchange did, indeed, happen. The legendarily tough Patton really did ask 52-year-old Monsignor James H. O’Neill to call upon God for clear skies so that Patton’s men could do the improbable. It’s a great tale recounted here via the same kind of pulsating narrative Kershaw has delivered in multiple books about the Second World War’s European Theater. And it is most welcome on this Memorial Day.

In mid-December 1944, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht made a last-ditch effort to prevent the Allies from slamming the door shut on Nazi Germany and sealing that regime’s fate. Since the previous June, the Allied armies had swept rapidly across France and the Low Countries, liberating them from four long years of occupation. Then, Hitler’s army surprised American forces in Belgium and Luxemburg by pushing a 60-mile “bulge” (or wedge) in American lines. The German gamble took Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and his generals by complete surprise.

Eisenhower turned to his capable but mercurial war horse, Patton, to pivot his Third Army at a 90-degree angle south of the bulge, punch a hole in Germany’s southern flank, and relieve the besieged 101st Airborne Division trapped in dire straits in Bastogne. Patton guaranteed Eisenhower success, but in the early stages of his brilliant tactical move, his troops endured severe cloud cover and winter rain. He needed a miracle.

A God-fearing man, Patton turned to the Almighty for atmospheric deliverance in the shape of a “highly unusual” prayer offered by the Catholic chaplain. Seemingly, it worked. The clouds soon broke, and the soldiers of the Third Army were able to relieve their compatriots in Bastogne with lightning speed. So gratified was Patton with the padre’s handiwork that he had the prayer printed and distributed to everyone in his 250,000-man command. It read, in part:

“Almighty and 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.”

Within days of the prayer’s utterance, the Third Army turned the tide in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, still the largest single battle in which American soldiers have fought. By its end — on January 16, 1945 — Bastogne was saved, the Germans were vanquished, and the Allies were again on the move. The war in Europe would be over just a few months later.

While the film “Patton” added a layer of myth to the man, Kershaw’s book humanizes him. In the author’s deft prose, we come to meet not the foulmouthed caricature from the movie but a leader who genuinely cares about those under his command. Throughout battle, Patton visits his men, encourages them, and is optimistic about their chances for success.

Readers of all stripes will find something to enjoy in Patton’s Prayer. The faithful will love its religious overtones; military buffs will appreciate the vivid combat scenes and stories of weatherworn GIs; and lay readers will revel in a tale well told. For his efforts, Father O’Neill was rewarded by Patton with a medal. For his, Kershaw, too, deserves an award. This is a superlative contribution to World War II literature.

James A. Percoco is history chair at Loudoun School for Advanced Studies in Ashburn, Virginia, and the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments. A member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, his current book project is Final Words: Discovering America’s Literary Legacy in the Nation’s Graveyards.

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