April 2006

A Young Man Meets His Field Commander

The following article was taken by Jean Richardot's book, "Journeys for a Better World" and can be found at the Concord Free Public Library. The text is used with permission from the University Press of America, the publisher of "Journeys." Richardot was a 30-year member of the United Nations Secretariat and a member of the Rotary Club of Concord. He died in 2005.

For the men at the front to have a chance to see their field commander even once during a campaign is indeed slim - pure luck in the case of the Third Army, surely, since it comprised hundreds of thousands of men distributed in a number of Army Corps, divisions and services spread over an enormous territory.

Yet I had the chance one day. (Gen. George) Patton was not an invisible general staying at his headquarters in some castle in the country, to the rear of the battle; in combat he lived in the action zone, changing his command post practically every night. He was always on the go, keeping control over his units, visiting his division commanders and briefing them on the next strategic move. He was always ready for an offensive - the word "defensive" was not in his vocabulary. He traveled up and down the front by light plane and Jeep. When he passed columns on the road he liked to talk to the men, always speaking a type of course language that troops seemed to like.

That afternoon in the beginning of August, when we were moving towards Le Mans, he had come to our area to visit General Wood of the 4th Armored, like Patton a cavalryman. Lt. Nedzelnedsky, our team leader, and I were in the rear on a lonely narrow road crossing a wood, after contacting French civilians who gave us information on the locations of German artillery. A fast-moving open Jeep came up behind us, followed by a second as protection. We pulled to the right to let them pass. When the first reached us, it stopped. We looked at the occupants, two officers and a driver, and immediately recognized the officer in front by the three bright stars - signifying the rank of lieutenant-general - on his helmet. There could be no mistake. It was Patton, looking just like the pictures I had previously seen.

He was unmistakable: tall, commanding immediate respect, sitting erect, handsome, blue-eyed and ruddy complexioned. He wore a khaki shirt, still impeccably starched at that time of day. His shirt collar on each side carried the same 3 stars of his rank. He certainly cut an imposing figure. By his side I could see his ivory-handled Colt .45 hanging cowboy-style in a holster, witness to his reputation as a fancier of fine firearms even in the field.

Somewhat startled, we quickly dismounted, stood at attention, and saluted. He asked who we were and what we were doing there. Ned told him that as French interpreters, we were getting information on the enemy from friendly civilians. He seemed quite interested in what we were doing and asked whether we were meeting with many Forces Francaises de Interieur (FFI) in the area. I explained that we had met many more FFI in Brittany than here. Patton appeared greatly interested in the role of the French Resistance in the war. He was perhaps the senior American officer most fluent in French and got along well with the French officers; in his youth he had attended Saumur, the French Cavalry school. And, having recently liberated Brittany, he was venerated by the people of that province.

For us to be addressed by the field commander himself was an experience to remember. That evening at the bivouac, we agreed that Patton was the personification of the warrior's spirit, absolutely dedicated to victory. He electrified the men. They liked his style of leadership. He was not only an excellent military strategist, but a great captain of men.

The next day brought tragedy. Our team leader and great friend, Oleg Nedzelnedsky, had just returned from a typical foray toward the front, where he and his 2 assistants had captured 3 prisoners. They were proud of what they returned with, including the weapons cache. Ned was excited about the guns, which had been placed not very carefully in the rear of the trailer. He wanted 1 as a trophy, a Sten sub machine gun which was underneath, its barrel protruding in his direction. He tugged on it to pull it out. The gun was loaded and went off. Ned took the bullet in the head and died en route to the field hospital nearby.

That night I was promoted on the battlefield to second lieutenant and put in charge of our intelligence team, a function I filled until the decision could be ratified by Military Intelligence Headquarters in Washington a number of weeks later.

For more information contact Dick Krug, director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, located at 105 Everett Street. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.