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One cold morning in Belgium

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It’s not that Patton was a good man–that’s not why his troops loved him. He wasn’t. It’s not that he was even all that successful. By the time of the Bulge, he’d lost tanks and half-tracks and all kinds of military equipment. As Generals went in the war effort, Patton was, well, expensive.

And, Lord knows, he wasn’t nice. Ike railed at him for slapping troops for being war weary. He fully believed he had only to slap them out of their doldrums and they’d pick up rifles and start humming “America the Beautiful.” Ike even set him aside for a while for being so unfeeling. 

But the Germans feared him more than any other Allied general, and his troops loved him. By the time Hitler launched the offensive that would begin the largest and bloodiest battle in American military history, The Battle of the Bulge, the Wehrmacht was well aware it was Patton leading his troops on the northern end of the huge offensive they created in almost perfect silence. 

Patton was ready–he was always ready, but there was a problem, a problem Hitler loved and Patton hated. Thick, overcast skies dumped rain and snow all over the hundred-mile front, pea-soup fog nullifying vastly superior Allied air power. As long as skies were quilted, Hitler’s madcap plan to take back Antwerp moved stubbornly west as planned.

Now, the word is–and I’m not sure it’s true–a man I once knew and had for a professor of theology, a little man with a powerful body, was once asked by Patton’s entourage if he’d act as the general’s own personal chaplain, which would have been, or so it’s said, a real honor and would have kept him out of harm’s way in the middle of the war in Europe. The story goes that this CRC preacher turned down General Patton, and the reason was, according to legend, that Patton cussed and swore at such decibels that the CRC guy knew he couldn’t live with that level of profane language. Turned him down. Turned down General George Patton.

Now Chaplain James Hugh O’Neill didn’t share the horrors, so Patton, sure his men would require divine help to wipe up the clouds, asked the chaplain to go ahead and get God on their side. Reportedly, Chaplain O’Neill cowered a bit and told Patton it was going to take a pretty thick rug for that level of petitioning. Patton told him he didn’t care if it took a damned flying carpet– in those words, people say.

O’Neill reminded him gently that chaplains weren’t in the business of praying so other human beings would die. Patton told him there were other jobs available should he want them. And then, “I want a prayer,” he said. The man spoke only in commands.

O’Neill obliged thusly, creating this simple prayer: “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.”

That’s it–that’s the prayer the chaplain scratched out. 

Patton loved it and–I’m serious–ordered thousands of copies to be printed and passed out to troops who were then ordered to pray O’Neill’s fair-weather beseeching, commanded to do so in fact, and they did, the next morning, in a driving snowstorm. 

The battle had just begun. One million Allied troops (150 thousand Canadians and 500 thousand Americans) would fight in the very snow and cold Hitler needed and got for his last, mad offensive gasp. 

Theologically, I don’t know what to make of those prayers. Historically, I have to admit I’m not surprised the CRC chaplain turned down the big job. Militarily, I can’t help but think Patton’s good-weather prayer was a great move. Spiritually, I’d like to believe the General knew just a smidgeon of Calvin: “True faith is ever connected with hope.”

I don’t really know what the Lord God almighty thought of a couple thousand mimeo’d prayers that snowy morning, but I know He’s a whole lot bigger about such questions than you or I am or even the General. What He did with those prayers only He knows. 

But you can’t help chuckling a little. One early mid-winter morning, a bit north of the Argonne forest, the Creator of Heaven and Earth gets supplicated by a thousand perfectly similar prayers from cold, wet soldiers, some rookies, some war-weary. Patton’s Seventh Army, all together, stormed the gates of heaven, some of them, I’m sure, with considerably more piety than others, but who am I to judge?

The war wasn’t over and neither was the battle. 

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about all of that, but I’ll tell you this: I can’t help but love the story. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

3 Comments

  • Thank you for this. I always was fascinated by the scene in the movie Patton when the general orders the chaplain to write that prayer.

    May God continue to bless you and your writing.

  • STA says:

    Thanks for this, and I agree with the comment about the prayer scene in the movie spurring some interesting questions. Other pop culture prayers have sparked similar ponderings including my personal favorite of Homer Simpsons pre-football game prayer imploring the Almighty to “just stay of this”.

    Also, and sorry for being “that guy”, but I believe Patton was leading Third Army in France and Seventh Army in Italy.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    “I wish I could bring back my men.” The late Captain C. G. Ridl

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