The True Story of The
by Msgr. James H. O'Neill
(From the Review of the News, October 6, 1971)
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.
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.
would please the recipient, and anything that pleased the men I knew
would please him:
each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I Wish a Merry
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.
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."
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,
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. [Patton continued:]
"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. I returned to my field desk, typed Training Letter No. 5
while the "copy" was "hot," touching on some or all of the General's
reverie on Prayer, and after staff processing, presented it to General
Patton on the next day. The General read it and without change directed
that it be circulated not only to the 486 chaplains, but to every
organization commander down to and including the regimental level. Three
thousand two hundred copies were distributed to every unit in the Third
Army over my signature as Third Army Chaplain. Strictly speaking, it was
the Army Commander's letter, not mine. Due to the fact that the order
came directly from General Patton, distribution was completed on
December 11 and 12 in advance of its date line, December 14, 1944.
Titled "Training Letter No. 5," with the salutary "Chaplains of the
Third Army," the letter continued: "At this stage of the operations I
would call upon the chaplains and the men of the Third United States
Army to focus their attention on the importance of prayer.
"Our glorious march from the Normandy Beach across France to where we
stand, before and beyond the Siegfried Line, with the wreckage of the
German Army behind us should convince the most skeptical soldier that
God has ridden with our banner. Pestilence and famine have not touched
us. We have continued in unity of purpose. We have had no quitters; and
our leadership has been masterful. The Third Army has no roster of
Retreats. None of Defeats. We have no memory of a lost battle to hand on
to our children from this great campaign.
"But we are not stopping at the Siegfried Line. Tough days may be ahead
of us before we eat our rations in the Chancellery of the Deutsches
"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
"Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the
world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than
prayers. 'Hands lifted up,' said Bosuet, 'smash more battalions than
hands that strike.' Gideon of Bible fame was least in his father's
house. He came from Israel's smallest tribe. But he was a mighty man of
valor. His strength lay not in his military might, but in his
recognition of God's proper claims upon his life. He reduced his Army
from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men lest the people of Israel
would think that their valor had saved them. We have no intention to
reduce our vast striking force. But we must urge, instruct, and
indoctrinate every fighting man to pray as well as fight. In Gideon's
day, and in our own, spiritually alert minorities carry the burdens and
bring the victories.
"Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. 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 the defeat of our wicked enemy whose
banner is injustice and whose good is oppression. Pray for victory. Pray
for our Army, and Pray for Peace.
"We must march together, all out for God. The soldier who 'cracks up'
does not need sympathy or comfort as much as he needs strength. We are
not trying to make the best of these days. It is our job to make the
most of them. Now is not the time to follow God from 'afar off.' This
Army needs the assurance and the faith that God is with us. With prayer,
we cannot fail.
"Be assured that this message on prayer has the approval, the
encouragement, and the enthusiastic support of the Third United States
"With every good wish to each of you for a very Happy Christmas, and my
personal congratulations for your splendid and courageous work since
landing on the beach, I am," etc., etc., signed The Third Army
The timing of the Prayer story is important: let us rearrange the dates:
the "Prayer Conference" with General Patton was 8 December; the 664th
Engineer Topographical Company, at the order of Colonel David H. Tulley,
C.E., Assistant to the Third Army Engineer, working night and day
reproduced 250,000 copies of the Prayer Card; the Adjutant General,
Colonel Robert S. Cummings, supervised the distribution of both the
Prayer Cards and Training Letter No. 5 to reach the troops by December
12-14. The breakthrough was on December 16 in the First Army Zone when
the Germans crept out of the Schnee Eifel Forest in the midst of heavy
rains, thick fogs, and swirling ground mists that muffled sound, blotted
out the sun, and reduced visibility to a few yards. The few divisions on
the Luxembourg frontier were surprised and brushed aside. They found it
hard to fight an enemy they could neither see nor hear. For three days
it looked to the jubilant Nazis as if their desperate gamble would
succeed. They had achieved compete surprise. Their Sixth Panzer Army,
rejuvenated in secret after its debacle in France, seared through the
Ardennes like a hot knife through butter. The First Army's VIII Corps
was holding this area with three infantry divisions (one of them new and
in the line only a few days) thinly disposed over an 88-mile front and
with one armored division far to the rear, in reserve. The VIII Corps
had been in the sector for months. It was considered a semi-rest area
and outside of a little patrolling was wholly an inactive position.
When the blow struck the VIII Corps fought with imperishable heroism.
The Germans were slowed down but the Corps was too shattered to stop
them with its remnants. Meanwhile, to the north, the Fifth Panzer Army
was slugging through another powerful prong along the vulnerable
boundary between the VIII and VI Corps. Had the bad weather continued
there is no telling how far the Germans might have advanced. On the 19th
of December, the Third Army turned from East to North to meet the
attack. As General Patton rushed his divisions north from the Saar
Valley to the relief of the beleaguered Bastogne, the prayer was
answered. On December 20, to the consternation of the Germans and the
delight of the American forecasters who were equally surprised at the
turn-about-the rains and the fogs ceased. For the better part of a week
came bright clear skies and perfect flying weather. Our planes came over
by tens, hundreds, and thousands. They knocked out hundreds of tanks,
killed thousands of enemy troops in the Bastogne salient, and harried
the enemy as he valiantly tried to bring up reinforcements. The 101st
Airborne, with the 4th, 9th, and 10th Armored Divisions, which saved
Bastogne, and other divisions which assisted so valiantly in driving the
Germans home, will testify to the great support rendered by our air
forces. General Patton prayed for fair weather for Battle. He got it.
It was late in January of 1945 when I saw the Army Commander again. This
was in the city of Luxembourg. He stood directly in front of me, smiled:
"Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would." Then he
cracked me on the side of my steel helmet with his riding crop. That was
his way of saying, "Well done."
(This article appeared as a government document in 1950. At the time it
appeared in the Review of the News, Msgr. O'Neill was a retired
Brigadier General living in Pueblo, Colorado.)