The Bandit who became a General
by David LaPell
Originally published in the Nov/December 2010 issue of Backwoodsman Magazine
Mention the name George S. Patton, Jr. to anyone familiar with history and you will be told
great tales of his tanks of the 3rd Armored Division charging across
Europe during World War II. Most would never
have thought that the greatest general of the 20th century began his
stoic career as a gunfighter of the Old West decades earlier and half a world
George Smith Patton, Jr. was ushered into this world on November 11, 1885 in San Gabriel, California, being born into a military family. Patton decided at an early age that he wanted to be a hero, living up to his ancestors, who had fought in every war since the American Revolution. He went to the Virginia Military Academy Institute, and then attended West Point. Patton graduated June 11, 1909 and was given a commission as a Second Lieutenant.
A year later young George Patton married Beatrice Ayer, and in 1912 he represented the United States in the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. As part of the Modern Pentathlon event, Patton was required to shoot a pistol from a distance of 25 meters. While most of the other contestants used .22 caliber revolvers, the young George Patton favored a .38 revolver because he felt it was more suited for an event that had its roots in the military. During his match, Patton was penalized for missing the target, although he claimed that it was because the bullet had passed through the other holes he had already made in the target. In the end Patton took fifth place overall.
In 1913 while Patton was getting training in Fort Riley, Kansas, far to the south a war was being waged along the Mexican border. Three years earlier, Francisco Madera, a wealthy idealist, sought to end the thirty year reign of Porfirio Diaz the President and dictator of Mexico. One of the guerilla generals supporting Madera’s coup was one Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
Francisco Villa was born on June 5, 1878 and grew up a poacher and a cattle rustler until he opened a butcher shop in Chihuahua City and got married. In 1910 the revolution against Diaz’s regime sprung up, and Villa was persuaded to join the cause on Madera’s side. After Madera succeeded and took power, one of his own generals, Victoriano Huerta, an alcoholic and a former saloon owner, arrested the new President along with Pino Suarez, the new Vice President and forced them to resign on February 19, 1913. Three days later, Madera and Suarez were both shot, supposedly in a vain escape attempt. Huerta wasted no time in declaring himself President and quickly established a brutal police state that would be the envy of any tinhorn dictator.
Only one year earlier Villa himself was captured and nearly executed by Huerta. Villa escaped, crossed the border and went to El Paso, Texas to hide out. Once he learned of Madera’s death, Villa began smuggling guns back across the border and started recruiting men to fight against Huerta’s Presidency. Villa was soon recruited by Venustiano Carranza, the choice of Woodrow Wilson’s administration to gain back control of Mexico. Huerta, though despite being supported and well armed by the German government was defeated in July, 1914 and Carranza became President of Mexico. Carranza, always despising Villa, refused to reinforce his cavalry and gave his provisions to rival general Alvaro Obregon. This allowed Obregon to march on Mexico City and the war instead of Villa. Villa and Obregon soon clashed, with Villa losing.
Villa faced defeat after defeat trying to regain his honor, and instead lost hundreds of men in the process. After a bitter battle and crushing defeat at Sonora, Villa’s men, starving and in need of provisions, raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916. Villa’s men charged through the town, torching buildings and looting as they went. The only thing that saved the town from total destruction was the troops of the 13th Cavalry stationed in town. Soon the raid became a skirmish of sorts, with the American troops firing heavily against the raiding Mexican bandits. As Villa fled, he left sixty-eight of his men dead in the town as he and what was left of his four hundred man strong force made a hasty retreat for the border. Hot on his heels were fifty six cavalry soldiers from F and H troop of the 13th Cavalry. As Villa retreated, his rear guard was pummeled heavily, losing another one hundred men by the time the troopers from the 13th broke off their pursuit.
National outrage broke out against Villa’s raid, and an expeditionary force under John “Black Jack” Pershing was organized to find and capture the Mexican raider. On March 15, despite protestations from Carranza’s government, the Punitive Expeditionary force crossed the border. Part of that force was the 11th Cavalry, to which a young Lieutenant George S. Patton was assigned as an Aide de Camp to General Pershing.
The first two months proved fruitless in any attempts to capture Villa, since the Mexican people proved to be less than receptive to an American presence on their soil. In May, an effort was made to locate Julio Cardenas, Captain of the “Dorado’s” or Golden Ones, Villa’s personal bodyguards. Patton and his cavalry troop were informed that Cardenas’ mother and wife were living in a ranch near the town of Rubio. Patton led a reconnaissance mission to the ranch and studied every inch of the ranch down to the finest detail.
A week later, on May 14, 1916, Patton was ordered to take three Dodge Touring cars and purchase corn to feed the men of the expedition. Traveling with Patton was a corporal, six privates, and a civilian interpreter. Patton learned through dealings with the locals that Cardenas might now be back at the ranch he had visited only a week prior, and that the Mexican General might have at least twenty men with him. Patton decided to investigate with caution so he, the civilian interpreter, a private, and a driver took one car, while the rest of his force remained hidden.
While the other troops took their two cars and surrounded the house from the southwest, Patton took his car and went to the northwest side. He took the civilian interpreter and left the driver and the soldier to cover the north and west sides of the house. Patton, who had memorized the details of the house, quickly outpaced the interpreter, nearly leaving him in the dust. As he came to a fence, Patton spotted an old man and a boy butchering a steer. Before the Lieutenant had time to ponder the situation any further, three soldiers on horseback made a break for freedom from the house. Armed with rifles and pistols, they turned their horses around at the sight of Patton and headed away, right towards the soldiers guarding the southwest corner. The three men quickly headed back the way they came again, apparently guessing their odds would be better against the lone Lieutenant. At a distance of only twenty yards, the Mexicans opened up on Patton, who coolly returned fire. Patton’s weapon of choice that day was an engraved Colt Single Action Army revolver with a pair of ivory grips that bore his initials. Despite the bullets whizzing past him, Patton took careful aim and his skill with that sixgun quickly showed true. One round slammed into the lead rider, the heavy .45 Colt slug breaking his arm. As the horse kept going, Patton remembered what he had been told once. If you want to stop a mounted rider, stop the horse. Patton put a slug into the belly of the lead rider’s horse, bringing the heavy beast to the ground. Patton fired until his gun was empty, and then ducked around a corner of the house to get out of the line of fire and to reload. The two other riders rode past the Lieutenant at a distance of only a few yards, firing as they passed him. But their aim was not as true as that of the future General’s. Patton again opened fire, putting a slug into the horse of the nearest rider, which fell on the Mexican. As the bandit freed himself from under his dead mount, Patton stood by and patiently waited. When the Mexican got to his feet and prepared to fire, Patton dropped him with a single shot. The third rider turned his horse and rode towards the east, with Patton and two other soldiers blazing away as he tried to escape. He was brought down quickly with a hail of gunfire.
The first bandit Patton had shot was wounded but was on his feet and on the run. He was being fired on by the entire American force. Then the Mexican raised his left arm as if to surrender. Without warning the bandit grabbed his pistol with his right hand, fired a single shot and cashed in his chips on the spot. He fell to the ground dead. As Patton and his men examined the man’s body, he had only been shot once. The bullet from Patton’s .45 had gone through his left forearm and ended up in his chest. The lifeless body on the ground in front of them was that of Julio Cardenas. The second dead bandit was Juan Gaza, and the third was never identified.
After making sure that there were no other bandits in the immediate vicinity, Patton strapped the bodies of the three men to the hood of his Dodge Touring car and made for the border. With the population being on the side of Villa, the Americans wasted no time in getting back home. When Patton arrived, he practically dragged Pershing out of a meeting. Pershing was most upset with his young Lieutenant, until he saw the three bodies, now quite pungent from the heat draped over the front of that Dodge. From that point on, Pershing referred to George Patton as his “Bandit.”
Patton soon became a national hero for his exploits south of the border, the only real success to come from the entire Punitive Expedition. He wrote of his events to his wife that “…you are probably wondering if my conscience hurts me for killing a man. It does not. I feel about it just as I did when I got my first swordfish; surprised at my luck.” To celebrate the event, Patton carved two notches into the left grip of his .45 Colt revolver.
The remainder of the Punitive Expedition turned up nothing. Villa was ambushed and killed in Parral on July 20, 1923.
George Patton went on to fight gallantly in World War I, winning the Distinguished Service Cross for Heroism. Of course Patton’s career later in World War II made him a military legend. Not long after the war ended Patton was in an automobile accident on December 9, 1945 and passed away twelve days later on December 21, 1945. His career and his life ended a world away from where it began so many years before, as John Black Jack Pershing’s “Bandit.”