Patton: A Famous Family's Personal Side

An Audio Postcard
From Vietnam

Benjamin Patton introduces an audio postcard his father sent to his mother while serving in Vietnam.

Father's Day offers the perfect opportunity for the generations to pause and share stories from family history.

And when your grandfather is World War II Gen. George S. Patton, and your dad is Maj. Gen. George Patton, a decorated veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, many of these stories are already well-known. But there's another, more personal side to the Patton family — one documentarian Benjamin Patton explored in this month's issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Benjamin Patton says his first association with his famous grandfather, who died before Benjamin was born, was through the gruff, determined character played by George C. Scott in the movie Patton.

"There was another side to him," Benjamin Patton tells NPR's Alison Stewart. "There was an insecure side, a sensitive side."

Nevertheless, Patton says his grandfather wasn't a family man. "There was a warts-and-all side to him," he says. "He wasn't the greatest and most attentive father or husband. He was rather self-absorbed — and maybe that was necessary, in many ways, for him to achieve what he did."

Benjamin Patton's dad saw his own father only twice from the beginning of World War II until the day Gen. Patton died in a car accident in 1945.

"I think my father, if nothing else, resolved to be a family man," Patton says. "I think he made a very, very special effort to connect with us, even when he was far away."

Benjamin Patton's parents sent each other reel-to-reels and, later, audio tapes while his father was stationed in Vietnam. Patton says he found the six or seven shoeboxes holding these tapes only within the last seven years.

"It's sort of like the equivalent of a snapshot, only audio-wise," Patton says. "The immediacy of what was going on is very apparent in these things."

Patton admits he hasn't listened to them all: There is more than 100 hours' worth of audio on the tapes. On some of them, his father urges his wife not to worry. "I've got a feeling that my number isn't up," he says in one recording. "And Pattons always know when their number's up."

Benjamin Patton considered going into the military, and he was even accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, but he disliked the idea of living in the shadow of his family's legacy.

"I looked at the difficulty that my dad had sort of trying to live up to the shadow of his father. And I thought, 'You know what? Let's try to be the best in another category,'" Patton says.

Now, he's focusing on personal biographies, many of which are military-related. Patton says he thinks his father, who died five years ago, would be proud.

"I think my father improved on many qualities of my grandfather's character," Patton says. "Not to criticize my grandfather — he was a great man. But in my eyes, my father was the titan."

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