In early December 1944, Gen. George Patton’s Third Army was poised for the breakthrough across the Rhine River, a formidable natural obstacle to the invasion of Germany by the western allies. The date for the attack was set for Dec. 19 but foul weather threatened to postpone the attack.
At 11 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 8, Patton phoned the Head Chaplain of the Third Army, James H. O’Neill, a Catholic priest.
“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.”
The taciturn O’Neill told Patton that he would research the topic and report back to him within an hour. After hanging up the receiver, O’Neill looked out at the immoderate rains
which had plagued the Third Army’s operations for the past three
months. As he searched through his prayer books, he could find no formal
prayers pertaining to weather so he composed an original prayer, which he typed on a note 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.
O’Neill threw on his trench coat and crossed the quadrangle of the old French military barracks then serving as the Third Army’s headquarters and reported to Patton’s office. Patton read the prayer, returned it to O’Neill and directed him to “have 250,000 copies printed and see to it that every man in the Third Army gets one.”
The often profane and tempestuous general and the humble, mild-mannered priest then engaged in a lengthy discussion of the importance of prayer.
“Chaplain, how much praying is being done in the Third Army?” inquired the general.
“Does the general mean by chaplains, or by the men?” asked O’Neill.
“By everybody,” Patton replied.
“I am afraid to admit it, but I do not believe that much praying is going on,” responded O’Neill. “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.”
“Chaplain, I am a strong believer in Prayer,” said Patton. “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.”
Patton 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.”
“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 plugging in on a current whose source is in Heaven. I believe that prayer completes that circuit. It is power,” said Patton.
The Prayer Card, with a Christmas Greeting printed on the reverse side, reached the troops between Dec. 12 and 14.
Two days later the Americans armies in Europe would find themselves engaged in the Battle of the Bulge,which remains the greatest battle ever fought by American forces. The outcome of that battle, and possibly of the entire Allied war effort in Europe, would hinge on the weather. As Patton’s adjutant, Paul Harkins would later write:
Whether it was the help of the Divine guidance asked for in the prayer or just the normal course of human events, we never knew; at any rate, on the twenty-third, the day after the prayer was issued, the weather cleared and remained perfect for about six days. Enough to allow the Allies to break the backbone of the Von Runstedt offensive and turn a temporary setback into a crushing defeat for the enemy.
On Christmas Eve when Chaplain O’Neill walked into Patton’s office the general rose, came from behind his desk with hand outstretched, and said, “Chaplain, you’re the most popular man in this Headquarters. You sure stand in good with the Lord and the soldiers.”The general then pinned a Bronze Star Medal on Chaplain O’Neill.
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