"Dammit, Woodring," bellowed George Patton, "have you got this fine example of American engineering gassed up and ready to go, yet? We have ourselves a few dozen pheasants to nab for Sunday dinner. They won't wait all day, you know."
Private First Class Horace C. Woodring snapped open the rear door of the custom-made Cadillac model 75 and fired off his crispest salute. "Yessir, General. She's all set. Guns and dog will ride up ahead with Sergeant Spruce in the Jeep. If you'll just climb in, I promise I'll have you in the woods bagging those birdies inside of two hours."
Patton roared with laughter and slid into the roomy back seat. "Get in, Hap," he called to his long time adjutant, General Hobart Gay. "I told you Woodring was the best. He's the fastest there is. Better than a Piper Cub to get you there ahead of time. Isn't that right, Woodring?"
"A private never disagrees with a general."
The cheerful driver waited for Gay to settle in next to Patton, then shut the door behind him. Sliding behind the wheel, he spent a moment adjusting the rearview mirror so that he could keep sight of Patton at all times. It was rare to see the general in such high spirits. His mood had been almost unremittingly grim since his transfer to the Fifteenth Army in early October. Losing command of his beloved Third Army had dealt him a crushing blow, though everyone agreed afterwards that he'd never been cut out to be military governor of Bavaria, or any other place for that matter. Not withhis mouth, not old "Blood and Guts".
The last straw had come at a press conference in September. Before an assembly of some fifty reporters, Patton had publicly voiced his sentiments about the Nazis being no different from Republicans or Democrats, while admitting that he'd made use of many former Nazi officials to run the Bavarian government.
There was more to Eisenhower's decision to relieve Patton of his command than that. Much more. But Woodring kept those facts to himself. After all, he reminded himself, he was only a driver and not privy to such sensitive information.
Making a sweeping left turn, he powered the Cadillac onto the autobahn, his keen blue eyes searching the asphalt for signs of ice. Sunday, 9 December, had dawned raw and cold. At seven a.m. the thermometer hanging outside the motor pool had read thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Two hours later, a timid sun had broken through the cloud cover. Expanses of newly fallen snow hugged both sides of the highway, sparkling like twin fields of diamonds.
Their route took them south from Bad Nauheim along the Kassel-Frankfurt-Mannheim autobahn toward the wild, game-rich forests of the Rhine-Palatinate. Approaching the town of Bad Homburg, Patton insisted they exit the autobahn and visit the ruins of a restored Roman outpost in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. Woodring obliged. In his few weeks driving for the general, he'd learned to expect detours – Patton always wanted to visit this hospital or that cemetery – and had factored in a little extra time into that morning's timetable.
For ten minutes, Patton slogged through the muddy ruins in his knee high leather boots, crowing about "his friend, Caesar" and "conquering Gaul" and "the glory of battle". Woodring smiled inwardly. The crazy old goat truly believed he'd fought at Julius Caesar's side.
Just before ten, the two-vehicle convoy left Bad Homburg, continuing on its southward trek. Patton sat forward in his seat, a rapt expression illuminating his dour features. They were driving over territory the Third Army had taken eight months before. Past Frankfurt. Past Darmstadt. Past Wiesbaden. Patton didn't stop talking for a moment's time, pointing out bridges his men had captured, beaming with undisguised pride at his soldiers' derring-do, and of course, his own. Near eleven, Woodring left the autobahn for a second time, transferring to National Route 38. In another quarter of an hour, he spotted a sign indicating they were nearing the city of Mannheim. Soon he began to recognize familiar landmarks. A kiosk. A hotel. A police station. He'd traveled this part of the route a dozen times in the dead of night. Flashing past on their right was a marker showing they'd entered the village of Kaefertal. The road was littered with debris: half-tracks lying upside down, charred Tiger tanks, horsecarts splintered and upended. The town looked as if the war had ended yesterday.
"Look at the derelict vehicles," Patton exclaimed, grimacing at the passing sights. "How awful war is. Think of all the waste."
"It's terrible, sir. Just terrible," answered Woodring, but his eyes were glued to the road in front of him, not on the parade of broken armor. Approaching from the opposite direction was a large two and a half ton truck, a standard army transport. Seeing it, Woodring flashed his lights once and got a flash in return.
Two hundred yards separated the vehicles. One hundred. Woodring moved the Cadillac toward the center of the road. At fifty yards, he accelerated to thirty miles per hour, raising an arm to point out a crumpled Mercedes staff car off to the right hand side of the vehicle.
"Would you look at that?" said Patton, half standing in the cabin, craning his neck to get a glimpse.
It was precisely then that the oncoming transport turned left, directly into the Cadillac's path. Woodring sat back in his seat and calmly spun the wheel to the left, waiting a half second then braking with all his might. He heard Gay say "sit tight", and a split second later, the two vehicles collided. With an angry scream of metal, the truck's right front fender plowed into the Cadillac's hood, crushing the radiator and releasing a geyser of steam. Patton, already leaning on the front seat, was thrown forward, his head striking the dashboard, then flung back like a rag doll into the passenger seat.
The accident was over in a second, the truck having come to rest at a right angle to the Cadillac.
Woodring flung open his door and rushed to the rear of the vehicle. Patton lay in Gay's arms, bleeding profusely from wounds to the forehead and scalp.
"Hold tight, General, we'll get an ambulance here, pronto. You're going to be fine, sir."
"I believe I am paralyzed," said Patton, his gravelly voice absent of any fear. "I'm having trouble in breathing. Rub my shoulders, Woodring. Work my fingers for me. Rub my hands."
Woodring did as he was told while Gay supported the general from the rear. Running a hand behind Patton's neck, he felt a distinct outcropping an inch or two below the skull.
Patton looked at him imploringly. "I said, rub my hands, dammit."
Just then the truck driver stuck his head in the open door. Woodring met his gaze and nodded. Everything had gone off as planned. Patton's neck was broken at the third vertebrae. It was a mortal injury. He'd linger a few days, a week at most, but there was nothing any doctor could do to save him. By Christmas, he'd be dead and buried.
Woodring sighed grimly, pleased he wouldn't have to speed things along. The OSS taught a man to do almost anything. He'd killed Nazi generals while they slept on the eve of D-Day, chased a fugitive war criminal across Germany, even helped save the life of the president of the United States. Hardest, though, was getting used to being called a different name every day. Woodring. Honey. Who knew what was next? Maybe someday someone would use his real name: Honnecker.
For now, though, it was still too German.