A Chapel Hill Soldier's World War II Uniform – Safe in Austria
In May 1945, the war in Europe was racing towards an end. General George Patton’s Third Army was chasing the broken German forces into Austria.
A young North Carolinian, also named Patton, was part of General Patton’s forces. On May 2, Staff Sergeant Robert Patton, along with other soldiers of the 65th Infantry Division were poised on the banks of the Inn River preparing to cross a bridge over the river and secure the small town of Scharding, Austria. Because the retreating Germans blew up the bridge, Sergeant Patton’s group crossed in small pontoon boats and rafts. The Inn River, surging from springtime rains, swept nine American soldiers to their deaths.
On the other side, the Americans quickly overran the resistance of the local militia and Nazi Youth, captured Scharding and moved on. They helped liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp a few days before the war ended.
The “Battle of Scharding” would be just another personal memory in the wartime experiences of the “Greatest Generation” except for events that took place years later.
Once the war was over, Patton returned to Rutherfordton. His mother packed up his uniform and carefully stored it in the attic. Patton finished college at Davidson and began a career in business, leading to his own computer consulting firm and a move to Chapel Hill in 1965.
In 1993, when his mother died, Patton found his World War II uniform neatly stored in the attic where she had carefully placed it so long ago.
Patton took it to his own attic in Chapel Hill, where it remained until…well, that is the rest of the story.
In 2005 and 2006 Patton and other members of the 65th Division retraced their wartime movements across Germany and Austria. As part of their tours, they revisited Scharding, where local officials greeted them warmly, even awarding them friendship medals to show that there were no hard feelings about the long ago battle. They proudly showed the American visitors their town museum on the old Scharding castle grounds. One of the officials asked Patton if he could help them secure an American Army uniform to add to their collection of World War II materials.
Patton thought about his own uniform “doing nothing in my attic.” He offered to send it to Scharding.
“No, you can’t send it,” the museum director begged, “you have to bring it in person.”
A few years later, when a group of the 65th Infantry was invited to return to participate in a ceremony marking the liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration camp, Patton contacted the museum director to let him know that he would drop off the uniform “if they still wanted it.”
“Of course,” the director replied, “let us know when you are coming.”
When Patton’s bus stopped in Scharding to deliver the uniform, he was met by the mayor, the museum director, many other local officials and a uniformed honor guard that escorted them to the castle museum for a celebration and ceremony.
A reporter in Scharding described the event: “…they came back, the men of the 65th U.S. Infantry Division. This time in a peaceful mission…And again ,there was a Patton at the helm. No, not George Patton, but Robert Patton; not General, but Staff Sergeant, not related to the General, but as members of the then 3rd U.S. Army. Robert Patton lives in Chapel Hill (North Carolina) and, despite his 87 years is still a soldierly appearance.”
Unlike the uniforms of so many veterans, which seem to just “fade away” and disappear over time, Patton’s uniform is secure. Whenever Patton, or his family and friends want to see his World War II uniform, they know that it is safe in the hands of the former enemies, now fast friends, in Scharding.