Throughout the written history of warfare, warriors have fallen victim to premonitions of danger or death. Julius Caesar hammered the last peg in his own coffin when he snubbed the soothsayer’s warning, ‘Beware, the Ides of March.’ From contemporary clairvoyant caveats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have experienced the same foreboding as suggested by Caesar’s unnerving fortuneteller.
Be it ‘gut instinct’ or ‘I got this bad feeling’, the psychological burden of premonitions is strong enough to compel men to write the last letter home or ask a buddy to relay their final message. This thing, this dark omen, this portent of doom from the Sinister Angel of Death, visits and revisits warring humanity and its battlefields. The branch of service or rank never matters. The selected individual is consumed by a profound certainty that a personal tragedy, death, even a ship or an airplane has an unbreakable date with the Grim Reaper.
The traditional clichés of “his number was up” or “it was his time to go” are time-honored explanations to avoid dwelling on the paranormal or psychic concepts of when, where or why misfortune or death plagues one poor soul but not the other. Yet, premonitions can save lives, too.
Pyle’s premonition: Ernie Pyle was the best known and most respected journalist of WWII. Considered “the GI’s journalist,” infantrymen, or as Pyle called them, “dogfaces,” admired his dedication and ability to tell the dogface story from a dogface point of view. Pyle, or “Ernie” as everyone called him, wrote simple but honest accounts of the horror, loneliness, suffering, and daily anxiety of combat. Ernie hated war.
Ordnance from a German dive-bomber blew Ernie out of a trench in North Africa; at Anzio he was blasted out of a house; in Normandy he was almost killed at St. Lo by strafing fighter planes. By late 1944, the GI’s journalist had reached a breaking point. He wrote to his millions of readers, “I don’t think I can go on and keep sane.” With a heartfelt apology to his dogfaces, Ernie came home.
At home with his wife in Albuquerque, he spent days on their veranda staring in silence across a lonesome plateau. In January of ‘45, Ernie told his wife he had to go back; the war beckoned his return, but the front would be in the Pacific. “I’ve known all the time I had to go back,” he told her. “And I hate it.”
His destiny awaited on Le Shima, a nine-square-mile island in the middle of nowhere west of embattled Okinawa. War-weary, Ernie confided to an associate correspondent, “This will be my last battle. Sooner or later, a man’s luck is bound to run out.” On April 18, Ernie was riding in a jeep that came under intense machine gun fire. The occupants of the jeep leaped into a roadside ditch as bullets streamed by. Lt. Col. Joseph Coolidge and Ernie poked their heads up to look around. Ernest Tayler (Ernie) Pyle, the soldier’s correspondent, fell over dead with a bullet in his head.
Debate has raged since the war that a sniper killed Ernie; others swear a machine gun ended his life. No matter, for as Col. Coolidge stated with tears in his eyes, “The GI has lost his best friend.” Regrettably, Ernie’s premonition had come to fruition.
Papa’s premonitions: Ernest “Papa” Hemingway served his country as a war correspondent during WWII. Celebrated as an author, Hemingway was a fun-loving, hard-drinking overachiever with a total contempt for intellectuals. Fully clad in his baggy correspondent’s uniform, GIs referred to Hemingway as “a khaki teddy bear.” He often barged into command posts introducing himself as “Ernest Hemorrhoid, the Poor Man’s Ernie Pyle.”
In October of ‘44, Hemingway attended a dinner engagement near the Huertgen Forest at the residence of his friend, Col. Charles Lanham. The dining table was huge and rectangle-shaped with an abundance of chairs drawn up. Lanham showed Hemingway to his chair. Hemingway started lowering himself into the seat, stopped to the bewilderment of the other guests, then abruptly moved to an adjacent chair. Afterwards Papa asserted, “Something told me not to sit there.” The chair stayed unoccupied.
Within minutes a random high-speed German artillery shell penetrated the wall Hemingway was facing and tore through the wall behind him without exploding. Curious, two American officers strung a tight rope from the point of entry to where the shell exited. The conclusion was disquieting: had Papa Hemingway not switched chairs, the shell would have ripped off his head.
Hemingway returned to Paris to restock his liquor supply. Six weeks later he was back with Colonel Lanham inspecting his 1st Battalion which had suffered the loss of its commander. Colonel Lanham confided to Papa an uneasiness concerning the abilities of the replacement commander, a young major, and recommended he be removed. Hemingway replied, “You don’t need to relieve him.” Lanham asked why. Hemingway said, “He’s going to be killed, and soon.”
Upon their return to the regimental command post, Lanham and Papa were informed by Lanham’s executive officer, “Colonel, who’s going to take over the 1st Battalion? The major was just killed.” Astonished, the Colonel asked Hemingway, “How the hell did you know that was going to happen?” Papa Hemingway smiled, shrugged his shoulders and left the vehicle without a word.
A pilot’s premonition: Eddie Rickenbacker was America’s top-scoring Fighter Ace in The Great War, soon to be known as World War I. His exploits and name were household words. Eddie was a national hero.
With the outbreak of World War II, Rickenbacker signed a one dollar a year contract with the Federal Government as an advisor and military consultant. On October 21, 1942, Rickenbacker took off from Hawaii at 1:30 a.m. on a B-17 bomber en route to Guadalcanal, with the refueling stop scheduled on a flyspeck of sand called Canton Island.
As dawn appeared on the horizon at about 6:30 a.m., America’s World War I beloved flyboy was seated behind the pilot and copilot. Abruptly, Rickenbacker was clenched by a bizarre sensation, a premonition he’d later call it, that the flight was in serious trouble. The pilot disagreed, stating landfall on tiny Canton Island would take place at 9:30. Come 10:15 the whole crew knew something was wrong.
The B-17, with 52-year-old Eddie Rickenbacker on board, ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the middle of nowhere. Adrift in 3 life rafts, Captain Eddie and the survivors rejected the Grim Reaper for 24 days. Given up for dead, the rafts were eventually spotted by patrol craft near Funafuti Atoll. PT boats were sent out for the rescue. The men had survived on a diet of raw flying fish and one seagull unfortunate enough to land on Rickenbacker’s head.
Pulled aboard PT-26, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was taken below and sat down on a bunk. Wide-eyed young sailors gathered around, in awe to be with a national treasure. “Well, boys,” Rickenbacker casually said, “This has sure been my lucky day.” Then he spotted a calendar pinned to the bulkhead: It was Friday, the thirteenth.
Patton’s premonitions: Flamboyant, a blasphemer yet devout Christian, General George Patton, Jr. had a reputation as a clairvoyant and strong advocate of reincarnation. In May of ‘43 in the vicinity of Tunisia, North Africa, Patton, his aide and driver came to a fork in the road near the remains of one the greatest cities in the ancient world, Carthage.
His aide, Major Codman, told the driver to take the left branch due to a reconnaissance of the route earlier that day. “No, take the right fork,” Patton said. His aide protested. Annoyed, Patton pointed to the right and roared, “No, goddamn it, I know it’s that direction.” Then he turned to his aide and said, “You see, Codham, I’ve been here before. I fought with the Carthaginians against the Romans on this battlefield in 245 B.C.”
Following orders, the driver took the right branch and they arrived in safety at their destination. It was later learned that, had they taken the left branch in the road, they would have been killed or captured. German troops were dug in a short distance from the fork on the left branch.
In late December of ‘44, Patton suddenly awoke at 3:00 a.m. and called his longtime secretary to his quarters. Patton claimed, “An inspiration struck me right in the ass during the night that the Germans will mount a major attack on Christmas Day.” “Old Blood and Guts” pinpointed the attack along a certain line of defense, dictated his orders, and told his secretary to distribute them to his staff; then the general went back to bed. Early Christmas morning the Americans attacked and caught the Germans completely by surprise as they prepared for a major assault against the American lines that Patton had foreseen.
After VE Day, Patton came home to a hero’s welcome in Boston. Every inch the conquering hero, Patton stood erect in an open car during the parade. He wore 24 stars: 4 on each shoulder, 4 on each collar tab, 4 on his cap, on 4 on the ivory handle of his pistol. He appeared jovial, but he was a broken man. Most of the big-name generals were headed for the invasion of Japan, but no one wanted George Patton.
The Army simply did not know what to do with the hell-bent-for-leather general who won battles but couldn’t keep his fiery opinions to himself. Before returning to Europe to command a peacetime 3rd Army, General Patton told his two daughters, “Well, girls, goodbye. I won’t be seeing you again.” His daughters had never heard their father talk in such negative tones.
As a paper shuffler and denazifier, Patton was a fish out of water. His hatred of being stationed in a peaceful Europe while the war still raged in the Pacific once again beckoned his turbulent opinion. After an off-cuff comment that the Nazi Party was no different than the Republican or Democratic Party, he was removed as commander of the 3rd Army to be given the 15th Army, a command writing the history of WWII tactics.
Patton commented to his friend, Lt. Gen. Hobert “Hap” Gay, “Hap, my life is coming to an end.” To boost Patton’s state of mind, Gen. Gay invited him on a pheasant hunt. On Dec. 9, 1945, Patton and Gay climbed into a 1938 Cadillac limousine at Bad Nauheim, Germany.
As a railroad crossing, the limousine collided with an Army truck at slow speed, no greater than 15 miles per hour. The vehicles suffered little damage; no major injuries occurred, except for Patton. By a freakish quirk of fate, Patton hit his head on the glass partition in the back seat of the car. The flamboyant victor of Europe had a compression fracture and dislocation of the third and fourth vertebrae: his neck was broken.
Told by doctors he would never ride a horse again or resume a normal life, Old Blood and Guts commented, “This is a hell of a way to die.” General Patton’s premonition had become a reality: at 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1945, one of America’s best generals slipped gently into the good night. The attending physician’s final entry stated it was “due to a sudden stopping of the heart.” Medically true, perhaps. But the great warrior most likely died of a broken heart.
A woman’s intuition, a gambler’s hunch, the family Bible carried into a battle, how do you identify a premonition?
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.