ALLIED HEADQUARTERS, ALGIERS -- A high staff officer disclosed today that Lieut. Gen. George S. (Old Blood and Guts) Patton Jr. struck a shell-shocked soldier twice in a Sicilian hospital tent, then apologized for his conduct, which later was criticized "mercilessly" by his commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The incident, the officer revealed, occurred last August, when Patton, picturesque American 7th Army commander, called the soldier "yellow bellied" and berated him as he wept.
Investigation showed the 24-year-old soldier twice refused to leave front lines and finally did so only upon orders and was back in the fighting a week after Patton saw him.
The officer said Patton was not relieved of his command because of the episode or reprimanded formally by Eisenhower because he was "necessary and valuable" to Allied operations in Sicily and because of his record.
Eisenhower did, however, obtain a full report and "took the hide" off Patton for his action, the officer said.
Patton apologized at once to the hospital commander, a nurse who watched the episode. This apology was witnessed by C. R. Cunningham, United Press correspondent. He also apologized to the soldier and to men of the divisions under his command.
Merrill Mueller, N. B. C. correspondent, and Demaree Bess of the Saturday Evening Post made a thorough investigation.
Later Eisenhower was understood to have asked correspondents not to transmit reports of the incident.
Yesterday a formal headquarters statement in reply to questions about the incident, reported in the United States by Drew Pearson, newspaper and radio commentator, said Patton had never been reprimanded and no soldier had ever refused to obey an order from him.
Patton directed operations in both Tunisia and Sicily, once during the latter campaign disembarking on a beachhead to command a drive against a serious German counterattack. He goes into battle packing pearl-handled frontier model revolvers.
The story of the incident has been known to literally thousands for weeks.
As related by the staff officer, here is what happened:
Patton, on a visit to an evacuation hospital in Sicily early in August, found a soldier in bed wearing the lining to a steel helmet and crying. Patton asked him what was wrong.
"My nerves. I guess," the soldier said. "I can't stand those shells going over."
"You are yellow bellied." Patton replied angrily. "Get out of this hospital and back up to your unit at the front."
The soldier continued crying while Patton, who is 57 and who has gained a reputation for picturesque curses, grew more angry, raging at the soldier.
He finally struck the soldier with the back of his hand, knocking off his headgear, which rolled across the floor. The nurse tried to stop him but the doctor ordered her away. Patton then went around to others in the tent, telling them all "yellow bellies" should be sent back to the front.
Patton returned a second time to the soldier's bedside, cursed him some more. and again struck him with the back of his hand. The nurse fled crying. The commanding doctor also left because he could not stop the General.
The doctor who had admitted the soldier then escorted Patton to a car and the General drove off, without investigating how the soldier had been admitted. The incident was seen by at least three hospital staff members as well as most hospital patients.
Two American correspondents, Red Mueller of N. B. C. and Demaree Bess of Saturday Evening Post, made a full inquiry, obtaining statements from all witnesses, after they heard of the incident.
They found out the soldier was a 24-year-old Regular Army man who twice refused to leave front lines and finally was sent back by his commander to the hospital where he was admitted as a "nerve" case. After a week in the hospital, he was back on the line.
The newsmen interviewed Eisenhower and found that he personally has received a full report on the incident, having statements from three senior officers, all of Brigadier General rank or above.
Patton made immediate apologies to the hospital commander, the nurse and doctor. That development was witnessed by C. R. Cunningham. United Press staff correspondent. Patton also apologized to the soldier in the company of the original witnesses.
Later he went around to all divisions under his command, calling as many men together as possible, explained he had conducted himself in a way unbecoming to an American officer and apologized.
Cunningham said that he sat in Patton's office during the General's talk with the three. The doctor, he said, was a psychiatrist. Patton talked at length on the appearances of shellshock, praised medical work in the Sicilian campaign and then said it often was difficult to tell whether a soldier actually was suffering from such shock, or merely trying to escape the front.
In modern war, he said. there should be competent medical authorities who could determine quickly whether a man actually has such a break in nerve. Several times during the meeting, Cunningham said, a member of Pattor's staff opened the door to report a similar case had been found and each time Patton promised to look into it at once. Finally he thanked them all for coming and invited the nurse to ride back to the hospital in his small private plane.
After the scene in the Sicilian hospital tent, it was revealed, the soldier who had been struck turned to the nurses and asked:
"What did I do to make the General mad? I must have done something awful to make him so mad."
The present whereabouts of the soldier was not known, and the names of the commanding doctor and nurse involved were not immediately revealed.