The Poem General Patton Did Not Write

The True Story of Merton Quirk, Morton Quirk, and General George S. Patton, Jr.


General George S. Patton, Jr.


W. Sterling Atwater (1934 photo)

(Click to enlarge)

By Ron Clark and Merritt Clark
(contact info)

This article is an analysis of the publication history of the poem titled

“REFERENCE: B AND B 3c-24614
  FILE: INV. FORM A62B-M. Q.”
The authorship of this poem has been incorrectly attributed to General George S. Patton, but it was actually written by W. Sterling Atwater, the great-uncle of this article's authors, and first published in April, 1943. The poem is shown in the sidebar to the right.

We also now know that the poem was widely re-printed in many newspapers and periodicals during the period 1943-1945, often under other titles, and without any author credit. The publication history of the poem has only recently been able to be researched, due to the large number of old newspapers and books becoming available in digital format on the internet. This publication history, in upward of 50 newspapers and periodicals, is documented in this article. To use a modern term, the poem practically “went viral.”

There are interesting back-stories that describe how and why the investigation of this poem's history came about, but the important point is that the poem was published in a 1991 book of the collected poems of General George S. Patton, and has made its way onto a variety of internet websites, with Patton listed as the author. This authorship credit has been proven incorrect, and so acknowledged by the editor of the Patton poetry book.

Overview: the original poem, and attribution to General Patton

The poem was originally published on April 13, 1943 on page 1 of the Boston News Bureau, a now-defunct Boston newspaper. Microfilm archives exist at the New York Public Library. A copy of the poem as published on page 1 is shown in the sidebar above (click to enlarge), and in exhibits later in this article. The initials “W.S.A.” appear with the poem, which is known (from family history) to be W. Sterling Atwater.

The poem was also published the next day, April 14, 1943, in the New Haven Register newspaper, with the initials “W.S.A.”, and the line “from the Boston News Bureau”. The likely reason it was published here is because the author, W. Sterling Atwater, was born and raised in the New Haven area, and had several prominent relatives still in the area (in Derby, Ct, outside New Haven), who might have submitted the poem to the newspaper, or suggested its publication.

We know from family oral history that W. Sterling Atwater enjoyed writing poetry and submitted poems to newspapers for publication. He told family members he wrote the subject poem, and gave an original clipping of the New Haven Register poem to his great-nephew around 1944, who memorized it and has enjoyed reciting it for many years. W. Sterling Atwater also had at least one other poem published by the Boston News Bureau newspaper, in 1944. This second poem was much more serious, and had its own sad story surrounding it; this part of the story is included at the very end of this article.

In 1991, the poem was included in the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire”, edited by Carmine A. Prioli. The version of the poem in this book had several small differences from the original April 1943 version, discussed later.

In 1998, two relatives of W. Sterling Atwater wrote to Dr. Prioli about this apparent incorrect attribution of the poem to General Patton, and Dr. Prioli acknowledged the error. In a letter of reply dated November 24, 1998, he wrote

“I must thank you for setting the record straight. It seems incontrovertible that your great uncle, W. Sterling Atwater, must have been the author of “Reference,” the poem I mistakenly attributed to General Patton.”

This poem was found on a typewritten sheet, among Patton's papers, along with many other poems written by him. The inclusion of the poem in the book of Patton's poetry was a simple mistake in attribution, at a time when none of the material currently on the internet was available. More detail about the attribution of the poem to General Patton is contained in the later section “The Patton Version of the Poem”.

The whole story of the investigation that led to this exchange is told later in this article, and Dr. Prioli's letter is reproduced.

In 1998, when the initial investigation took place, the only copies of this poem on the internet were taken from Dr. Prioli's book, and were located on a few websites devoted to information about General George S. Patton. Although crediting Patton as the author was incorrect, we did not undertake then to correct this misinformation.

When we came back 18 years later to renew an interest in the story of the poem, we found two important changes:

We have decided it's time to publicly set the record straight, with this article on the internet serving as documentation about the poem and its history.

It is requested that websites and other re-publications of this poem which propagate the incorrect authorship credit to George S. Patton make some note of the correct author credit. They are free to cite this article as a reference.

Other published copies of the poem, 1943-1960

The astonishing new news in 2016 when we revisited the poem story, was the number of copies found on the internet in digitized old newspapers and periodicals, from the Congressional Record of 1944, to The West Australian newspaper in Perth, Austraia. The poem clearly resonated with many audiences during 1943-1945, and later. It seems to have found favor with anyone who interacted with the government bureaucracy during the war, which was of course nearly everyone.

An interesting reference to the poem is contained in the publication Proceedings of the annual meeting of the American Warehousemen's Association (1943), in which a speaker is quoted as saying

“It may still be mythical, but I heard about it coming east. I understand, Mr. McLain, that there is now going to be a Division of Provision for Revision. (Laughter) That alphabetical one hasn't come out yet, perhaps.”
Laughter from the audience may indicate that there some recognition of the phrase among the audience.

The list at the bottom of this page includes items from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There are newspapers, trade magazines, law journals, and more. None (amazingly) gives credit to “W.S.A.” as the author except the original two publications in April 1943. Some indicate the poem was copied from another publication, or indicate the poem was submitted by a reader. A few seem to claim authorship for someone else entirely.

The list at the bottom of this page does not include the “Patton version” of the poem, because this list is publications of the poem that pre-date Dr. Prioli's 1991 book.

Variations of the Poem

There are three important versions of the poem, plus several small variations that are less significant. The three versions are:

Other differences among the published copies of the poem we have found on the internet in old newspapers and periodicals are:

The Patton Version of the Poem

In 1991, the poem was included in the book The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire, edited by Carmine A. Prioli.

In correspondence about the poem, in 1998, Dr. Prioli explained how the poem was included in the book of Patton's poetry.

As soon as I read your letter I went back to my files and located my copies of the Patton manuscripts. The poems themselves are deposited in two collections, one at the Library of Congress and the other at the US military academy at West Point. They exist in handwritten and typewritten form. The manuscript of “Reference” is contained in the Library of Congress archives along with most of Patton's other poems. I've enclosed a Xerox copy, so you can see that it's one of the typewritten poems. There are a few relatively minor differences between this version and the one that you sent me, but the major difference is that the copy in the Patton papers does not display the initials “W.S.A.” Had these initials been there, I would not have included the poem among those composed by Patton. (He did not always append his name to his poems, but whenever he did he used the initials “G.S.P.” or sometimes just “-G-.” The numbers in the margin are the ones I wrote on my copy of the poem.) However, since the poem was among Patton's other poems and there was no attribution to anyone else, I simply assumed it was written by the General.

I did have some reservations, though. The poem struck me as more polished than most of the General's other verses, even though the humor was very like his own. There were other minor problems, too, especially the reference to “the firm of Blair and Blair.” When I shared the poem with Patton's daughter, Ruth Ellen, she couldn't identify the reference either. But she knew her father's poetry better than anyone, and did not say that the poem was not his. In a way, I took her acceptance of the poem as an additional evidence of her father's authorship.

At the time the mistake was discovered, in 1998, we knew only of the original ('Merton') version of the poem, and the Patton version ('Morton' and 'picular'). Dr. Prioli offered a plausible explanation of how the poem might have ended up among Patton's papers, suggesting Mrs. Patton (who lived outside Boston during the war) saw the poem in the Boston News Bureau and re-typed it and sent it to her husband, who would have enjoyed the satiric commentary on Washington bureaucracy. However, in hindsight it now seems more likely that Patton's copy came from a published copy of the 'Morton' version, of which there were many, with a single typographical error in the word 'spicular'. If this is true, it would mean the Boston News Bureau was not the source of Patton's copy, and it may or may not have been Mrs. Patton who sent him a copy.

We have not tried to catalog the websites where the poem has been or currently is listed as one of Patton's poems. Websites come and go, and contents change. One can Google the phrase “division of provision for revision” or “checker's checker's checker”, plus “Patton” to find current websites containing the Patton version of the poem.

Interesting particular cases

  1. Some of the published copies of the poem in the list below contain references to an earlier publication, as the source of the material. One of the more interesting is The Gazette, from Montreal, October 30, 1943. The prologue to the poem, shown to the right, says

    (Official publication, National Press Club, Washington)
    (Editor's Note: The subjoined masterpiece appeared mysteriously and anonymously in the precincts of the War Production Board. It has been variously attributed to Donald Nelson and nearly every official under him.)
    This led to an inquiry to the archives of The National Press Club, in Washington, DC. Its publications are not available on the internet, but a check of the archives revealed that the poem was indeed published in The National Press Club's official newsletter Goldfish Bowl, in the Sept/Oct 1943 edition. (See details in the publications table at the end of this article).

    This publication could help explain how the poem came to be more widely re-published. Also, the editor's note in the Montreal newspaper was reprinted from The National Press Club newsletter. It was probably added tongue-in-cheek - it is impossible to know. Donald Nelson was a business executive who served as chairman of the War Production Board (W.P.B., which is mentioned in the poem) from 1942 to 1944.
  2. The poem was included in the Congressional Record of 1944.

    In an address to the Texas and Southwestern Cattleraisers Association, US Representative Richard M. Kleberg of Texas recited the full text of the poem. The point of his including the poem, if any, is however obscured by his lengthy and obtuse remarks. The speech was subsequently recorded for posterity in the Congressional Record of 1944, as members of Congress could do for speeches delivered somewhere other than on the floor of Congress.

  3. A special interesting case is a YouTube video of a man reciting this poem. It can be viewed on this YouTube channel.

  4. There are several interesting cases where the poem is not simply re-printed, but it, or a segment of the poem, was incorporated into an advertisement or editorial article, such as the example shown at the right, from a newspaper in Perth, Australia, 1944.

The original 1998 investigation

The first phase of our investigation began in 1998. M. Clark, one of the co-authors of this article, memorized this poem around 1944, when he was given a newspaper clipping by the author, our great-uncle, W. Sterling Atwater. He has been able to recite it from memory ever since, and did so at a family gathering in 1998. As the conversation moved on to the topic of the relatively young World Wide Web - the internet - we jokingly wondered in “The Poem” had made its way onto the internet yet. We were amazed to get a “hit”, which turned out to be on a website devoted to information about General George S. Patton, Jr. Further investigation found the poem on this website had been taken from the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire”, edited by Carmine A. Prioli.

More research was needed using M. Clark’s original newspaper clipping, and it was found to have come from a local newspaper, The New Haven Register, April 14, 1943. The newspaper archives revealed what had been cut off the original clipping - an additional line that said “from the Boston News Bureau”. That original publication was eventually found, using the archives of the Boston News Bureau at the New York Public Library.

Meanwhile, M. Clark wrote to Dr. Prioli about the discrepancy, enclosing the New Haven Register clipping that included the initials “W.S.A.”. Dr. Prioli's reply is reproduced in this image in transcribed format. (original letter is being located in our files). He agreed with the conclusion that W. Sterling Atwater was the author of the poem, as quoted earlier, and that the attribution to Patton was an error. He enclosed a copy of the typewritten poem as found in the Patton archives at the Library of Congress (image to be added), and explained, as quoted earlier, why the poem was included in the book of Patton's poetry.

A second edition of the Lines of Fire book will correct this error, if a second edition is printed. In 1998, we did not attempt to correct the information on websites that had taken a copy of the poem from the Lines of Fire book.

The second phase - 2016

The second phase of the investigation was in 2016, and focused on old newspapers and periodicals that have become available on the internet in digital format since 1998, and can be found using internet search tools such as Google, Google Books, Newspapers.com, and other search tools for specialized digital archives of old printed materials.

This section will later cover in some detail the different search engines and search terms that were used in 2016 to locate the poem on the internet. While the amount of content on the internet has exploded in recent years, and the ability to search continues to improve, searching for this poem has demonstrated that comprehensive searching is still part art as well as science.

List of Publications

The table below contains all the known publications of the poem, between 1943 and 1991, when the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire” was published.

The table is a work in progress in several respects. Full citations, notes, and images of the publications are being worked on. There are also a few duplications, which may be the result of publications being digitized more than once and listed under slightly different titles in different catalogs.

Most of the images for Other Publications below are “snippet view” images from Google Books. Actual page images from these publications are not available online, even though the books have been digitized and indexed for searching.

Publication Location Publication Date Page Merton/ Morton Poem Image Page Image Notes
Newspapers
Boston News Bureau Boston, MA April 13, 1943 p. 1 Merton Click to View Click to View Credit: “W.S.A.”
New Haven Register New Haven, CT April 14, 1943 Merton Credit: “W.S.A.”
Bay of Plenty Beacon New Zealand Sept 21, 1943 p. 2 Merton Click to View
Montreal Gazette Montreal, Canada Oct 30, 1943 p. 8 Merton Click to View credit: from The National Press Club,Washington, DC (see item below)
The Eugene Guard Eugene, Oregon Dec 20, 1943 Merton Click to View
The Gallup Independent New Mexico Dec 23, 1943 Morton Click to View Click to View Credit: “Artesia Advocate”
The New Times Melborne,Australia July 7, 1944 p. 1 Merton Click to View credit: “Metal Finishing” magazine, September 1943
The Dayton Review Dayton, Ohio Aug 10, 1944 p. 4 Morton Click to View
The Milwaukee Journal Milwaukee, WI June 12, 1945 p. 12 Morton Click to View additional cartoon; credit: “from Personnel Administration Magazine” (item below)
Corvallis Gazette Times Corvallis, Oregon March 16, 1945 Morton Click to View
The Oelwein Daily Register Oelwein, Iowa Aug 9, 1944 p. 4 Morton Click to View Credit: “Iowa Motor Truck News”
Middlesboro Daily News Middlesboro, KY Feb 23, 1944 Morton Click to View Credit: “from the Surplus Record - Feb 1944”
Commercial Advertiser Potsdam, NY Jan 4, 1944 p. 2 Morton Click to View Click to View Abreviated and modified version. Source credited as: “Gluey Gleanings of Commercial Paste Co.”
Medford Mail Tribune Medford, OR Mar 17, 1944 Morton Click to View Abreviated version. Credit: “Houston Line” (may be reference to Houghton Line)
The St. Maurice Valley Chronicle Quebec, Canada May 25, 1944 Merton Click to View
The West Australian Perth, Australia July 17, 1944 n/a Click to View Click to View 4 lines only - checker's checker stanza, in an advertisement
The Malvern Leader Malvern, Iowa Aug 17, 1944 Morton Click to View Credit: “we swiped from the Iowa Taxpayer bulletin which had evidently swiped it from the Iowa Motor Truck News”
Construction Sydney, Australia Sept 20, 1944 Merton Click to View Credit: “Bulletin of the Institute of Engineers”
The Lowville Leader Lowville, NY Feb 15, 1945 p. 5 Merton Click to View Click to View
The Record Argus Greenville, Pennsylvania Dec 13, 1950 p. 13 n/a Click to View Click to View Modified version; claim of local authorship; within a used car dealer advertisement
The Record Argus (reprint of above) Greenville, Pennsylvania Sep 19, 1951 p. 9 n/a Click to View Click to View same as above
Other Publications
Congressional Record of 1944 Record of the US Congress 1944 p. A1513 Morton Click to View In speech by US Representative Richard M. Kleberg of Texas
Goldfish Bowl (Official Publication of the National Press Club) National Press Club's newsletter Sept/Oct 1943 p. 8 Merton Click to View Click to View Prolog (presumably tongue-in-cheek) credits staff of the W.P.B.
Proceedings of the annual meeting of the American Warehousemen's Association 1943 p 139 n/a Click to View phrase “Division of Provision for Revision” used in a speech
Charette (Journal of the Pittsburgh Architctural Club) October, 1944 Merton Click to View Click to View
Kansas Government Journal January, 1945 Morton Click to View Click to View
U.S. Air Services 1944 p. 50 Morton Click to View
Service Schedule 1944 p 130 Morton Click to View Credit: “ Lt. Louis Sanns”
Metrol A journal published in Detroit 1943 Morton Click to View chigger; copy at U. Mich. library
Petroleum Management 1950 p. E-22 Morton Click to View
     Petroleum Engineer 1950 p. E-22 Morton dup of above item
Finance 1944 Morton Click to View
Journal of the American Institute of Architects 1944 p. 90 Morton Click to View credit: “contributed through George Harwell Bond”; chigger
      AIA Journal 1944 p 90 Morton dup of above item
Fortnightly Telephone Engineer June 1, 1944 p. 4, 32 Morton Click to View
Typo Graphic Jan 1944 Morton Click to View
Institute in Personnel Administration 1944 p 24 Morton Click to View
     Personnel Administration 1944 p 118 Morton dup of above, but different page number
Kentucky State Bar Journal 1944 p 91 Morton Click to View
Louisiana Bar Journal, 1955 p. 15-16 Morton Click to View
The Canadian Chartered Accountant 1944 p 54-55 Merton Click to View
Michigan Purchasing Management 1943 p 111 Merton Click to View “Quoted from the October '43 issue of The Houghton Line”
Massachusetts Law Quarterly 1943 p 34 Merton Click to View Page image not available online; TOC only
Thread of Victory (by Frank L. Walton, book) 1945 p 223-224 Merton Click to View Click to View
Illinois Technograph 1945 p 88 Merton Click to View Credit: “an officer in one of our Army depots..”
Proceedings / Meeting of Electric & Gas Industry Accountants 1944 p. 7-8 Morton Click to View
Alaska Mukluk Telegraph Newsletter of Alaska C.A.A. March 1944 p. 6 Merton Click to View Click to View
The Pricked Ear a weekly newsletter published from 1957-1960 created for the Gryphon community and Freshmen of Lehigh University. 1957-1960 (volume 6, no. 13) p. 8-9 Merton Click to View OCR text only; poor quality; no original page images. Credit: “appeared in the Brown and White on October 4,1955” (see next item)
Lehigh University Brown and White Newspaper of Lehigh Univ. October 4, 1955 p. 2 Merton Click to View Click to View Cited in Pricked Ear, above. Accompanied by long humorous Editor's Note.
Unverified Other Publications
American law and lawyers: law, government, the legal profession in action Professional newsletter. Vol 5, No. 30 August 24, 1943 Morton No image yet; search hits in Google Scholar indicate this issue.
The Houghton Line published by E.F. Houghton & Co., Philadelphia (metalfinishing company) October 1943 cited in Michigan Purchasing Management; also possible reference by Medford Mail Tribune
Gluey Gleanings published by Commercial Paste Co., Columbus, Ohio cited in Potsdam Commercial Advertiser newspaper
Iowa Taxpayer bulletin cited in Malvern Leader newspaper
Iowa Motor Truck News cited in Malvern Leader newspaper; also in The Oelwein Daily Register newspaper
Surplus Record ( business directory of surplus, new, and used machinery Feb 1944 cited in Middlesboro Daily News newspaper
Artesia Advocate community newspaper of Artesia, New Mexico cited in Gallup Independent newspaper
Bulletin of the Institute of Engineers a publication in Malaysia had this title cited in Sydney Construction newspaper

W. Sterling Atwater's Second Poem in the Boston News Bureau

The other poem we know about, titled “The Time Will Come”, was published in 1944, exact date unknown. It is shown in the image to the right (click to enlarge), which is a later reprint of the poem that appreared in the Brown University Alumni magazine. A day or two after this poem appeared in the Boston News Bureau, the following article was published in the newspaper.

War sometimes carries its own strange touches of the dramatic or tragic, linked with the fates or fortunes of individual personalities caught in the great web of conflict. Occasionally there would seem to enter almost weirdly an element of prophecy or premonition.

Such an incident came yesterday to the notice of the Boston News Bureau in connection with a poem printed on its first page that day, entitled "The Time Will Come." That poem had feelingly told of the emotions which would greet those returning from battle or would lament the unreturning - the “tears of joy in welcome of the living” or else “the tears of sorrow for the dead,” - and also had bespoken the greater grief threatening a future world if those dead had died in vain and if the “hope and destiny of generations lie buried on the slope of Calvary.”

We learned that about noon yesterday, precisely when the author of those verses, W. S. Atwater, was showing the reprint to some of his associates in the Hope Webbing Company of Providence, R. I., was the moment when a telephone call came to him from the War Department informing him of the death in action in Italy of his son, Captain Charnley K. Atwater of the Air Corps.

Fate plays strange pranks.

(Click to enlarge)
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