THE BATTALION chaplain brought me the news. He was a grave and honest man and not one given to exaggeration, yet for several agonizing minutes I refused to believe him. Or it seemed that some member of the unit with a warped sense of humor was carrying a joke a bit too far.

The chaplain's report was: "Gen. Patton slapped Sgt. Bennett in the hospital." It simply could not be true!

He explained that Bennett had just returned to duty after a siege of malaria. He had been slapped three days ago but had made no complaint except to the chaplain.

My unit was the 1st Battalion, 17th Field Artillery; the time, August 1943, and we were in bivouac on the north coast of Sicily near the town of Temini Imerese.

The man being discussed was Sgt. Paul Bennett of the Battalion Communications Section. I had served with this regular Army soldier from Georgia for more than two years on maneuvers and in combat and knew him to be a brave and dedicated man. It had been a severe loss to the unit when he had contracted malaria about two weeks before while we were pursuing German forces across Sicily. I was pleased to learn that he had not recovered and returned to duty.

At this time in Sicily malaria was taking a heavy toll in our forces, particularly among combat troops.

Investigation of the matter with the battery commander and with Sgt. Bennett indicated that the chaplain had reported accurately. There was no doubt about it: Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, while on a tour of a nearby U.S. military hospital, had accused Bennett of malingering and, without waiting for an explanation, had slapped him several times across the face as he lay on his hospital cot.

Though one nearly sleepless night I tried to decide what to do with this disturbing news. As battalion commander I could hardly ignore it, but as a junior lieutenant colonel I could not confront a lieutenant general. A written report would go directly to Gen. Patton, or at least to a member of his loyal staff. In my quandary I went to see my group commander, a wise and older colonel. His firm admonition was to do nothing. I bit my lip and took his advice.

In a few days we were on the Straits of Messina to provide artillary support for the invasion of the Italian mainland by British and Canadian troops. This operation met little opposition. We then returned to our bivouac near Termini Imerese, and I hoped that the slapping incident would be soon forgotten by all except Sgt. Bennett.

But it was not to be forgotten. The day after we returned to bivouac, a full colonel, resplendent in the well-pressed uniform of a staff officer, roared up to battalion headquarters, flashed his ID card and snapped out a command to fetch Sgt. Bennett. His brief, icy explanation was that "Gen. Patton wants to see him." Bennett was hustled off with scarecely time to button his shirt. On his face was the look of a man en route to the gallows.

As we waited with increasing apprehension, the Armed Forces Radio carried a brief announcement that an American newsman had reported the slapping of an enlisted soldier by Gen. Patton and that Gen. Eisenhower was investigating the matter.

Bennett returned before nightfall to tell us that Gen. Patton had apologized to him in person. The entire incident had a bizarre, Alice-in-Wonderland air about it.

In a few days, the incident was a major news item. When he was finally named, the soldier struck by Patton was identified as Sgt. Charles H. Kuhl. Paul Bennett was not mentioned. General Patton had slapped two hospitalized soldiers that day but somehow the news had been modified. We were greatly relieved, for neither Sgt. Bennett nor his battalion commander wished to achieve such notoriety.

The rest of the story is in the history books: how Gen. Patton was reprimanded, temporarily relieved of command by Gen. Eisenhower and nearly missed his appointment with destiny.