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"Death Traps" - the book
The True Saga of Spearhead Heroes of a Different Sort

  Written by 3rd Armored World War II veteran Belton Cooper of Birmingham, Alabama, and first published in 1998, "Death Traps" has received wide acclaim in military circles. Over 52,000 copies have been sold, and a third printing is set for 2006. The book is available through amazon.com and others online dealers. Read below for the Forward by famed, late historian Stephen E. Ambrose and for an insightful review of the book by Maj. Gary Pounder, USAF.


The Book's Forward

Belton Cooper's memoir of his World War II service with the 3rd Armored Division in Europe is a gem. As a member of the 3rd Armored Division Maintenance Battalion, he had liaison duties that took him far and wide, so he saw more of the war than most junior officers, and he writes about it better than most anyone. He takes us into the hedgerows of Normandy, through the Falaise pocket to the Siegfried Line, then to the Battle of the Bulge; over the Rhine, and across Germany.

His stories are vivid, enlightening, full of life-and of pain, sorrow, horror, and triumph. I first read Cooper's memoir in manuscript and quoted from it extensively in my own "Citizen Soldiers." That is the highest compliment I can pay to a memoir.

Stephen E. Ambrose


Review of "Death Traps"

By Maj Gary Pounder, USAF Maxwell AFB, Alabama
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Summer 2001

Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II by Belton Y. Cooper. Presidio Press (http://www.presidiopress.com), 1998, 352 pages.

In early 1944, the US Army faced a critical decision regarding its armored forces: should it retain the M4 Sherman as its primary tank or accelerate production of the new M26 Pershing heavy tank? Although many armored commanders favored the Pershing, the tank debate continued until Lt Gen George S. Patton, the Army's leading tank "expert," entered the fray. Patton favored the smaller (and supposedly more mobile) Sherman, noting that "tanks were not supposed to fight other tanks, but bypass them if possible, and attack enemy objectives in the rear." Ultimately, senior Allied commanders - including Gen Dwight Eisenhower - backed Patton and decided to increase production of the Sherman. It remains one of the most disastrous choices of World War II - arguably, a decision that lengthened the war and became a literal death sentence for thousands of tank-crew members.

The consequences of the Sherman decision are brutally detailed in Belton Cooper's vivid memoir Death Traps. A maintenance officer who served in the legendary Third Armored Division ("Spearhead"), Cooper was charged with the critical task of locating damaged Shermans, directing their recovery, and ensuring the flow of new or repaired tanks to frontline units. From the Normandy invasion to V-E day, Cooper witnessed the folly of Patton's logic firsthand. The author calculates (with only a touch of irony) that he "has seen more knocked out tanks than any other living American." His eyewitness observations confirmed what American tank crews discovered in combat: the Sherman was badly outclassed by German medium and heavy tanks, most notably the Mark V Panther and the Mark VI Tiger. With their heavier armor, the Panther and Tiger were almost impervious to rounds fired from the Sherman's 75 or 76 mm main gun; conversely, the 88 mm gun on the German tanks usually made short work of their American opponents.

Tabulating the results of this mismatch, Cooper highlights the staggering cost of the Army's flawed choice for its main battle tank. Over the next 11 months, the Third Armored Division, which began the Normandy campaign with 232 M4 tanks, would see 648 of its Shermans destroyed in combat, with another 700 knocked out of commission before being repaired and returned to service - a cumulative loss rate of 580 percent. Casualties among tank crews also skyrocketed, producing an acute shortage of qualified personnel. By late 1944, Cooper recalls, the Army was sending newly arrived infantrymen into combat as replacement tank crews. Some of these recruits received only one day of armor training before being dispatched to the front in their M4s.

But Death Traps is more than a statistical analysis or a collection of wartime remembrances. The author effectively recounts the years of prewar neglect and underfunding that sometimes resulted in poor acquisition decisions. In 1939, the year that German armored columns streaked across Poland, the US Army budget for tank research and development was only $85,000. Such parsimony, Cooper observes, forced hard choices that often degraded combat capabilities. The Sherman's low-velocity 75 or 76 mm gun, for example, was chosen because the Army's artillery branch wanted a cheap, reliable weapon for fire support. In another cost-cutting move, many M4s were equipped with a radial engine originally designed for aircraft. On the battlefield, this engine produced a loud backfire when starting, instantly drawing enemy fire.

Cooper also succeeds in depicting the valiant tankers and resourceful maintenance crews who battled long odds and kept American tank units in combat. Realizing that the Sherman's main gun couldn't penetrate the frontal armor of a Panther or Tiger, US crews gamely tried to outmaneuver their foes, attempting to disable the German tanks with a shot against their sides or rear, where the armor was thinner. Meanwhile, repair crews labored around-the-clock to salvage damaged M4s and return them to service, developing such battlefield innovations as add-on armored "patches" (to improve crew survivability) and the famous hedge "chopper," which allowed US tanks to punch through the thick hedgerows of Normandy. As Cooper reminds us, the ultimate victory of US armored units against the German army was a direct result of the courage, pluck, and determination of American tankers and their maintenance counterparts.

Death Traps is well worth reading, but the work is not without its faults. The book contains only a couple of maps and virtually no photographs. Racing along the front lines to ensure the delivery of tanks to frontline units, the author was clearly too busy to snap pictures during his service in World War II. However, the editors at Presidio Press easily could have incorporated more maps and combat photographs into the book, making it more useful to the reader. They also might have paid a bit more attention to the prose; Cooper is sometimes a plodding writer, and he occasionally rehashes statistics presented in earlier chapters.

Fortunately, these flaws are relatively few and should not deter any serious student of World War II from reading Death Traps. Cooper has revealed a relatively underpublicized (and underappreciated) element of the American victory against Hitler's armored legions. Although historians often claim that the Shermans overcame their German adversaries through the sheer weight of Allied war production and air superiority, Cooper reminds us that it was the tank crews and maintainers who ultimately turned the tide of battle.

One final note: on the surface, a book on American armored operations and logistics during World War II would seem to have little relevance for today's Air Force audience. But it's worth remembering that the same mentality that produced the Sherman tank also gave us inferior aircraft like the P-39 and P-40, which put American pilots at a disadvantage in aerial combat during the early days of World War II. More importantly, as present-day leaders wrestle with critical decisions on force modernization - including the growing debate over "skipping" the next generation of weapons systems - Belton Cooper's book provides a cautionary tale. As technology marches forward, efforts to save money or defer weapons purchases often have grave consequences on future battlefields. Senior officials contemplating the cancellation or delay of critical weapons systems would be well advised to read Death Traps before making a final decision.


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