Promotional lead on Metro/State front page:
When Lt. Belton Cooper saw how the German Panzer tanks were
destroying the U.S. Sherman tanks during World War II, he knew
something had to be done. As a member of the Army's Third Armored
Division, Cooper saw to it that the tanks were reinforced with
steel, concrete or any other substance his repair squadron could
get its hands on. Later, Cooper recalled the experience in a
book, "Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored
Division in World War II", published in 1998.
When Belton Cooper was a young boy growing up in Huntsville,
he dreamed of building the world's first unsinkable battleship.
The onset of World War II interrupted his naval architecture
studies when he was commissioned an ordnance lieutenant in the
Army's 3rd Armored Division.
Today, nearly 60 years after the war's conclusion, Cooper, 87,
is considered the world's leading authority on the M4 Sherman
tank, the workhorse of the American armored divisions, according
to Martin Morgan, research historian at the National D-Day Museum
in New Orleans.
Morgan recently interviewed Cooper, of Mountain Brook, for inclusion
in the museum's collection of some 2,000 oral histories.
"Mr. Cooper is one of the people who show up on the radar"
whenever World War II is mentioned, Morgan said. As the author
of "Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division
in World War II," Cooper has appeared in several of The
History Channel programs on the war, including "Suicide
Missions: Tank Crews of World War II," based primarily on
his 1998 memoir.
"No one else out there is capable of filling us in on the
information that he has," Morgan said.
Cooper's technical background allows him to explain why the
battles between American tanks and their vastly superior German
counterparts in northern Europe usually had an unhappy ending,
Morgan expects Cooper's interview will be part of the museum's
tank exhibit once its $150 million expansion is complete. The
museum already owns a Sherman tank, and Morgan says he can envision
Cooper's interview being part of that permanent exhibit.
On July 9,1944, Cooper's division went into combat 10 miles south
of the Normandy beachhead. The Germans blocked out the first
tank and severely damaged several others, including one in which
the top of its turret was shot off and its gunner killed.
"I said that if the Germans could do that to our tanks,
it was going to be awful. I was just devastated," Cooper
recalls. "I said that somebody has got to report this to
the American people and tell them how it really was."
It was at that moment the young engineer decided to write a book
on his division's experience during the war. He kept copious
notes on each of the hundreds of damaged tanks he and his maintenance
He also wrote down the often ingenious ways in which the soldiers
adapted the tanks to make them more compatible with the German
"I had a little spiral notebook in which I would write the
date, map coordinates and write the specs on damaged tanks, such
as where it was hit, damages and if there were injuries,"
Cooper said., "Then I wrote a three-line description of
every vehicle that was knocked out"
As a liaison officer with the 3rd Armored Division, Cooper was
one of three lieutenants responsible for coordinating the night
recovery, repair and evacuation of tanks damaged during daylight
It was apparent after the division's first encounter with the
Germans that the Sherman tank that he and other American soldiers
had been led to believe was the equivalent of Germany's armored
vehicles was inferior in both design and firepower.
"Germans referred to our Sherman tanks as 'Ronsons' - named
after a well-known cigarette lighter," said James Tent,
chairman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's history
"They were thin-skinned, poorly armed, and with their gasoline
engines (as opposed to diesels) likely to explode when struck
by enemy cannon fire."
Cooper and the other members of the tank maintenance crews realized
changes would have to be made to the tanks if the American tanks
and their crews were to survive the long march to Germany.
The war in western Europe was one of movement and if the armored
divisions were going to move forward, the rule book on tank warfare
would have to be thrown out and replaced with American ingenuity
and flexibility, Morgan said.
"In that situation, having to use tanks that were borderline
obsolete against tanks that were the best in World War II, it
was lucky that cowboy mentality was part of our cultural heritage,"
As long as an American tank had not been completely burned up,
Cooper and his men could repair it. The German army had no tank
As the war progressed and the number of American tanks dropped
to a dangerously low level, the maintenance men of the 3rd would
repair many of the superior German tanks and send them into battle.
According to Cooper, many of the 3rd's maintenance crews had
grown up on farms in the rural South and had experience working
on tractors and other large equipment. Others often had backgrounds
as industrial workers.
The men also looked for any material that would bolster the Sherman's
insufficient armor plating.
"Everything they could put on that plate they would, they
even tried to put chicken wire and concrete on as armor,"
Cooper also wrote of the crews' more gruesome responsibilities,
including removing the bodies of crews from shot-up tanks.
After the bodies were removed, the maintenance crews scrubbed
the tank with disinfectant to remove the odor, repaired the artillery
and painted the interior with white lead to cover the pock marks
and to further cover the smell.
After the war ended, Cooper and the two other liaison lieutenants
with the 3rd Armored Division wrote a lengthy report on their
experiences with the American tanks and detailed numerous shortcomings.
"We lost 648 medium tanks. We had another 700 repaired and
put back into action," Cooper said. "When you compare
that to the original 232 we had when we landed at Normandy, I
don't know of any other division or service that took that kind
By the time Germany surrendered in May 1945, American tank crews
had taken such disproportionately heavy losses that the tanks
were being manned by a third generation of replacements, according
The Army switched from the Sherman tank to the superior Pershing.
Cooper likes to think the report he and his two counterparts
sent in had some influence in that decision.
After serving in the Army of Occupation, Cooper returned to the
United States and finished his degree. He married, had three
sons and began his career at U.S. Pipe. Eventually he bought
the Birmingham-based Herman Williams Company and received patents
on several of his industrial inventions. Cooper's book has sold
between 70,000 and 90,000 copies and is still in print.
He is contemplating his second book, to be titled "Survival
in Combat, through Spiritual Enlightenment," on his experiences
with the spiritual side of combat.
Cooper's tank warfare book is available in paperback in area