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"Local resident Belton Cooper - a WWII tank expert"

An article from Birmingham Post-Herald (Alabama) on 3/8/2005
By Pam Jones


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.

The article:

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, he said.

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 men salvaged.

He also wrote down the often ingenious ways in which the soldiers adapted the tanks to make them more compatible with the German enemy.

"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 fighting.

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 department.

"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," he said.

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 recovery program.

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 says.

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 of loss."

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 to Tent.

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 bookstores.

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