Belton Cooper

1st Lt. Belton Y. Cooper, 18th Armored Ordnance Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, First Army

born Oct 4, 1917  Huntsville, Alabama
died May 26, 2007 Birmingham, Alabama

It was the first trip by this Yankee to Alabama. On April 30, 2001, I drove to Belton Cooper’s house in a very nice neighborhood in Birmingham, book, tape recorder, and gifts in hand, and rang the front doorbell. Rebecca Cooper, a very pretty lady, full of Southern charm, answered the door. She showed me upstairs to the 83 year-old Mr. Cooper’s room, where he was confined to a wheelchair due to a leg broken from a household fall.

belton-cooper-2001I had read Mr. Cooper’s book, Death Traps about America’s Sherman tanks in WWII, and had brought my copy for him to autograph.  I had also seen him on the History Channel speaking about the deficiencies of America’s tanks (Engineering Disasters).  We had spoken by phone and he invited me to visit.  In person, Mr. Cooper was highly articulate, just as in his writing. He had unusual sensitivity to human values, and at times was close to tears in his storytelling. His mind was very sharp, and he could recite specific muzzle velocities and glacis plate angles all day long.

A highly educated engineer (2 years at V.M.I., 2 years advanced training at the U. of Mich, then Ft. Knox Armor School training in tank tactics), Cooper was an ordnance officer in charge of returning killed American tanks back to battle for the Third Armored Division.  This meant Cooper and his men had to undertake the extremely dangerous task of retrieving the tanks with recovery vehicles, normally at night, often behind enemy lines, then repairing, and refurbishing them.  The Sherman tank had many admirable qualities, but was notoriously under-gunned and under-armored compared to the opposing German tanks.

Cooper probably witnessed the destruction in battle of more Sherman tanks and their crews than any other human being.  In his unit, 648 Sherman tanks were completely destroyed, while another 700 were returned to battle— a loss rate of 580 percent of the initial 232 tanks.  When one of these gasoline burning “Ronson lighters” was penetrated by an armor-piercing shell from another tank or even a hand-held Panzerfaust, it often ignited the ammo inside the Sherman, incinerating the entire crew.  Typically a tank restoration meant that Cooper and his crew had to scrape out the brains, limbs, and other human remains, plug the holes in the tanks, repair all mechanical damage, and restore the interior white paint job. With replacement tank crews in short supply, his unit also became involved in the training of new crews.  It must have been with a heavy heart that they sent these fresh crews off to war, knowing what they did about their chances of survival.

death-traps-coverTowards the end of the war, Cooper witnessed the liberation of the German concentration camp at Nordhausen. He also participated in the capture of V2 rocket engines and plans before the Russians got to them. After the war, Mr. Cooper raised two sons and started a highly successful family robotic and automation company. More than 50 years after WWII, he was still haunted by memories of his wartime duties and what seemed to him the needless waste of human lives.  At the tender age of 80, he finished writing Death Traps, and with an assist from Stephen Ambrose, found a publisher.  It sold more copies than he ever imagined (and is still for sale today).

Cooper wishes the US Army had moved more quickly to rectify the inadequacies of the Sherman tank when it became obvious.  Like his commander, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, Cooper strongly favored the completely new, heavy (47 ton), M26 Pershing tank. But the decision-makers (including Gen. Patton) were firm in their preference for ease of shipping, high mobility, and false doctrine such as “tanks don’t fight tanks.”  A few M26s were delivered around March, 1945—too little, too late.

It took a great deal of courage for Cooper to publish a book critical of a well-established US weapons system such as the Sherman tank. The book still receives rave reviews, but there have also been critics, sometimes seemingly the knee-jerk reaction one gets to any criticism of things American. There are armor wonks on the Web today who nit-pick “Death Traps” to death without doing much harm to Cooper’s major thesis.  Personally, I am a big fan of the Sherman tank and the brave soldiers who figured out how to turn a losing hand into a winner by inventing superior tactics. Whenever I have seen first-hand a Sherman tank in operation, the sights and sounds are always a big thrill (see and hear one under Links).  Of course, I was too young to have to fight in one.

Brig. Gen. Albin Irzyk, another of my personal heroes, had a scathing criticism for Cooper’s viewpoint when I asked him about it.  Though he admittedly had not read the book, Irzyk regarded Cooper as a relatively low-ranking, rear-echelon functionary, not to be taken too seriously, on which I will elaborate in my section on Irzyk.  Then Irzyk goes on to discuss the merits of the Sherman tank and reasons why the M26 would not have been helpful. Cooper states clearly in the Introduction to his book: “All personal memoirs of the war are written from the author’s perspective. As my perspective was a relatively limited one, I feel this should be explained in the beginning.”  Although Cooper provided all the engineering details, he did not say much more than was known to Gen. Eisenhower by early July, 1944, in Normandy.  Upgrading the Sherman gun from 75mm to 76mm still did not match the muzzle velocity required for penetrating the German tanks.  When he learned this, Ike blew his stack, saying to Gen. Bradley, “You mean our 76 won’t knock these Panthers out?  Why, I thought it was going to be the wonder gun of the war.”

belton-cooper-inscriptionWhen I met Belton Cooper, he had not totally forgiven the Germans for WWII—but almost.  He told me this story about a dinner in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day as a guest of Stephen Ambrose:

There was an American whose parachute landed on the church at St. Mere Eglise.  Not the one whose body was left dangling for days, but another one who sort of bounced off and landed on the ground. There was also a German named Hans who was manning one of the guns on Omaha Beach that literally mowed down scores of Americans.  The Germans were sitting quietly by themselves until Ambrose suggested to me and others that we join the Germans at their table. At one point Hans stood up to make some kind of statement.  He couldn’t get out a word before physically sort of dissolving in tears.  The American paratrooper went over to him and said, “Hans, that was 50 years ago. I forgive you, and I love you.” They hugged and both cried, and for all the men and their wives there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Cooper said, “I have never seen a better example of Christian forgiveness.” Being deeply religious himself, he credits that for his survival and the good life he has enjoyed since the war.

Belton Cooper gave me this parting thought:

“What a terrible thing war does to a man;
It takes him in the prime of his life.
It demeans him, it humiliates him,
It destroys his last vestige of human dignity.
Sometimes it kills him or horribly maims him,
And those of us who survive it are never quite the same.”

I received a Thank You card from the Coopers shortly after my visit, but had no further contact before his death in 2007. Cooper is a hero to me because of his arduous and dangerous duty to his country, and his courage in speaking out about an area of our military that needed improvement.  He was a good, gentle man expressing through the book his grief for the men of the Third Armored who gave up their lives fighting in what he believed to be inferior tanks.

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