Lt. Col. Harold Cohen, Commander, 10th Armored Infantry, 4th Armored Division, Third Army.
born Oct 2, 1916 Woodruff, South Carolina
died Aug 15, 2006 Tifton, Georgia
In April of 2003 I had the honor to meet at his home in Tifton, GA, a man who was one of the most dynamic forces in the annals of the Allied victory over Germany in WWII. 86 year old Harold Cohen was spending most of his days in a nursing home, sleeping day and night, suffering from sleep apnea. He often fell asleep in the middle of conversations. I had phoned his wife, Bettye, and had gotten through to him for several telephone conversations. Harold Cohen had played an important role in the screenplay, “Patton’s Secret Mission”, which I was co-writing, and there were many issues I hoped he could clarify for us. The Cohen family, including his wife Bettye of 60 years and his son, Marty, very graciously invited me to come for a visit. Mr. Cohen came out of the nursing home for a half day to meet me.
In 1942, the 26 year old Cohen, a volunteer from South Carolina, reported to boot camp as just another private. Actually, to enlist he had to sign a waiver because of his poor eyesight. His father, Max, a Lithuanian Jew, had started in America as a door-to-door salesman and ended up owning textile mills and garment factories in South Carolina. His dad told Harold, “See what you can do for Uncle Sam.”
Harold Cohen proved to have a remarkable talent for leadership. Two and a half years later, he was a Lt. Col. and a Battalion Commander in the vaunted 4th Armored Division — a unit that included Col. Creighton Abrams. Cohen and Abrams helped the 4th Armored to invent a new kind of American Blitzkrieg, and to spearhead General George S. Patton’s Third Army as they catapulted out of Normandy, across France, and through Germany. The baby-faced, hard-driving, cigar-chomping Abrams, whom Patton praised as the “best damn tank commander in the Army besides me”, led his Battalion from the front, while having seven Sherman Tanks (all named “Thunderbolt”) worn out or knocked out from under him.
Cohen’s 10th Armored Infantry Battalion, also part of the 4th Armored, riding on top of Abrams tanks or on half-tracks not far behind provided the boots on the ground to hold and defend the territories captured by the tankers. With its 1/4″ thick armor plate, the half-track provided little protection except from small arms fire. As Abrams remembered Cohen, “He sped up and down the column in a mud-spattered jeep, pleading, coaxing, and cursing. His high-pitched voice with its rich Southern accent could be heard for great distances.”
German medium tanks could knock out our under-armored Sherman tanks frontally from 1-1/2 miles. The under-gunned Shermans had to get within a half mile to knock out the German tanks, (not to mention their awesome, heavy Tiger tanks), and that required a shot in the thinner side or rear armor plate. New tactics involving speed, surprise, and the use of forward outposts were improvised by Abrams and Cohen, who became the closest of personal friends, as well as their most trusted battle partners. The German war machine soon learned to fear the 4th Armored Division, and dropped leaflets and posted signs for their troops warning them “Beware of Abrams and Cohen. Roosevelt’s Highest Paid Butchers. Jewish criminals. Qualifications: one has killed his mother and the other was born a bastard.” The Massachusetts-born Abrams, who was not Jewish, never said anything to contradict the impression. “Let them think whatever they want,” was his attitude. He knew what a great advantage it was in wartime to be feared by the enemy.
The Abrams-Cohen team was known as the best in the business, including the capturing of bridges. They were part of the many famous victorious actions of the 4th Armored (the only Armored Division to win a Presidential Citation), including the Battles of Arracourt, Lezey, Juvelize, the relief of Bastogne, the Moselle-Rhine-Saar campaign, and the overnight, sneak crossing of the Rhine. Lt. Col. Cohen was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit, and was decorated by the governments of France, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg.
Towards the end of WWII, Cohen was in an evacuation hospital because of hemorrhoids so severe that even General Patton was shocked upon making a personal inspection. En route from the hospital back to his unit, the unarmed Cohen was captured by the attacking German Sixth SS Mountain Division. After interrogation, the Germans knew full well who Cohen was and that he was Jewish. When caught in an American artillery bombardment, Cohen befriended the Germans by treating dozens of their wounds. Within a day or so, he was thus able to escape unharmed to the advancing US troops. Everybody assumed Cohen would be killed by the SS troops, and when Abrams walked in to a room and saw Cohen sitting there, tears began rolling down his cheeks. They embraced each other, and Abrams told him this was the happiest day of his life to know they were back in business together. Cohen never forgot what his survival had meant to Abrams on that day.
When WWII ended, Cohen went back to the family business, branching out into a very successful outdoor advertising business. He knew that as a Jew he had little chance to make General in the US Army. Abrams went on to become Chief of Staff of the Army and a four star General in charge of the Viet Nam War. The M1 Abrams main battle tank of the US Army since 1980 is named after him. Until Abrams death from cancer in 1974, he and Cohen kept in touch as the best of friends. Personally, I wondered if Cohen’s sleep apnea in his 80’s wasn’t partly due to boredom from having lived a life so full of action, adventure, high drama, glory, and meaning, coupled with inconsolable grief — a hole in his soul from the loss of his best friend, Creighton Abrams. He did have the ability to snap out of it for brief periods of time. But for the most part, perhaps he found it better to “drop out”.
Tifton, GA has a population of about 15,000 people. There aren’t enough Jewish families to support a proper synagogue. I wondered how welcome Jews like the Cohens would be in a stronghold of the Deep South like Tifton. The answer came back swiftly and powerfully. How about road signs for Harold Cohen Boulevard and Harold Cohen Highway on the main street? When we entered the Holiday Inn, dozens of people came up to the man with reverence to shake his hand. Evidently he had not been seen in public for many months. The love and admiration of the whole town was abundantly obvious. Through his service to his country and his community, good citizenship and ethical behavior, nomatter what their religious or racial prejudices his fellow townspeople may have held, this man had earned their abiding love and respect.
I helped to steady his arm as he shuffled out of the Holiday Inn toward the waiting car, one step at a time using his walker. He looked at me and said, “Pathetic, isn’t it?” Inside that withered body, the handsome, dashing Battalion Commander, the leader of men with the ramrod posture, shoulders back, and impossible standards was still alive, and his harsh judgment did not spare himself. Growing old and feeble was not something he could accept, as will be difficult for us all. “After what you’ve survived, Sir,” I tried to console him with, “it’s a miracle that you’re still on your feet.”
Harold Cohen was not able to answer many of my specific questions. He said that WWII was pretty much a “glob” all mixed together. He showed me his wartime scrapbook and diaries, which he had offered by phone to give me (the family vetoed that benevolent but ill-considered gesture, but were very generous about providing me with photos of and articles about Cohen). He displayed on the wall of his den a number of signed and personally inscribed photographs from famous WWII generals he served under, people like Bruce Clarke, Holmes Dager, William Hoge, and John P Wood. The personal inscriptions on their photos spoke volumes about their esteem for Cohen. He showed me his medals, all beautifully framed. The frame also included the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Presidential Citation issued to all members of the 4th Armored Division.
I left that day feeling that I had brushed up against true greatness. I had some correspondence in October, 2004 and a phone call with Bettye. Little did I imagine that with her apparently robust health, within a year she would precede Harold in death. On Aug. 15, 2006, Col. Harold Cohen died, about two months shy of his 90th birthday. His obituary said, “His most memorable experience was swearing at Creighton Abrams over the radio telling him if he did not get his tank battalion to their location sooner, they would all be dead before he arrived. He thought he would be court martialed for talking to an officer such, but they became lifelong friends.”
Perhaps the most striking impression about Harold Cohen came to me after I got home and read about the ceremony in March, 1996, in which he belatedly received the Distinguished Service Cross. During the war, he had been recommended for this award, second highest award for a combat soldier only to the Congressional Medal of Honor, but somehow the paperwork had gotten stalled and lost due to a serious fire at the National Personnel Records in St. Louis. The case for the DSCC was overwhelming. Dr. Lewis “Bob” Sorley, historian and author of General Abrams excellent biography “Thunderbolt” discovered this oversight and took action through the proper channels to rectify it.
At a special ceremony at Ft. Myer, VA, members of the Cohen family, the Secretary of the Army, Togo West, and other distinguished guests gathered so that Maj. General Dennis Reimer, a one-time aide to Gen. Abrams and now Army Chief of Staff, could pin the medal on the 79 year old Cohen. It occurred to me that a person whose award came 51 years late might well have been a bit annoyed, and might have been tempted to include a remark, even a joking remark, to that effect in an acceptance speech.
That was not to be. Instead, the modest and grateful son of a penniless immigrant accepted the award with two short sentences: “My most prized possession is my American citizenship. My proudest claim is that I am an American patriot.” These understated words are also engraved on his tombstone.
See the video of my visit to Harold Cohen in 2003 (5 minutes, with sound)
See new video of Harold Cohen in 1985 during his first and only return to Europe after WWII. At age 69 you can see how this remarkable man expresses himself, his South Carolina accent, and his wonderful storytelling (13 minutes, with sound). Adult content and language.
What was the chemistry between Cohen and Abrams that built such a strong fighting machine, with an unshakeable bond of trust and mutual respect? Experts after the war tried in vain to put their fingers on it, hoping to find the formula, and bottle the magic for distribution throughout the Armed Forces. Read the 1945 article in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Let me share with you a wonderful email I received today, Apr. 14, 2017, about Harold Cohen from an old friend, Mrs. Blake Bailey
Subject: Harold Cohen
Your message: Dear Mr. Sudmeier – I grew up a little \”river rat\” at Lake Blackshear in Worth County, GA. A few doors down from our residence was the weekend home of Mr. Harold and Mrs. Bettye Cohen. Many a summer day would find my brothers and I swimming. Often, we\’d see a little aluminum boat with an outboard motor coming our direction. Mr. Harold in the back, Mrs. Bettye up front with her poodle. I have vivid memories of seeing my dad standing on our dock with the Cohen\’s boat up next to it chatting. I can still hear Mr. Harold\’s laugh. Growing up, little did I know who that incredible man was. I had no idea I was splashing around in the water next to a WWII hero. Later on when I was attending our local college, I learned of Mr. Harold\’s award of the Distinguished Service Cross. Our history class had an assignment to do a project, essay, etc. We had been studying WWII. I decided to go see Mr. Harold and record an interview. This was probably back in 1997 (maybe 98?). I, too, have looked through that incredible scrapbook his sister made for him. I could have sat and listened to his stories for hours, although I am sure he was censoring some details on my behalf. One of the hardest moments came when I asked him about whether he had taken part in liberating a concentration camp. He said he had, and I could not make out in the video which one he mentioned. What I do remember is that he was very reluctant to talk about it. I\’m sure the images…the sounds…the smell were still all too vivid. He assured me that the pictures I had in my history books did not reveal the true horror of it. I remember he mentioned about the time when he was captured by the Germans that they kept demanding he tell them Patton\’s plans. He talked of their holding a gun to his head. I sat mesmerized. I wrote my paper and turned it in with the video. A+! My professor called it \”living history\” and made our class watch the interview! Tonight, I was reading a facebook post a friend shared of her conversation with a WWII hero in the airport yesterday, and that he also served in the Third Army. I decided to try and look up information about Mr. Harold to share with her and found your site. So thankful I did! History pages remember a tough young Jewish fellow that fought with Abrams. I just remember a jolly white haired gentleman in his little boat that always seemed happy to take time and talk to me. He was a great man! Best wishes! ~ Mrs. Blake Bailey
I was so touched by your memories of the great Harold Cohen. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you enjoyed my memories as written on the website. Isn’t it interesting how many truly great men have so little ego — and how many little men have such big egos.
Warmest regards, Jim