Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II

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9780891418146: Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War II

“Cooper saw more of the war than most junior officers, and he writes about it better than almost anyone. . . . His stories are vivid, enlightening, full of life—and of pain, sorrow, horror, and triumph.”
—STEPHEN E. AMBROSE
From his Foreword

“In a down-to-earth style, Death Traps tells the compelling story of one man’s assignment to the famous 3rd Armored Division that spearheaded the American advance from Normandy into Germany. Cooper served as an ordnance officer with the forward elements and was responsible for coordinating the recovery and repair of damaged American tanks. This was a dangerous job that often required him to travel alone through enemy territory, and the author recalls his service with pride, downplaying his role in the vast effort that kept the American forces well equipped and supplied. . . . [Readers] will be left with an indelible impression of the importance of the support troops and how dependent combat forces were on them.”
Library Journal

“[DEATH TRAPS] FILLS A CRITICAL GAP IN WW2 LITERATURE. . . . IT’S A TRULY UNIQUE AND VALUABLE WORK.”
—G.I. Journal

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About the Author:

Belton Y. Cooper is president of the Herman Williams Company in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives with his wife, Rebecca.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Reflections On Board the LST to Normandy

My feelings were somewhat ambivalent as I stood on the deck of the landing craft and looked down at the gently rolling seas of the English Channel. Although the water was not particularly rough, the heavily laden landing craft seemed to have a roll frequency in sync with that of my stomach. We had been advised to take seasickness pills about two hours before embarking, but because I had spent ten days crossing the entire ocean without using pills, I felt certain I would not need them to cross the narrow Channel.

Earlier in the evening, when we had loaded on the landing craft, we were immediately shown the officers’ country mess, where I proceeded to load up on buttered toast, doughnuts, and coffee. This now was my undoing, and I regretted having waited until getting out to sea before taking the pills.

In addition to being seasick, I felt thoroughly confused. My concern and apprehension about the future were somewhat offset by the excitement of participating in the largest invasion of all time. But I was also teed off. Watching all the surrounding ships made me realize that I should have chosen the navy; instead, I was an ordnance liaison officer in the 3d Armored Division.

During my first two years of college at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I took army ROTC in the artillery branch. At the beginning of my junior year, I transferred to the University of Michigan to study naval architecture and marine engineering, which had been my lifelong ambition. Because the University of Michigan did not have a naval ROTC at the time, I decided to enter the army ROTC ordnance branch, which was the closest thing to artillery offered by the university. Although I received full credit for my ROTC studies, I had to take additional hours to graduate. By fall 1941, a new naval ROTC program had been started at Michigan, but by this time I had already received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Department Reserve.

The naval ROTC unit started offering ensign’s commissions for senior naval architects in the Bureau of Ships, pending graduation. I immediately submitted my transcript and took the physical exam to apply for a commission; I was accepted based on my graduation in February 1942.

But a problem surfaced during my interview with the naval commanding officer. He told me it was not possible to have simultaneous commissions in the army and the navy; I would have to resign my army commission in order to accept my navy commission. I agreed at once and requested that he contact the War Department and have me transferred to the navy. But it wasn’t that simple. According to regulations, the navy could not request that the army transfer me; I would have to resign. However, he would be glad to provide a letter showing that I had been offered the commission as an ensign.

Here began my enlightenment about the government’s bureaucratic machinations. One could not simply turn in a resignation. Instead, certain forms had to be requested from the War Department, filled out in triplicate, and sent back to the department. I immediately requested such forms, then waited.

In early June 1941, I received a telegram from the War Department and eagerly opened it in anticipation of good news about my requested transfer. I was shocked when I read the contents.

TO BELTON Y. COOPER SECOND LIEUTENANT ORDNANCE DEPARTMENT RESERVE stop. CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE HEREBY ORDERED TO REPORT TO ACTIVE DUTY TO THE EIGHTEENTH ARMORED ORDNANCE BATTALION THIRD ARMORED DIVISION CAMP POLK LOUISIANA ON JUNE 22ND 1941 stop. YOU ARE TO BE RELIEVED OF ACTIVE DUTY IN ORDER TO RETURN TO YOUR HOME IN HUNTSVILLE ALABAMA BY JUNE 22ND 1942 stop.

SINCERELY HENRY L. STIMSON SECRETARY OF WAR.

Although I did not know then that circumstances would extend my active duty and postpone my graduation until June 1946, I was upset that my plans to design the world’s first unsinkable battleship were shot square in the rear end. It appeared incomprehensible to me that the government would insist that I remain a maintenance officer in an armored division when every year only ninety naval architects graduated as opposed to some twenty thousand mechanical engineers, who could have easily filled this position.

It was sometime past midnight on July 3, 1944, when we cleared the breakwater at Weymouth, England. I was impressed with the skill of the U.S. Navy in keeping the LSTs in a somewhat orderly formation. In the darkness, I could barely see the shadowy forms of the ships in front and to the rear of ours.

All of a sudden, my seasickness became acute.

“Cooper, what the hell are you doing?” asked one of my buddies.

“I’m feeding the fish, damnit. What the hell does it look like?”

Had I not grabbed my helmet, I would have lost it also to the briny deep. I sat down on the deck in a cold sweat and waited for the next spasm. Fortunately, the queasiness passed.

Crossing the Atlantic

It was only natural that I would compare the trip across the Channel to crossing the Atlantic on the troop ship John Erickson.

We sailed from New York on September 5, 1943, in the largest troop convoy that had yet been assembled in World War II. The German submarine wolfpack attacks on American convoys had peaked in the spring of 1943 and now seemed to be abating. The navy took no chances, however, because the German battleship Tirpitz was known to be in Norway along with several cruisers and submarines.

The convoy consisted of nine transports carrying the 3d Armored Division and the 101st Airborne Division, which would play a major role in the battle of Normandy and the following breakout, as well as numerous separate artillery, medical, and service units. The convoy also included nine navy tankers, loaded with fuel and supplies for the upcoming invasion, and an escort consisting of the battleship Nevada and nine destroyers.

I was standing on the deck at the stern as our ship passed down the Hudson Channel. Some two thousand troops were also on deck enjoying the sunshine of a clear September day. Looking aft, we could see the Statue of Liberty as her head disappeared over the horizon. This final vision of New York had a profound effect on me and probably all the other troops. I’m sure that many were wondering if or when we would see our country again.

I was assigned to a cabin with five other first lieutenants. The cabin, about ten feet square, contained two stacks of three bunks each and had a small adjoining toilet and saltwater shower. Although we were crowded, our accommodations were luxurious compared to those of the enlisted men, who slept in the holds in bunks stacked five high. I had an upper bunk on the starboard side next to a blacked-out porthole. I was comfortable and had no trouble sleeping, despite the fact that my lieutenant buddies loved to shoot craps and play poker well into the night.

On day five, halfway across the Atlantic, I was asleep in my bunk about midnight when I was suddenly awakened by the sound of a remote explosion followed immediately by two similar explosions. I jumped out of my bunk and tore out down the hall barefooted and in my long underwear. I was followed by my buddies, who had been shaken out of their lethargy following a late-night poker game.

As we passed through the double blackout curtains onto the deck, we saw a fully lighted ship on the horizon. My first thought, although not entirely logical, was that one of the ships in the convoy had been torpedoed and had turned on the lights to allow the troops on board to escape. It soon appeared that the ship was dead in the water, because the convoy proceeded and the ship disappeared to our rear. There were no further explosions or other unusual activities, and we finally drifted back to our cabins and went to sleep.

There was great excitement and much speculation on board the next morning. The GI rumor mill was going full tilt. The most logical explanation, from the naval officer in charge of our gun crew, was that the lighted vessel was a hospital ship returning to the States from England. Such ships, which were painted white with a large red cross on the side, traveled fully lighted at night so as not to be mistaken by German submarines; in fact, the Allies notified the Germans when these ships were on the high seas. According to the Geneva Convention, the ships, as noncombatants, were allowed to proceed under the protection of the International Red Cross.

When a hospital ship approached a convoy, the convoy would open up and let it pass through. Knowing this, German submarines would surface at night and follow the hospital ship closely so that the propeller of the submarine could not be detected separately from the propeller of the hospital ship. The submarine would safely enter a convoy and then attack. In an attempt to counter this, Allied navies would drop several depth charges behind any hospital ship that approached a convoy.

Each of the men sleeping in the holds of our ship had a space approximately two feet by two feet by six feet for himself and his duffel bag. The bag, about eighteen inches in diameter and thirty-six inches long, held all of a soldier’s personal gear. Obviously, the soldier was crowded in his bunk. Under the double loading arrangement, soldiers spent twelve hours in their bunk and the next twelve hours on deck. They would bring their duffel bags with them wherever they went, because they might not return to the same bunk.

Each section of the deck was patrolled by military police (MP). One day, a private had just come up on deck, placed his duffel bag against the door of a storage locker, and settled down with one of his buddies to spend the rest of the day in the sunshine. He had no sooner gotten comfortable than the MP sergeant came by and told him he couldn’t block the entrance to the door. So the private moved himself and his bag to the only other place available—by the rail.

A few minutes later a young second lieutenant came by and noticed the soldier lying against the rail underneath the lifeboat. The lieutenant told him that he was blocking the way to the lifeboats, not a good idea in the event of an emergency.

“The MP sergeant told me to move over here,” said the private, “because I couldn’t block the entrance to the door.”

“I don’t care what the sergeant told you,” the lieutenant replied. “You’ll have to move back. You can’t stay here.”

The private moved his duffel bag back against the door. No sooner had he gotten settled and started talking with his buddy than the MP sergeant came by again.

“Soldier, I thought I told you to move that bag against the rail.”

“Sergeant, I moved it there and some second lieutenant told me it wasn’t safe to be on the rail and to move back here.”

“I don’t care what some damn shavetail told you,” replied the MP sergeant. “I’m in charge of this deck, and you’ll move that thing back over there like I told you in the first place.”

The frustrated young soldier moved back against the rail. Sure enough, a few minutes later the lieutenant came by again.

“Soldier, I thought I told you to move that barracks bag away from this rail.”

“Lieutenant, I did, but the sergeant told me to move again.”

The young lieutenant was feeling his oats. “Move that damn bag away from the rail. I don’t want to tell you again, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

The soldier moved back against the door with his bag. “I’ve had it up to here,” he told his buddy. “If I have to move this damn bag again, it’s going in the ocean.”

Shortly, the MP sergeant came back down on the deck. When he saw the soldier with his bag against the door, he was infuriated.

“Damnit, soldier, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you to move that bag over to the rail.”

“Sergeant, that won’t be necessary,” the soldier replied. “You’ll never have to tell me again.”

With that, he stood, picked up his bag, walked calmly across the deck, and tossed the bag over the rail into the waves. The MP sergeant looked stunned. All the enlisted men in the vicinity started applauding and hollering, “Go soldier, go, go.”

At a special court-martial convened that afternoon, the soldier was tried and convicted for destruction of government property.

Aboard the LST in the English Channel, I felt much better after a brief nap in my bunk. As far as the eye could see in any direction, there were ships. Most of the combat vessels had either gone east to Gold Beach to support the British or west to Utah Beach to support the American VII Corps. Because the beachhead was about ten miles inland from Omaha Beach, there was no threat of direct fire from artillery.

The LSTs circled in slow, lazy patterns as they awaited the signal to come onto the beach. This was D + 28, so all the fighting had long since cleared the beach itself. There was still threat of aircraft, but I was assured that we had adequate protection.

A few moments later, a lone Me109 came screaming down the beach. Although the combat vessels were gone, it seemed as though hundreds of giant hoses sprayed liquid antiaircraft fire in long, arched trajectories as the tracers tried to seek their target. Yet the plane continued on its path until it was out of sight. I found out later that it was a reconnaissance plane that repeated this operation several times a day. Although I had seen enemy reconnaissance planes in the searchlight beams over England at night, this was my first view of the enemy in actual combat. It was indeed an exciting Fourth of July.

I had a bet with my buddy Ernie Nibbelink, who was on the LST next to us, as to who would be the first to go ashore. We were all off the Fox Orange section of Omaha Beach, awaiting the beach master’s signal. The captains of the LSTs apparently also had bets as to who would go ashore first.

Immediately after the signal, the ships broke formation and headed for the beach. As our ship approached, it trimmed aft as much as possible, dropped the stern anchor about two hundred yards from shore, and rammed the beach at top speed. Because an LST is most vulnerable when beached, all due haste was made to unload and get it off the beach as quickly as possible.

We were all down below revving the Jeep engines and ready to debark. I had loaded on the transport as late as possible so that my Jeep would be close to the bow doors and I’d be able to get off before Ernie. He’d apparently had the same thing in mind. As we came down the landing door, his Jeep appeared to be somewhat ahead of mine. However, about thirty feet of water separated the end of the landing door and the beach, which meant that he had to wade. This should have been no problem; we had already waterproofed the vehicles to be able to operate in about three feet of water. But Ernie’s Jeep came off the landing door and dropped straight out of sight. It seems that the LST had landed in a shell crater; it had to be pulled out with a bulldozer. Needless to say, I beat Ernie to the beach and won the bet.

The beach operation appeared extremely well organized. The Normandy beaches were receiving an average of thirty thousand troops a day and a greater tonnage of cargo than the port of New York. In addition to this, numerous burned-out hulks of tanks, half-tracks, and other vehicles were strewn up and down the beach, as if a giant child in...

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