Death Traps:
The Survival of an American Armored Division

in World War II

by Belton Y. Cooper

Presidio Press

foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose

Details: Presidio Press 1998; 324 pp, $28.95 ($26.05 via Barnes and Noble); ISBN 0-89141-670-6
Media: Hard Cover Book
Review Type: Book Review
Rating: Recommended

Reviewed by Cookie Sewell


F i r s t R e a d

Most armor afficiandoes have seen the movie "Kelly's Heroes" and the adventures of the anachronistic Oddball and his crew. One of the more memorable scenes in the movie finds Clint Eastwood as Kelly running into a relaxed Donald Sutherland who is "catching rays" while his crew feverishly works on the tank. Eastwood asks if he is going to help them. The answer? "No, man, I don't know what makes ‘em work, I just ride in ‘em."

The same cannot be said for Belton Cooper. Fifty-four years ago, as a lieutenant, Mr. Cooper served as a ordnance liaison officer with Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division during its combat in northern Europe. He got to see a good portion of France, Belgium and Germany over the hood of a jeep tearing along rutted roads as he sought out damaged or broken-down tanks in need of repair. Since 3AD had bypassed many pockets of German troops, this was an incredibly hairy task, but one absolutely critical to the ability of the "Spearhead" division to do its job. As an alumnus of the 3rd, I eagerly awaited this book coming out since I heard of its release date last June, and the wait and the book have both been worth it.

The picture Mr. Cooper presents here is a very personal but very precise tale of the efforts needed to keep an armored division moving in heavy combat. There has never been anything like it before or since, and the tale is of great worth to those who do not understand either the sacrifice of the past or the effort required to permit our predecessors to make that sacrifice. The tale which is told here is of one where it is not minutes of sheer terror, but day after day of fear, drudgery, and horror, overcome by determined men to make sure the tanks would roll forward.

Mr. Cooper is a very polished writer, and the book is very readable. But there is a certain quality of "you are there" many other memoirs do not seem to have. Part of it is the fact that there are a number of technical errors in it, but in the case of this book, they actually enhance the tale being told. These errors are not those of a man who has not done his research, but reflect the "rumor control" effect so many of us are familiar with, but in its 1944 version.

Case in point: the lack of a good, mobile, well-armed and well-armored tank. Mr. Cooper gives the field view of the stupidity and "branch blinder" mentality which held up 90mm armed tanks, putting a sharp stick in the eye of the image of GEN Patton as he does so. But one of his complaints is that the M26 came with "Christy" suspension which made it a much better tank. He does equate the Pershing's suspension with torsion bars, which is was, but it was not a "Christy" suspension. J. Walter Christie, an eccentric if there ever was one, created a long travel coil spring suspension laid out at sharp angles inside a false hull. This did permit the tanks to go very fast over rough ground, but copyrights and lack of perceived need caused the US Army to only purchase seven Christie tanks. While the Christie T3 tank was the father (literally) of nearly 100,000 T-34s, SU-85s and SU-100s, not to mention Covenanters, Crusaders, and Cromwells, it can't be pointed to as the reason for the success of the M26.

Mr. Cooper does provide some very good insight as to one of the classic "Gotterdammerung" pictures of WWII, which shows a German Panther burning in front of Cologne Cathedral. A 3AD M26 picked it off with a shot on the move right after the Germans had just knocked out a Sherman. He includes four photographs from his own collection of the tank being knocked out, and the burned-out hull days later. He also provides the only known description of what he calls the "M26A1E2" or Super Pershing, better known formally as the T26E4. This tank, the only guaranteed Tiger II killer to ever be shipped to Europe, did actually fight one engagement, vaporizing an unknown German vehicle at 1500 meters (due to snipers, nobody wanted to go find out what it killed!)

Regardless of branch or interest, this book provides a very exciting and in some cases moving description of the background effort it took to permit units like 3AD to become the legendary formations of WWII. Nothing in recent times – ridge-running in Korea, firebases in Viet Nam, or even the 100 Hours of Desert Storm – pressed the ingenuity and resolve of American troops and their support personnel like WWII. This book lays this out better than any other recent effort, and should be part of the library of any contemporary warrior, be he "heavy" or "light".

The saying of "Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics" is personified in this book.

Cookie Sewell

Review Copyright 1998 by Cookie Sewell
This Page Created on 06 November, 1998.
Last updated 22 July, 2003.

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