Thursday, February 26, 2009

Battle of the Bulge Tank Takes its Place in US Army History

'Cobra King' on Rose Barracks in Vilseck, Germany, today. During the Battle of the Bulge the tank and its crew led an armor an infantry column that relieved the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. U.S. Army Europe historians and museum curators recently confirmed the tank's identity and lineage. (Photo credit Dave Melancon.)

Living History:

VILSECK, Germany, Feb. 26, 2009 -- One day after Christmas 1945, "Cobra King" battled its way into World War II history. One day before Christmas 2008, it officially began a new journey to its rightful place as part of the Army's heritage.

Today Cobra King sits overlooking the back gate of Rose Barracks here, a nearly forgotten silent steel hulk. But on Dec. 26, 1945, the same Sherman "Jumbo" tank and its crew led a combined infantry and armor column that relieved Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division surrounded by the enemy in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.

The tank's moniker comes from the tank corps tradition of naming vehicles with the first letter of their companies' designations. Cobra King went into battle with tankers from Company C, 37th Tank Battalion.

One longtime U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr civilian employee said the tank has been in place at Rose Barracks for at least 10 years.

Sgt. Brian Stigall of the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, said he drove past the tank many times while training on Rose Barracks, but normally paid little attention to it. But after Stigall attended a historical reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge re-enactment, the Jumbo by the base's back gate suddenly stood out in his mind.

A historical marker outside a still-standing bunker on the outskirts of Bastogne displays images of Cobra King that reminded the air defense artilleryman of the tank in Vilseck.

After a tour of duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, Stigall said, he returned to Germany and began a mission to track down the vehicle's history.

He started his quest with Steven Ruhnke, the 1st Armored Division museum curator in Baumholder, Germany, who introduced him to U.S. Army Europe staff curator Gabriele E. Torony.

Torony knew just who to enlist to get to the bottom of Cobra King's identity -- Charles Lemons, curator for the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Ky. Lemons is considered the Army's top authority on tanks, she said.

Lemons' research and expertise shed more light on the background of the Army's Shermans and unveiled details that suggested the tank in Vilseck might indeed be Cobra King.

Cobra King is one of only 254 M4A3E2 Jumbos built by the Fisher Tank Arsenal, starting in June 1944. The first versions of the 42-ton Jumbos carried a 75mm main gun, two 50-caliber and one 30-caliber machine guns. Cobra King was later upgraded to 76mm in 1945, according to Lemons' findings. The upgrade was ordered by 3rd Army commander Gen. George S. Patton to make Cobra King a more effective anti-tank weapon, Lemons said.

"The tank was simply 'up-gunned' -- a simple process that was done at the order of Gen. Patton in March to April 1945," Lemons wrote in an e-mail to USAREUR historians.

Stigall said Baltimore historian Joe DeMarco pointed out several more clues that helped the sergeant identify the tank: mismatched road wheels, reversed return and tension rollers.

DeMarco's records also show the vehicle's location from the end of World War II to today. Ruhnke said it was part of the 1st Armored Division's historic vehicle collection through the 1980s and was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Division museum in 1989.

The historians also provided the strongest evidence of the tank's identity - information on its serial and registration numbers.

"Records show the tank in question had a registration number of 3083081 and Cobra King's number (is) 3083084, as seen in the famous photo from Bastogne," Stigall said.

Torony said the current number was incorrectly painted on the tank's turret during periodic maintenance.

DeMarco's records pointed out several additional keys to the tank's identification, Stigall said.

Torony and her husband traveled to Rose Barracks in late September to scrape corrosion off the tank's tow hooks to reveal its serial numbers, which she photographed and sent to Lemons at the Patton Museum.

"I had my doubts that this was the tank; however, when Charles Lemons confirmed the serial numbers that we had scraped on the tow hooks, I knew then this was the authentic tank."

Tank turrets and hulls have unique serial numbers welded onto them, Lemons said.

Stigall and Ruhnke went to Vilseck to dig deeper, comparing the numbers on the tank's road wheels, hull and turret with numbers in their records.

"If you look at the photographs you will see the mold number is visible on the left side of the turret on Cobra King," he said. "That same number is visible on the M4A3E2 at Vilseck. The mold numbers are most certainly unique identifiers, as I have not seen any duplication in Sherman Jumbo tanks I have seen."

"There was a lot of little stuff for us to look for," Stigall said. "We got a perfect match."

With the facts all pointing to Cobra King, USAREUR historians and curators confirmed the tank's identity and lineage Dec. 24, 2008.

Cobra King has now been officially recognized by Department of the Army museum curators as a highly significant piece of World War II history, Torony said, and is expected to go on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Army, scheduled to open in 2013 near Washington, D.C.

"This is the most significant Sherman that I can imagine being available for inclusion in the planned World War II gallery for NMUSA," Kenneth Christmas-Smith, the museum's chief design curator, told Torony. "The incredible provenance of this tank certainly would supersede using one that had been selected previously."

"This tank needs to be protected and restored," Torony said. "The most suitable place for this historical tank is inside ... (the NMUSA) ... where the tank will be viewed by our veterans and their children for generations to come."

While Torony said Cobra King can't be restored to operational status because of its aged condition and Army museum regulations that prevent old parts from being replaced, Stigall said he feels the tank should be displayed where USAREUR Soldiers can learn more about their heritage and World War II, before it goes to Washington.

"This is a very rare piece of our military history. She and her crews fought through one of the biggest battles of World War II and then continued to fight till the end of the war," the sergeant said. "Our past is so often forgotten, and having a piece of our history that people can stand next to and touch is a great way to connect to the past."

(Report by Dave Melancon, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs Office.)

Related: U.S. Army Battle of the Bulge Web site

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