Staff Sergeant Lafayette Pool
(Reprint from Journal of Military Ordnance – March 1998, By: Dean and Nan Kleffman).
PAGE ONE of THREE
THE FORGOTTEN TANK ACE
Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. Pool
An American To Remember
By Dean and Nan Kleffman
This story is about a tank commander who destroyed 258 enemy vehicles, but he never was awarded the Knights Cross. He was never presented to Hitler, he never wore a fancy black uniform with death heads and S.S. runes, and he never commanded a Panther or Tiger. The reason? He was an American GI and he set the above record in a Sherman tank! Contrary to popular belief other countries besides Germany were capable of producing tank aces too.
Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. Pool was typical of some of the fine tankers produced by the U.S. Army during World War II. Pool was born on July 23, 1919, on a farm in Odem, Texas. He graduated from high school in Taft, Texas in 1938. Pool tried to enlist in the Navy. He was turned down due to an eye injury, although his twin brother was accepted. he then enrolled in an all boys Catholic Academy where he graduated as class valedictorian. Afterwards, he enrolled in Texas, A and I College, as an engineering major.
He quit to enlist in the Army on June 13, 1941. He took basic training at San Antonio, Texas, and then was sent to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, to the newly forming Third Armor Division. Pool joined the Third Battalion, 32nd Armored Regt, when the division was reorganized in January of 1942. He took time out from training to get married to Evelyn Wright in December of 1942.
Pool had been a boxer in college and he joined the division's golden gloves team. He became regional champ in his weight class and was to go to the national meet in Chicago, Illinois in the spring of 1942. He turned down the opportunity because the division had gotten a shipment of new M-4 Sherman Tanks and Pool wanted to start training with his men on the M-4 immediately.
Pool was a tall, lanky 6'3" Texan, who drove his men and himself and trained them rigorously. He always wanted things done right and would not tolerate slipshod methods, whether in maintenance, gunnery, or driving. He demanded the best out of his men and he got it.
The 3rd Bn, 32nd Armor moved to the Desert Training Center near Victorville, California, followed by final training at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
Before sailing to England in September, 1943, Pool was promoted to Staff Sergeant in Company I. He was also given the opportunity to go to OCS, but he turned it down as he was later to turn down a battlefield commission stating "I just want to have one of the best tank crews in the division."
His crew consisted of driver, Wilbert "Baby" Richards, one of the best drivers in the ETO according to Pool; Bert "Schoolboy" Close who was just seventeen years old and was his bow gunner. Given the choice of prison on a manslaughter rap or the Army, Del "Jailbird" Boggs elected to be Pool's loader. Willis "Groundhog" Oller was the gunner. Pool said of Oller "He could shoot the eyebrows off a gnat at 1500 yards." He was very quick and alert. One time near Origny in France it was getting dark when the order came down to halt and coil up for the night. Pool opened his mouth to say "Driver, Halt," but found himself looking down the barrel of a German 88mm in the gloom ahead. He said "Gunner, Fire!" and Oller, without hesitation, holed the enemy gun before its crew could recognize the Sherman Tank.
While in England Pool did some more boxing. In Liverpool in early 1944 he boxed against Joe Louis. It was ment to be an exhibition bout, but Pool got a little too enthusiastic and rapped Louis a few good ones. Louis then put his arm around Pool and said "White man, I'm going to teach you a big lesson." He then proceeded to give Pool a good going over, although there was no knockout.
Pool is what we would call today a "hard charger." He was also inclined to have things his own way. He believed that the quickest way home was to smash the German Army to pieces, and he believed that he was the guy with the crew and the tank that could do it. He made friends easily and also made enemies. He had a quick temper and was not above ignoring orders when they didn't suit him.
Pool landed at Normandy in June, 1944. His battalion fought its first engagement on June 29, 1944 near Villierfossard, northeast of St. Lo.
The loss of Pool's first tank "In The Mood," (all succeeding tanks were called "In The Mood!") was to a Panzerfaust at the village of Les Forges not far from the beach-head. Pool's crew survived and got a new Sherman, and pushed on undauntedly against the Panzers.
Falaise Gap on August 7, 1944, was the big battle and Pool was, as usual, right up front. As the 3d Armored Division was near to closing the ring with the British forces around the Germans, Lt. Col. Walter B. Richardson, commanding task force Y of CCA, 32nd Armored heard Pool say over the radio "Ain't got the heart to kill um," meaning the Germans. The rattle of machinegun fire came over thr radio followed by Pool's Texas drawl "Watch those bastards run, – give it to 'em Close."
At Fromentel, Pool's tank headed the task force Y column as usual which closed the gap. During the closing, Pool's second tank was destroied by enemy bombers, which only made Pool more mad at the Germans. Again the crew survived intact. At Colombrier, France, Pool's tank leading the column almost collided with a Panther. The Panther fired twice and missed. Ollier, the gunner, fired a single shot which penetrated the turret and internal explosions blew the turret clean off the hull of the Panther.
At Namur, Belgium, "In The Mood's" crew destroyed sixteen enemy vehicles, including assault guns, self propelled anti-tank guns, plus several armored personnel carriers in one day. At Dison, Belgium, Pool distinguished himself while acting as a platoon leader. He decided to use his own tank to clean out an annoying pocket of resistance on the left flank of the route they were traveling. After finding and destroying six armored personnel carriers Pool discovered that the head of his column had been fired upon by a German Panther. Quickly he ordered his driver to regain the column. Upon arriving upon the scene of the action he spotted the enemy tank, gave a single estimated range to Oller. The gunner fired an A.P. projectile at 1500 yards to destroy the Panther. The column then moved on with Pool again in his customary place in the lead. Although Pool had two tanks knocked out from under him, he had nerves of steel. His crew added confidence from his bearing and as a result they moved as a single unit, like clockwork.
Pool's one problem was that he was claustrophobic and preferred to remain, as much as possible, on the outside of his tank. Col. Richardson said that Pool rode that tank like a "bucking bronco." He was always exposed in the turret or on top of it.
His driver, Richards, shared his commander's condition in that he always drove with his overhead hatch open, having been trapped once with a jammed hatch. Corporal Richards said "Pool hated the Germans and thought he could lick them all. The men would draw straws to see who would lead the spearhead the next day. Pool would just say, 'Ah'm leading this time' and stand there grinning while we cussed him out."
Pool's luck ran out at the town of Munsterbusch, south of Aachen, Germany, on September 19, 1944, while leading the breakthrough through the Westwall. The crew was due to rotate home in a few days for a war bond tour. "In The Mood" was not leading this time but was flank guard for the task force that day. Pool spotted a heavy anti-tank gun hidden in a house. They had a substitute loader that day as Boggs was sent back for a hearing check-up prior to rotating to the states. The new guy shoved a round in the breech of the 76mm gun and jammed it.
Unable to fire, Pool yelled "Back up baby!" as the first shell hit the turret blowing Pool off the tank onto the ground. He landed running and his right leg folded up like an accordion. He quickly gave himself a morphine injection, sat down and tried to cut his shattered leg off with his pocket knife. Meanwhile, a second shell hit the tank well forward as Richards backed the tank up slowly. To Richards, Oller, the loader and Close, there was only the bell sound of the hit, the stench of powder and shower of sparks. Richards didn't know that Pool had been thrown clear of the turret and kept on backing up. Col. Richardson saw "In The Mood" slowly reach a cut bank and, as if in slow motion, topple over, almost upside down.
Oller felt the blood on his leg and knew that he had been wounded. The others were unhurt and all four crawled out of the overturned tank.
Col. Richardson came up to Pool and gave him another shot of morphine. Aid men then reached Pool who was bleeding badly from the splinter wound. They gave him a third shot of morphine. Two of them quickly attended to Oller. Pool cursed the Germans bitterly as the aid men bandaged his wound. As they put him in the litter he twisted suddenly and said, "Somebody take care of my tank."
The war was over for Lafayette G. Pool. He knew that he and his crew could beat the Germans. He proved it so often that his record is almost an unbelievable document of total victory. The amazing score by the Texan and his crew is fully authenticated by the 3d Armored Division.
Pool was twice nominated for the Medal of Honor. The first time the papers were lost,
the second time it was turned down as the higher-ups felt that it was a crew, not an individual effort. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star, Belgium Fourragere and Order of St. George Medal.
Pool's career was far from over though, but first he had an ordeal he had to go through with his wounded right leg. After three shots of morphine he awoke nineteen days later in a hospital in Belgium. Due to rain and exposure he contracted double pneumonia. He did not get back to the states until January, 1945. When he was wounded he weighed 196 pounds and when he returned to the United States he weighed 85 pounds! The bone in his leg from the knee to the ankle was gone but his toenail would still grow so doctors hesitated to amputate. Later they amputated it eight inches above the knee at Temple, Texas Army Hospital. He was discharged in June of 1946, and went home with an artificial leg, later to farm and run a gas station. In 1948 he was called back to active duty along with seven other amputees because of their technical skills as specialists.
He returned as a staff sergeant and taught tank mechanics as a master mechanic. After a promotion to Warrant Officer in 1952, he worked as an ordnance inspector. He was classified as "Z.I." (no duty out of zone interior). While at Fort Knox, he was offered the job as technical advisor for the movie "The Tanks Are Coming" (released in 1951). He refused and decided to sue Warner Brothers for one million dollars. He was under contract to Universal Studios for his life's story and he felt that Warner Brothers plagiarized his script. The judge ruled that Warner Brothers had changed the names and scenario in their version enough that it was not an infringement. Pool thought that actor Steve Cochran, in the Warner Brothers version, did a good portrayal of himself, although the name in this movie was changed to "Sgt. Sullivan."
Pool retired from the Army as a Chief Warrant Officer Second Class, at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas on September 19, 1960. Afterwards he went to business college, followed by a job as a preacher for $25.00 a week. He also coached little league.
In 1986, while living quietly in Taft, Texas, he was contacted by 3-32 Armor members who were doing research on the unit history. He was invited to visit then at Ft. Hood. He was very surprised to find out they remembered him. The first thing that he did when he got to Ft. Hood was go for a ride in an M-1 tank. Afterwards, Pool told the young 3-32 tankers gathered around him some differences between being a tanker in WWII and being one today. "The most important thing for a tank commander to do is keep his crew alive. The tank crews today have the technology to do what we had to do with our eyes and ears," Pool said. "We did very little fighting at night." He added "I only fought once at night and I never wanted to do it again. Today you have the thermal sighting capability that we didn't have."
On his third visit to the post he watched the tanks live fire on the range. "Colonel, if we had the equipment back then that you have now, we would have cleaned up," he told the commander of the 3-32 Armor. The Colonel said of Pool, "I want him to talk to the soldiers. He tells them the same kinds of things that I try to teach them, but coming from him it's special
because he's lived it."
Later Pool was the honored guest speaker at the battalion NCO ball. Three hundred twenty five NCO's attended. Lafayette was adopted by the 3-32 Armor and he, in turn, adopted them, referring to them as "His Boys."
Desert Storm found the 3-32 Armor in the thick of battle against the Iraqi Armor. Lafayette was in a hospital bed, very ill, but he watched the war constantly on television fretting and worrying about "his boys." When the fighting had ceased he kept asking his wife Evelyn, "Honey, are my boys back yet?" When they finally got back to Fort Hood, Evelyn told him they were back and soon after this on May 30, 1991, Pool passed away in his sleep.
Pool was survived by his wife Evelyn, three sons and four daughters. One other son Capt. Jerry L. Pool, was missing in action in Cambodia in 1970. Before his death, the Army decided to name its new M-1 tank driver training facility after Pool, even waving the fact that he was still alive. Dedicated on July 1, 1993, today the facility at Fort Knox serves to train new tank drivers to drive the M-1 series of tanks.
At present the facility has ten systems of two simulators each. One system has been converted to M1 AR configuration. The authors were able to try out a simulator thanks to Irene Armstrong, secretary of protocol and found it an excellent approach to learning to drive. The savings in fuel, thrown tracks, and wear and tear, plus damage to real tanks is tremendous, and will more than pay for its initial cost. Each new tanker is given twelve hours of training before he transitions into the real thing. Scenarios can be varied from desert and artic terrain to urban driving. Weather can vary, artillery fire can be received, the tank's main gun can be fired by the controller, plus night or day time driving with open hatches or closed down on periscopes, all these things make this simulator the closest thing to actual driving a real tank to date. Our controller, SFC Byrd, told us the simulator is much more difficult that actually driving the "real" M1.
Today Lafayette G. Pool is remembered not only as our top tank ace but also as a man who believed in training hard and doing the job right the first time, as there may not be a second time in modern warfare.
The Authors, Dean & Nan Kleffman quote their SOURCES:
Interviews with Evelyn Pool
Killeen Herald vol. 35 # 1 13
Reprint from "Yank, the Army Weekly"
written during WWII
Turret, (Ft. Knox newspaper) November
Tribune Herald Tuesday, May 5, 1987
Speech by Col. Brewster - July 1, 1993
during dedication of Pool Hall, Ft. Knox, Kentucky.
Disposition Form-SB-WP-ASD (350) on
Naming New Building for Driver Training Simulator.
Oct 5, 1988
Killeen Daily Herald, August 29, 1987.
"World War II Legend Tells Hood Tankers 'stay alive'"