Legendary World War Two tank captain Lafayette G. Pool had caused havoc among his German adversaries. But amid a fierce battle in Germany’s Rhineland in 1944, his Sherman took two direct hits from a Nazi Panther tank. Was it possible that Pool and his crew could survive this devastating attack?
Born in July 1919 in Odem, Texas, Lafayette Green Pool was one of twin brothers. His sibling was John Thomas Pool, who fought for his country in the U.S. Navy during World War Two. Lafayette, meanwhile, went to school in Taft, Texas, and he graduated from there in 1938.
Pool then tried to join the Navy like his brother but was turned down owing to a sight defect that he’d picked up while boxing. Instead, he continued his studies at Kingsville’s Texas College of Arts and Industries (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville), where he majored in engineering. And while at college, he showed superior pugilistic skills.
Pool lasted only a year at college, though, as in 1941 he dropped out to join the army. Enlisting at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, he was attached to the 3rd Armored Division. So, Pool learned his soldiering skills at the Desert Training Center, which spanned areas of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, and at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.
Pool’s boxing prowess came to the fore in the army, too, and he became division and regional champion. The boxer was also invited to take part in the army’s national championship competition, but he refused. His unit was, you see, about to take delivery of the new M4 Sherman tanks. And sticking around to develop an expertise in handling those combat vehicles was more important to him than his boxing.
In fact, boxing wasn’t the only thing on which Pool turned his back. In 1943 he rose to the rank of staff sergeant, and he was also offered the opportunity of a place at Officer Candidate School. However, Pool wanted to stay a part of the tank crew with whom he’d trained, readying them for the fighting that was soon to come.
Pool was to stick with the same crew throughout his service, too. And by 1944 he’d reached the age of 25, meaning he was actually regarded as advanced in years for a tank crew member. His bow gunner, Bert “Schoolboy” Close, for example, was just 17 years old. In fact, Pool became nicknamed “War Daddy” in recognition of his advanced years; he retaliated, though, by dubbing his crew the “Pups.”
Now, in September 1943 Pool and the 3rd Armored Division – known as Spearhead – were posted to England to prepare for the impending invasion of France. And while in England, Pool actually took part in an exhibition boxing match in Liverpool, fighting the legendary champ Joe Louis. Louis gave him a bit of a beating, too, but to his credit Pool was still upright at the end of his round with the Brown Bomber – who is generally held to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.
But it was soon time for fighting of a deadlier kind. Pool’s Spearhead outfit first went into combat in northern France on June 27, 1944 – just three weeks after the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast. Pool was part of Combat Command A, and this unit attacked German forces at the French town of Villiers-Fossard. In their tank, given the moniker “In the Mood,” Pool and his crew were credited with disabling three German armored vehicles.
But on June 29 In the Mood met its match in the shape of a shell from a German anti-tank weapon: the Panzerfaust. Still, while the tank was destroyed, Pool and his young crew managed to escape unscathed. That first Sherman had lasted only six days of the intense fighting in the Normandy countryside.
Nevertheless, Pool and his men soon had another Sherman, and they named this one “In the Mood” as well. The replacement actually lasted longer than its eponymous forerunner, from around the beginning of July until mid-August 1944. And the fate it met on August 17 came by way of a rather unfortunate episode.
We’ll return to that incident in a moment, but first it’s worth hearing about the progress of Pool’s new Sherman through France. Normandy was characterized by its small fields surrounded by high hedges – terrain called “bocage.” And it was tough ground for combat, with plenty of opportunities for ambush.
Nevertheless, Pool and his buddies fought their way across Normandy, turning south through a breach created in the German defenses. Pool was now known as the “Spearhead of the Spearhead” because he repeatedly volunteered his tank to take the lead as his unit charged into new territory.
Typical of the type of action that In the Mood was now involved in was an engagement at the Normandy town of Colombiers. Here, Pool’s Sherman almost crashed into a German Panther tank. The Panther then got the first two rounds off – but missed despite its very close proximity. Pool’s gunner, Willis “Groundhog” Oller, meanwhile, took the Panther’s turret off with his first retort.
In the Mood also demolished another Panther and a couple of armored cars in that action. And the next destination for Pool and his unit was the town of Fromental, with In the Mood in the vanguard as usual. The aim here was to join the Polish 1st Armored Division to land a deadly blow against the surrounded German 7th Army.
However, it was in Fromental that the unfortunate incident mentioned earlier happened. U.S. Air Force P-38 fighter bombers spotted what they believed to be a formation of German Tiger tanks. But it was in fact Pool’s outfit, and In the Mood was consequently destroyed by one of the P-38s. Some enraged tank crews were even said to have renamed the USAF “the American Luftwaffe.”
Fortunately, Pool and his men escaped unhurt yet again, and the next day they took delivery of a new Sherman, which was inevitably christened as the third “In the Mood.” Now interestingly – and strangely for a tank soldier – Pool actually hated confined spaces. And this in turn meant that he always stayed atop his tank – a risky position. But, in fact, this eccentricity may well have saved his life when the third and last In the Mood met her fate.
Pool and his crew had been invited to return to the States to help with war bond fundraising; they had one final mission to complete before they could do that, though. So, they fought their way into Germany, trying to break through the major defenses of the Siegfried Line. And here a Panther tank hit the Sherman, disabling it. What’s more, a second round then overturned the combat vehicle, throwing Pool clear from his position atop the turret.
Pool had received a severe wound to his right leg, and – worse – his gunner had been killed. Pool’s leg couldn’t be saved, either, so it was amputated eight inches above the knee. Incredibly, though, before that Pool had unsuccessfully attempted the amputation himself in the field with just a shot of morphine and a penknife. Mercifully, doctors made a proper job of the operation later.
Now that Pool’s war was over, a final tally of the damage that he’d done to the enemy could be reckoned. With his three Shermans, Pool had destroyed 12 tanks and 258 armored vehicles. He’d also killed more than 1,000 Nazi troops and taken another 250 prisoner. And he’d done all that in just 81 days of combat. All in all, then, it’s an utterly astonishing tally – and one for which Pool received a fistful of decorations.
Lafayette Pool hung up his army boots in 1960, and he passed on in 1991 aged 71. He was buried at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.