Written By: James R. Lankford
During World War II, the U.S. Army quickly grew from a small, ill-equipped, undermanned, and poorly funded military establishment into the most powerful ground and air force in the world. With this massive expansion came the need for a large number of general officers.
Most of those promoted were from the Army’s cadre of career officers—men who had stayed in uniform through the interwar years despite low pay, long periods without promotion, and a paucity of command opportunities.
Only a few would gain fame among the American people and the world at large. The rest—the vast majority in fact—would remain largely unnoticed as they worked in relative obscurity to train, organize, supply, and equip their young soldiers, and then lead them into battle.
It can be safely said that these unknown generals did as much to win the war as those who, deserving or not, came to enjoy the lion’s share of public recognition and with it, the general credit for victory. Albert C. Smith, a southern gentleman who spent his life in dedicated service to the U.S. Army and his country, was one of these unknown generals.
Albert Cowper Smith, the son of Eugene and Blanch Smith, was born on 5 June 1894 in Warrenton, Virginia. “Coop,” as he was called by friends and family throughout his life, thrived on the many outdoor activities to be found in the surrounding countryside, especially hunting, fishing, and riding. The Smiths were an old Virginia family, and its men had served in the Army as far back as the War of 1812. Given this proud military heritage, young Smith’s decision to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point must have come as no great surprise to his family. During his freshman year at Virginia Tech, Smith received a senatorial appointment to the Academy. In the fall of 1914, he arrived on the rocky heights above the Hudson River ready to begin his military training.
Smith was a good natured and modest young man who made friends easily. At West Point, he forged friendships with other cadets, some of whom would also go on to attain high rank. Among them were men who would become well known to the general public including Matthew B. Ridgway (82d Airborne Division and XVIII Airborne Corps); J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, (25th Infantry Division and VII Corps); and Mark W. Clark (Fifth Army and 15th Army Group).
Cadet Smith was kept busy with the demanding academic schedule and rigorous discipline for which West Point is famous, but he found time to participate in many of the extracurricular activities offered at the Academy. He joined the school’s marksmanship team, polo team, and wrestling squad. He also played intramural football, sang in the choir, and was a member of Numerals, the Academy’s math club.
With America’s entry into World War I, West Point accelerated the rate at which it graduated cadets in order to meet the increased demand for officers to fill the ranks of a rapidly expanding wartime army. Two complete classes of cadets graduated in 1917. Smith graduated in April, a respectable 56th in a class of 139. On 20 April 1917, Smith received a commission as a second lieutenant in the branch of his choice, Cavalry, and was assigned to the 3d Cavalry Regiment at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The following October the 3d Cavalry was sent to France where it was attached to First Army. Only a handful of cavalry troops were actually used in combat. As a result, cavalry regiments like the 3d were broken up for remount duty, or their troopers were dismounted and used as infantry replacements. Smith, like many other cavalry officers, was reassigned. In September 1918, Smith, now a captain, became secretary to the staff of VII Corps.
He was in this position when the corps took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Following the war, Smith returned to Fort Sam Houston where he joined the 14th Cavalry Regiment as a troop commander. In the spring of 1921, he was assigned to West Point as an instructor in mathematics, astronomy, and surveying. The same year he married Mary Josephine Gorman. Their union soon produced two sons, Albert, Jr., and Robert. The boys would become career Army officers like their father.
Smith remained at West Point until September 1926 when he was sent to attend the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas. After graduation, he was assigned to the 13th Cavalry Regiment. In April 1929 he returned to West Point as an instructor. Smith performed well in each of his assignments, and, in August 1934, he was selected to attend the Army’s prestigious Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
After graduation, Smith was selected to stay on as an instructor in Strategy. Alarming events in Europe during the spring and early summer of 1940 led the War Department to establish and train a mechanized force. Many career cavalry officers were presented with the difficult choice of remaining with the traditional horse cavalry or moving to join the fledgling armored units that would serve as the nucleus of the Army’s armored force.
Smith wisely, if not happily, left his beloved horses to follow this new mechanized way of war. He was promoted to the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel in July 1940 and was assigned as the intelligence officer of the newly created 13th Armored Regiment at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The following November, Smith was designated the Plans and Training Officer of the Armored Force Replacement Center at Fort Knox. From there he moved to Pine Camp, New York, to join the newly activated 4th Armored Division in April 1941.
Smith received a temporary promotion to the rank of colonel on 11 December 1941. In July 1942 Smith became the commanding officer of the 4th Armored Division’s 37th Armored Regiment. His excellent performance as the commander of the 37th Armored Regiment earned him a promotion to brigadier general (temporary), and he was assigned to the newly activated 14th Armored Division in the fall of 1942 as the assistant division commander. When the division’s commanding officer, MG Vernon E. Prichard, was suddenly transferred to Italy in July 1944, Smith was chosen to take command of the 14th.
Unlike some of his better known contemporaries, Smith was not a flamboyant leader prone to outbursts of profanity, ungentlemanly conduct, demonstrations of inappropriate bravado, or exhibitions of idiosyncratic behavior.
Instead, he was a quiet, steady, and thoughtful officer who, like so many of his fellow, lesser known generals, led his troops with the skill and confidence of a highly capable leader.
He might not have made the sort of headlines that some other commanders enjoyed during the war, but his division’s combat record attests to his leadership.
In the opening days of January 1945, as Seventh Army struggled valiantly to stop the last major German offensive of the war, the 14th Armored Division found itself moving quickly in different directions to plug holes in the American lines and reinforce beleaguered infantry units.
During this time, two of the division’s combat commands were forced to cross paths at a critical road juncture in the rugged Vosges Mountains as they rushed into battle. The crossing was made even more difficult since the road junction was under intermittent artillery fire. There, late at night, the men of the combat commands saw their commanding officer, standing Patton-like in the near zero temperatures, directing traffic to ensure that his units would not be delayed in reaching their positions in the line. There were no photographers or combat correspondents present to record his actions, but the soldiers who saw Smith there never forgot what he did.
Smith felt it was a privilege to command the 14th Armored Division, and genuinely believed that the credit for its accomplishments belonged to those who served in its ranks. “The 14th Armored Division was not mine,” he would tell people, “The division belonged to every man in it.” Smith was promoted to major general (temporary) on 19 March 1945.
He was always modest about his elevation to high rank. When the subject came up, he would jokingly say, “The higher a monkey climbs a pole, the more his rear end is exposed.” Smith was justifiably proud of his men, and did not hesitate to defend them against unfair criticism. As the end of the war in Europe drew near, GEN George S. Patton appeared one day at the division’s bridgehead over the Isar River. Seeing a medium tank carrying sandbags as extra protection, he approached the tank and began berating its crew, shouting, “Get those sandbags off that tank you yellow bastards!”
The tank commander, a battle-hardened sergeant, shot back, “General, we weren’t yellow bastards when we liberated your son-in-law from Hammelburg.” True to form, Patton flew into a rage. He turned to Smith, and told him to court-martial those “yellow bastards.”
Now it was Smith’s turn. He informed Patton, using a few expletives of his own, that his men were not yellow bastards. They were “good combat soldiers,” and he would not put them on report for telling the truth to Patton, much less court-martial them. Fuming, Patton let the matter drop.
Smith remained with the 14th Armored Division until its inactivation in September 1945. Then began a flurry of brief, hectic assignments as the massive wartime Army demobilized and readjusted its officer corps to meet the needs of a significantly reduced military establishment. In short order, he commanded the 30th Infantry Division and Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, First Army.
He also served as the president of a board established for the selection of officers to be retained in the Regular Army. On 30 April 1946 his rank reverted to brigadier general (temporary). Always the dedicated officer, Smith dutifully soldiered on regardless of his rank or command.
Following a brief stint on the staff of Seventh Army, he was transferred to the Army Forces Headquarters in Manila, Philippines, where he became the assistant commander of the 86th Infantry Division. On 7 February 1947, he assumed command of the 24th Infantry Division, which was serving with the occupation forces in southern Japan. Smith was promoted to major general (temporary) on 24 January 1948 with the permanent rank of brigadier general. After nearly three years in the Philippines and Japan, Smith returned to the United States and assumed command of the 2d Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. From late June 1949 until October 1950, he oversaw the preparation and training of armored units destined to see combat in Korea.
In October 1950 Smith’s rank of major general was made permanent, and he became the deputy commander of Fifth Army. Smith was appointed acting commander of Fifth Army in January 1952, and resumed his position as deputy commander the following July. In late 1952, Smith received notice of his final assignment as an active duty officer. He was given the choice between taking command of the Army Security Agency or becoming the Chief of Military History. He chose the latter.
On 1 February 1953, Smith assumed command responsibility for all U.S. Army historical activities around the world. During his tenure, he oversaw the production of several important volumes of the landmark series, United States Army in World War II. On 30 September 1955, after thirty-eight years of loyal service to his country, Smith retired from the Army and returned home to Warrenton, Virginia.
Long in favor of the establishment of an association to represent the veterans of the 14th Armored Division, Smith actively supported its formation in 1964. For the rest of his life, Smith would remain a strong supporter of the Association and its veterans. He passed away on 24 January 1974 at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. MG Albert Cowper Smith, like so many of the unknown generals of World War II, devoted his life to the U.S. Army and this great nation.