The “Cobra King” crew — from left, Pvt. Harold Hafner, Pvt. Hubert S. Smith, 1st Lt. Charles Boggess, Cpl. Milton Dickerman and Pvt. James G. Murphy — pose for a celebratory photo near Bastogne, Belgium. (U.S. Army)

The old battle tank arrived at 10:15 Thursday morning, covered in a black tarp and chained to the bed of tractor-trailer.

The construction site near Fort Belvoir went quiet for a moment as the truck backed in. And when they pulled away the tarp, the steel hide still bore the gouges and holes from enemy gunfire in 1944 and ’45.

This was “Cobra King,” a hallowed, 38-ton U.S. Army legend that during the World War II Battle of the Bulge bulled its way through German lines and was first to relieve the besieged defenders of Bastogne, Belgium.

Someone had taken a picture of the tank right after the battle, sitting in the snow with its crew, the words “First in Bastogne” scrawled on the armor in chalk.

The chalk was long gone Thursday as a work crane lifted Cobra King, with its black treads and white turret star, from the flatbed and set it inside the site of the National Museum of the United States Army.

Trove of Army’s art awaits a new museum

The state-of-the-art museum, about 20 miles south of Washington, has been under construction since October and is set to open in late 2019, officials said.

It will house scores of historic Army artifacts and works of art. The Sherman tank and several other “macro” items are so big that they must be installed in place, and the museum built around them.

On Monday, work crews put in a 27-ton Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle that headed a charge from Kuwait to Baghdad in 2003. Later, the museum will install a World War II Higgins landing boat and a World War I French tank, the Five of Hearts, which is believed to be the only surviving such tank used by U.S. soldiers in the war.

On Dec. 26, 1944, Army Lt. Charles Boggess was in command of Cobra King and driving with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army to the relief of Bastogne. There American forces had been hemmed in by the famous German offensive that created the big bulge in the allied lines.

Boggess’s tank was an experimental “Jumbo” Sherman, better armed and armored than earlier Shermans, which had proved vulnerable to more potent German tanks. Cobra King had a V-8 500 horsepower gasoline engine, a 75mm main gun and two machine guns.

Patton was close to Bastogne, and Boggess was ordered to take Cobra King and some other tanks and punch through the enemy lines.

“I believe it is appointed to each man to have a few minutes of glory in his life,” Boggess told the Chicago Tribune during a visit to Bastogne in 1984. “Mine lasted four miles and 25 minutes.”

Cobra King was already battle-tested. It had been knocked out of action in France in November 1944, repaired, and sent back to the fight, said Army museum historian Patrick R. Jennings.

The commander who preceded Boggess, Charles Trover, had been killed in Luxembourg by a sniper as he stood in the turret on Dec. 23. And now Cobra King was being ordered to dash into Bastogne. “It was a dramatic day,” Boggess recalled. “It was a day that you didn’t know if you would live or die.”

Boggess and his crew — driver Hubert S. Smith, co-driver Harold Hafner, gunner Milton Dickerman, and loader James G. Murphy — pushed Cobra King at full speed, sweeping the road ahead with gunfire until they breached the German lines.

Jennings, the historian, said the tank crew spotted some soldiers in the distance who through binoculars looked like Americans. But the tankers were wary because infiltrating German troops were said to be dressed as Americans. Finally, an America soldier strode up to the tank, stuck his hand out to Boggess and said, “Glad to see you.”


Cobra King, the Sherman tank that was first to break through the German encirclement of Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge, is installed at the site of the National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

But Cobra King’s war wasn’t over. It continued the push into Germany, until it was put out of commission on March 27, 1945, during a doomed raid to try to rescue allied POWs from a prison camp.

The mission was a fiasco, and the tank was hit by a round that penetrated its armor and started a fire inside.

The crew, different from the one at Bastogne, escaped. But the tank was abandoned, Jennings said. The Germans later torched the inside.

“When it breaks through at Bastogne, that’s when it really gains its moment in history,” Jennings said Thursday as he waited with other VIPs in white hard hats and yellow hazard vests.

“Up to that time it’s another tank,” he said. “But it gets its moment in history. It’s written on the side. And I would bet within two weeks rain and snow washed all that chalk off. And they’re right back in the mix again.

“It goes back to being a piece of equipment again,” he said. “Then it’s involved in this remarkable raid, gets damaged. And you do what a logical soldier would do. You get out. You can’t fix it. You have to keep moving. America will get you another one. . . . They thought, ‘We need to get another tank. We need to get out of this one, and go get another one.’

“It’s only later, as history starts to unfold, that it becomes precious to us,” he said. “Until then, it’s just another piece of equipment.”

After the war, Cobra King was recovered from the battlefield and displayed as a “gate guard” out in the open at several U.S. bases in Germany, he said.

As the years passed, historians and officers began to investigate the stories of the various American tanks that were on display around Europe, he said.

Jennings said that an Army chaplain, Keith Goode, took a special interest. His research led him to suspect that this anonymous tank sitting out in the weather, most recently in Vilseck, Germany, might be the famous Cobra King. He turned out to be right. The tank was shipped back to the United States in 2009.

The exterior was restored. (The interior was too badly damaged for restoration, Jennings said.) And the tank was trucked from storage in Fort Benning, Ga.

At 10:17 a.m. Thursday, Allen Pinckney, deputy director of the museum, announced to those gathered at the construction site: “The Sherman tank is here!”

A bulldozer, whose clattering treads suggested the sound of a tank, paused in its work.

Jennings later went over the pristine exterior closely, then crawled underneath and stood up in the interior. Inside, it was still “a mess,” he said.

But the Cobra King, once stained with blood and still scarred from battle, was back on history’s pedestal.

Seventy-two years after it rumbled through the snow to Bastogne, it sat in the sun on a summer morning as a museum was built around it.

“It’s a rugged thing,” Jennings said. “But it’s a survivor.”

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