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Pinellas vehicle pulled U.S. through WWII // Grandfather's work is focus of grandson's thesis

Published Jul. 6, 2006

For years, Warren C. Cottrell had told his grandson, Larry, about the machine he had worked on before and during World War II. The machine could climb cliffs, get dunked and bob up out of the water. It could transport men and supplies wherever they were needed.

Also unusual about the machine, the Roebling Alligator, was that it was built in Pinellas County. And that fascinates the grandson, Larry Cottrell, a University of South Florida graduate student and Pinellas County sheriff's detective.

Cottrell, 31, is developing his master's thesis on the Roebling Alligator and its impact on World War II. Although he admits to a special interest in Civil War history, Cottrell thinks the Alligator always will be the propelling force behind his work and his interest in history.

The idea of the amphibious vehicle came to Donald Roebling in 1933. The prototype Alligator was built on the Roebling estate of Spattiswood and underwent its first test in Dunedin on Dec. 5, 1935.

A Pinellas County native, Cottrell grew up hearing stories about the Alligator. His grandfather moved to the area in the 1920s and became the chief mechanic for Alligator inventor Donald Roebling in the late 1930s.

Warren Cottrell "did almost all his work by hand," Cottrell said. This included milling down each of the several hundred cleats on the tracks under the Alligator. He also was involved in the testing. "Everywhere the Alligator went, basically my grandfather went."

Even after the Alligator was put into use overseas, Warren traveled with the troops in case the machine needed repairs. Few people knew how to fix the Alligator at the time, but, Cottrell said, his grandfather knew every nut and bolt that held the machine together.

Although he has grown up with the legacy of the Alligator, Cottrell is the first of his family to study the machine. "No one knew how to do historical research," he said of his family.

Being a history student has helped him learn how to research the Alligator, but, he said, "I've got to give all the credit to my grandfather because he saw into the future to keep all these photographs and to even make sure that a lot of these photographs were taken in the first place."

Warren Cottrell kept the old operator manuals, photographs and designs. "He just collected a little bit of everything from it just knowing that someday maybe somebody would do something with it," Cottrell said.

For his thesis, Cottrell wants to prove that the Alligator had a tremendous effect on the way World War II was fought and the length of time it took to conclude the war.

Cottrell said the Alligator had only one method of propulsion _ the cleated tracks _ as compared with other amphibious machines that had to engage and disengage wheels when going from land to water and vice versa.

In the early South Pacific battles, vehicles like the Alligator were not available. "The troops were jumping into the water and the snipers were picking them off before they even hit the beach," Cottrell said. "Without this machine, the war could have easily dragged on for many, many more months."

Originally, Roebling had intended the Alligator to be used in peacetime. Several hurricanes had swept into Florida and the Alligator was going to be used to rescue people who were trapped in swampy places like the Everglades. Nothing could do that but the Alligator.

As the Alligator gained popularity in the area, the media publicized the machine. Even Life magazine ran an article on the Alligator in its October 1937 issue. The U.S. Marine Corps picked up on the idea and eventually contracted with Roebling to mass produce the Alligator to transport troops and supplies overseas.

At the time, Roebling's neighbor, Courtney Campbell, was president of the Food Machinery Corp. (FMC) and offered to use his buildings to mass produce the Alligators.

Two of the FMC plants were located in Florida _ one in Dunedin, the other in Lakeland. The landing vehicle tracks were assembled at the Dunedin factory. Frames and gear parts were assembled in Lakeland. The final outfitting took place in San Jose, Calif.

Cottrell is impressed by the fact that the Alligator was designed and assembled in Pinellas

County. "A lot of people don't realize that," he said. "A lot of people were under the impression that this machine was built someplace else and was just brought here to test."

A prototype Roebling Alligator once was located at the Marine Corps Reserve on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. With the permission of the Roebling family, it was moved to the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Va., in hopes that the machine would be preserved. A P-5 amphibious vehicle built in 1952 now can be seen at the reserve.