“Word went through the underworld that they were tough. No question about it. They were intimidators just by their appearance. The hat was their trademark.” Lt. Dan Cooke in 1987.
It has been said “you are what you drive.” Perhaps, but for four Los Angeles Police Detectives, it was the hat you wore. In the late 1940s and into the early 1960s, the “Hat Squad,” out of Robbery Division, had a reputation that had the knees of robbers and mobsters, knocking out of fear of these sizable men. All were over six feet tall and collectively they weighed more than half a ton. All would become legends on the LAPD. As one hard-nosed detective said, “They were the most impressive group I ever knew in my 25 years with the department. They were tough with criminals but very compassionate people, respected in the underworld.”
The Hat Squad had its genesis when Clarence A. “Red” Stromwall and Max Herman began wearing identical snap-brim straw hats to work. A few years later, in 1952, detective’s Ed Benson and Harry Crowder joined the team and donned their hats. Eventually the fedoras became a cause, and anyone who dared to wisecrack about them were met with a glaring stare which put the fear of prison in many a criminal.
Their reputation was not unlike one that ran the gamut across the United States in the 1920s and 30s. It was then that a robber in New York could be talking with with a robber from Chicago, and if either mentioned, the “Bucket of Blood” the other knew he was referring to the small room in Los Angeles where robbery squad detectives used to hold discussions with hold-up men by punctuating each question with a punch in the mouth. Those days are gone; replaced by four elite men who used their size and intimidating stare that left most criminals begging to sign their confessions.
For all those years together, these four men remained inseparable. Where one went, they all went. Even the Korean War could not separate them. All four went on active duty with the 40th Infantry Division and served in the same battalion. Herman, Crowder and Stromwall were company commanders; Benson was a first sergeant. Stromwall remained in the reserves and retired a full colonel. He later became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. His father, Albert, was a L.A. cop from 1924 to 1948.
Harold “Harry” Crowder also went into law and retired from the Los Angeles Municipal Court as a judge who handled Hollywood, his old stomping grounds.
Max Herman died in 1987. At his funeral, Detective Morgan Rodney praised Herman as “the strongest of the strong, the toughest of the tough, the gentlest of the gentle—always a giver, rarely a taker.” As an attorney later in life, it was said of the old hat squad member, that of the 30 men he defended for homicide, no one was ever convicted of the original (more serious) charge.
Edward Benson, the forth member, died of natural causes in 1970. He had played football for Fordham University and later earned $100 playing for the New York Giants. Benson also boxed professionally. He was a paratrooper during World War II making jumps in Italy and France.
As time continues its relentless march forward, it is easy to forget the contributions of these four remarkable men. For me, a chance for just one more shout-out to four more legends of the Los Angeles Police Department.
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