The last time Clarence Smoyer rode in a Sherman tank, he was a 21-year-old corporal in the U.S. Army.
That was in 1945. But in Boston this week, the now-95-year-old Pennsylvania native got a huge surprise: The author of a new book about Smoyer’s exploits as a tank gunner in World War II arranged to have a real Sherman tank carry him to a local book signing.
“An old friend,” Smoyer said before he climbed onto the tank with the help of a cane. “That tank saved my life. We went through many battles with a tank like that. It saved me.”
Adam Makos, an author of books about military history — including one about Thomas Hudner, a Navy pilot from Fall River, Massachusetts — tells Smoyer’s story in his new book “Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II.” He had gotten a tip that Smoyer was living in obscurity and “not even his neighbors knew what he did in the war.”
Makos says he planned the surprise tank ride in Boston because of the city’s patriotic history and the sense that people would respond if they found out about the event. That happened. People lined the street outside Smoyer’s hotel as he rode proudly to the USS Constitution Museum, where he and the author signed copies of “Spearhead.”
During World War II, Smoyer says he sat in a seat inside and kept close watch for targets while another soldier drove. Makos says Smoyer saved the lives of his crew members and those in other tanks because he was such a great shot.
Smoyer had a simple motto: “Shoot fast and shoot straight.”
That often made the difference in a tank duel. In two years of fighting, he took out five German tanks — an extraordinary total for one tank gunner.
Smoyer and his tank crew fought their way across Europe after landing in France three weeks after D-Day in 1944. The centerpiece of their story is the fight for the German city Cologne in March 1945 in the final months of the war. The Germans were fighting to the death and Smoyer’s tank faced off against a German tank parked right in front of the city’s cathedral.
Smoyer’s tank won that confrontation, and that was the end of the battle. But it wasn’t the end of the story.
An Army cameraman named Jim Bates had filmed most of the action, and the scenes would appear in the newsreels that would screen in movie theaters back home. When Smoyer’s relatives in Pennsylvania went to the movies, they were shocked to see him and his tank crew resting after the battle.
Smoyer was right in the middle of the scene, with his curly hair uncovered because he didn’t like to wear his helmet.
There was also newsreel footage of other parts of the battle, including Smoyer’s American tank and a German tank firing at a car that came racing down a street in the shattered city. You can see a young woman who was in that car, wounded and lying on the street, U.S. Army medics treating her. Then one of the medics places a blanket over her on the sidewalk.
Smoyer didn’t know it then, but he would later learn the young woman’s name was Katharina Esser. She was dead at the age of 26. He wondered, “Did I kill her?”
To try to answer that question, Smoyer, joined by Makos, went back to Germany in 2013. They actually found the German tank gunner who had also shot at Esser’s car, a man named Gustav Schaefer.
The two former enemies met on the steps of the Cologne Cathedral.
“I stuck my hand out, we shook hands,” Smoyer says, “and I said, ‘The war’s over, we can be friends.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And we did become friends.”
They also got in contact with members of Esser’s family, who offered forgiveness. They didn’t blame either man for Katharina’s death. They blamed Hitler.
Before they parted, Schaefer and Smoyer placed yellow roses on the mass grave in Cologne where she and other civilians killed in the battle are buried. As Smoyer knelt to place his rose, he lost his balance. His old enemy caught him and kept him from falling.
Schaefer died in 2017, and it’s unlikely Smoyer will make another trip to Germany. But there will be yellow roses on Katharina’s grave in Cologne on March 6, the anniversary of the day she was killed in 1945.
Book Excerpt: ‘Spearhead’
by Adam Makos
September 2, 1944
Occupied Belgium, during World War II
Twilight fell on a country crossroads.
The only sounds came from insects buzzing in the surrounding blue fields, and something else. Metallic. The sound of hot engines ticking and pinging, decompressing after a long drive.
With silent efficiency, tank crewmen worked to rearm and refuel their tired Sherman tanks before the last hues of color fled the sky.
Crouched behind the turret of the leftmost tank, Corporal Clarence Smoyer carefully shuttled 75 mm shells into the waiting hands of the loader inside. It was a delicate job—even the slightest clang could reveal their position to the enemy.
Clarence was twenty-one, tall and lean with a Roman nose and a sea of curly blond hair under a knit cap. His blue eyes were gentle, but guarded. Despite his height, he was not a fighter—he had never been in a fistfight. Back home in Pennsylvania he had hunted only once— for rabbit—and even that he did halfheartedly. Three weeks earlier he’d been promoted to gunner, second in command on the tank. It wasn’t a promotion he had wanted.
The platoon was in place. To Clarence’s right, four more olive-drab tanks were fanned out, “coiled,” in a half-moon formation with twenty yards between each vehicle. Farther to the north, beyond sight, was Mons, a city made lavish by the Industrial Revolution. A dirt road lay parallel to the tanks on the left, and it ran up through the darkening fields to a forested ridge, where the sun was setting behind the trees.
The Germans were out there, but how many there were and when they’d arrive, no one knew. It had been nearly three months since D-Day, and now Clarence and the men of the 3rd Armored Division were behind enemy lines.
All guns faced west.
Boasting 390 tanks at full strength, the division had dispersed every operational tank between the enemy and Mons, blocking every road junction they could reach.
Survival that night would hinge on teamwork. Clarence’s company headquarters had given his platoon, 2nd Platoon, a simple but important mission: Guard the road, let nothing pass.
Clarence lowered himself through the commander’s hatch and into the turret, a tight fit for a six-foot man. He slipped to the right of the gun breech and into the gunner’s seat, leaning into his periscopic gun sight. As he had no hatch of his own, this five-inch-wide relay of glass prisms with a 3x telescopic gun sight mounted to its left would be his window to the world.
His field of fire was set.
There would be no stepping out that night; it was too risky even to urinate. That’s what they saved empty shell casings for.
Beneath Clarence’s feet, the tank opened up in the hull, with its white enamel walls like the turret’s and a trio of dome lights. In the bow, the driver and bow gunner/assistant driver slid their seats back- ward to sleep where they had ridden all day. On the opposite side of the gun breech from Clarence, the loader stretched a sleeping bag on the turret floor. The tank smelled of oil, gunpowder, and a locker room, but the scent was familiar, even comforting. Ever since they’d come ashore, three weeks after D-Day, as part of 2nd Platoon, Easy Company, 32nd Armor Regiment, of the 3rd Armored Division, one of the army’s two heavy tank divisions, this M4A1 Sherman had been their home.
Tonight, sleep would come quickly. The men were exhausted. The 3rd Armored had been charging for eighteen days at the head of the First Army, leading two other divisions in the breakout across northern France. Paris had been liberated, the Germans were running back the way they’d come in 1940, and 3rd Armored was earning its nom de guerre: the Spearhead Division.
Then came new orders.
Excerpted with permission from the new book Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and A Collision of Lives in World War II by Adam Makos. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Makos. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.