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Tanks for the memories: WWII veteran greeted by tanks on book tour

Written by Jennifer McDermott/The Associated Press | Feb 20, 2019 4:42 PM
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95-year-old Clarence Smoyer stands next to a tank in front of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg during a book tour stop Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (Tim Lambert/WITF)

(Boston) -- For heroic World War II tank gunner Clarence Smoyer, the inside of a tank was his home and the crew was his family.

In that sense, the 95-year-old veteran returned home this week for the first time since the war. One of the last surviving WWII tank gunners, Smoyer was greeted with a Sherman tank--one of the tanks most widely used by the U.S. during the war--at both the Harrisburg and Boston stops of a book tour that began Tuesday.

Smoyer fought with the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Division, nicknamed "The Spearhead Division." In 1945, he defeated a German Panther tank by a cathedral in Cologne, Germany -- a dramatic duel filmed by an Army cameraman that was seen all over the world.

Author Adam Makos tells Smoyer's story in a new book, "Spearhead," which was released Tuesday. Over the course of six years working together, Smoyer made off-hand comments to Makos about how he'd like to get aboard his old Sherman tank one last time to refresh his memories. Makos started making calls and Smoyer started doing physical therapy, in case it worked out.

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Adam Makos, left, and Clarence Smoyer sign copies of "Spearhead" at Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg. (Tim Lambert/WITF)

More: Listen to Makos talk about the book on Smart Talk

Smoyer, who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, expected a taxi to take him from his hotel to the USS Constitution Museum for a book signing Wednesday. Instead, he found a 32-ton Sherman tank from 1944 waiting outside.

A huge smile flashed across Smoyer's face when he walked outside and saw the tank, saying it was a shock to see it.

"That tank saved my life," he said.

The American Heritage Museum in Hudson, Massachusetts, sent the tank and reenactors representing infantrymen to walk alongside for the short trip to the museum. Service members from the USS Constitution and onlookers came outside to salute Smoyer and the tank as it rolled down the street.

After Smoyer was drafted in 1943, he served on a Sherman tank, first as the person responsible for loading ammunition and later as a gunner.

"We were like a family in there," Smoyer said. "We tried to take care of each other and we always worked together."

Smoyer was such a crack shot that his crew was given one of the Army's state-of-the-art Pershing tanks. That meant they'd always go first into battle against German tanks that often were better equipped. Pershing tanks were rushed to Europe after the bloody Battle of the Bulge.

"My tank commander, Bob Earley, used to smoke a pipe and when he'd go for a briefing in the morning, he'd come back and the pipe was jumping in his mouth," Smoyer recalls. "He was nervous because he knew we'd be leading and up in the front again."

Smoyer said he was always scared of rounding a corner and running into the crosshairs of a German tank. He'd tell himself to shoot straight and fast before the enemy got his shot in.

On March 5, 1945, Smoyer heard the company commander say over the radio, "Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let's knock the hell out of it." They charged into the city.

Smoyer said he traded fire with a German tank, then shot at a building and toppled it onto the Germans. Eighteen-year-old German tank gunner Gustav Schaefer and his tank commander abandoned their tank and surrendered.

Smoyer advanced and encountered the German Panther by the cathedral. The Panther had just knocked out two American Sherman tanks, killing three men.

"We pull out into the intersection and the driver saw the tank. We were looking right into the barrel," Smoyer said. "I fired once. Hit them. Sparks were flying. I fired another one, back more toward the engine compartment. I fired the third shot."

Smoyer set the tank on fire so the German crew couldn't fire back. American forces advanced to the Rhine River. Smoyer and his crew were photographed victoriously climbing out of their tank.

Smoyer returned to Pennsylvania in August 1945, married and had three children. He worked at an industrial plant. Few knew that he took out five German tanks during the war.

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Clarence Smoyer and author Adam Makos pose next to a tank during a book signing for "Spearhead" at Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (Tim Lambert/WITF)

Makos met Smoyer through a friend in 2012. In 2013, they traveled together to Cologne so Smoyer could meet Schaefer, the German tank gunner.

The two veterans shook hands in front of the Cologne cathedral and put roses on the grave of Katharina Esser, a German woman who was killed in their crossfire. They kept in touch through Christmas cards, letters and Skype until Schaefer died at the age of 90 in 2017.

"Spearhead" is the story of how their lives collided in Cologne.

Makos organized the surprise tank ride to show his appreciation for Smoyer, one of the last few men still living from his unit.

"He was a great gunner because of his love for the people in his tank, and in the tanks behind them," Makos said. "He did great things for this country and took great risks. Now we're giving him a last salute."

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