Clarence Smoyer is a soft-spoken veteran who usually downplays his service in World War II, when he was, for a time, America’s most famous tank gunner. During the Battle of Cologne in March 1945, a combat photographer caught a duel between his Pershing tank and a German Panther on film; it played in newsreels around the country. Now 95, Smoyer is the subject of a new book by Adam Makos, Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II, and still attends reunions of his unit, the 3rd Armored—or “Spearhead”—Division, which saw Cold War duty and fought in the Gulf War before being inactivated in 1992.
How did you end up in the tank corps?
After the draft, I was called up in 1943 to basic training at Fort Knox. First thing I did was to volunteer for the paratroopers; fighting with an elite force just seemed like a better way of making it back in one piece. Instead of giving me wings, they assigned me to the tank corps. I was bummed, of course. Turns out they had dug into my record and found I had completed a course in engine maintenance. So I was sent to join the 3rd Armored Division. Later, when I climbed to the top of Cologne Cathedral, I found out that I was terrified of heights, so being in the tank crew worked out just fine!
How did it feel to be a young man going off to war?
I was 19 when I was called up, so leaving home for the first time was all part of a grand adventure. I knew what I was getting into and wanted to serve my country. As we moved through training and learned more about the horrors of war, any feelings of adventure wore off. It became serious and scary—yet still exciting in many ways. We were a family in that tank. That’s how we survived those early days in combat. Everyone did their job well; we were a smooth-running family.
How did you become an expert gunner?
When we trained in England, I shared a pup tent with our gunner, “Big Mal”—Corporal James Mallet. I was the loader—I would not become a gunner until August 1944—and was cross-trained so I could learn how to shoot the 75mm gun and the coaxial machine gun. He taught me the basics, but the rest I learned by watching him closely from across the breech. Later, when the entire battalion went to the seacoast for target training, there was a gunnery competition and we loaders also got to shoot against each other. The targets were table-sized, set way up on the dunes, about 1,000 yards away. To everyone’s surprise—including my own—I hit the target all eight times and had the highest score. They said I had some natural skill as a gunner but I was content to be a loader. I was from a German family and killing Germans did not appeal to me at the time. I knew it was war and I would have to deal with that, but it was better to put off that hard reality.
What was your most frightening moment?
It was scary all the time but the worst was in the city of Cologne the afternoon of March 6, 1945, when we decided to take on a Panther tank that was waiting for us at the cathedral. It had just knocked out two of our Shermans, so we knew its crew was good. Our tank commander, Sergeant Bob Earley, went on foot to reconnoiter—a really gutsy move—and sure enough he spotted the tank and we had a good chance to hit it broadside. But in the time between when he saw it and when he got back to us, that Panther turned its gun and was ready for us.
When we roared into the intersection to shoot, instead of seeing the flank of the Panther in my periscope sight, I could see the muzzle of that big gun looking right at me. I snapped off a quick shot and hit him first. I kept yelling for AP [armor-piercing] rounds and hit him again and again ’til he caught fire. I could hardly breathe as we backed out of there. People always ask why I fired three times, not giving the German crew a chance to flee. Well, that was the rule. Any crewman still alive in that Panther could have pulled the trigger and with that powerful gun pointing at us, we would all be dead and not here to tell the tale.
You were in a new Pershing heavy tank then, but you started in a Sherman. How did the Pershing’s 90mm gun compare to the Sherman’s 75mm weapon?
Well, the 90mm had far more firepower than the 75mm gun, so it’s really no comparison at all. The 90mm shell was about twice the size of a 75mm shell and weighed twice as much—40 pounds, in fact. The big deal, though, was the velocity, which gave the 90 its striking power: some 2,800 feet per second with our AP round. With that gun we had something that could penetrate the thick frontal armor of the German tanks. Before that, our best hope was for a side or rear shot. The 75mm shell would bounce off the front armor of the heavy Ger-man tanks, especially the Panther. The big 90mm gave us a fighting chance even though our armor in the Pershing wasn’t much better than that in the Sherman.
What did firing those big guns feel like?
It shakes you up, inside and out. The recoil of the gun rattles you to your bones. You’re vibrating from it. Fumes from the fired shells build up and sting the eyes. Dust and debris flies everywhere from the ferocious muzzle blast and it takes forever to settle, which makes you even more stressed. Everyone is just a bundle of nerves. It was a shoot-first-ask-questions-later situation. Survival is all it was.
Your division helped stop the German breakthrough at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, where temperatures were well below freezing. How did you stay warm?
I was in a Sherman then, which had no heater and—worse—any engine heat was drawn out of
the tank by a fan unit on the engine. We often sat in the tank for hours in roadblock positions ready to ambush passing German vehicles—freezing our butts off the whole time. Our tank had one small Coleman stove to heat a cup of water or a can of food. It was of no use to keep warm. So you would put on all the clothes you had and wrap a blanket around you.
On most nights I would climb into my sleeping bag inside the tank, shoes and all, to escape the cold, even if that meant I wouldn’t be getting out if we got hit. The bags we had were a canvas outer with a blanket interior. Frost would form inside the tank from our breathing. It was like living in a steel ice box. Frostbite was common as a result because for the most part you were stationary. The cold was as much an enemy as the Germans.
How did combat in Cologne compare?
This fight was different. Taking a large city gave the enemy plenty of places to hide. Cologne put us all to the test. Our Pershing was chosen as the first tank into the city; everyone else followed us in. So for us it was constant firing. You fired at anything that moved. That’s when a gunner’s instinct kicked in, guessing from where that Panzerfaust [anti-tank warhead] might come at you. I was scared and always scanning for targets.
I remember looking at this nice clock tower, somehow still standing after that city had taken 262 airstrikes by the time we got there. Then it clicked in me: “Forget it! A German observer could be up there!” So I blasted that clock face and the tower came down with it. It was our job to rain destruction.
More than 50 years after the Battle of Cologne you got to watch the full newsreel film of your duel with the German tank. What was that like?
When I first saw the film, in 1996, it brought chills to my body. It took me right back to the awful feelings, all the bad stuff at once. It took my breath away. I saw details—the big picture—in a different way, since the first time was only through my sights. It was a real challenge to watch it, but I did. Those combat photographers took great risks. They were brave men. Watching that film made it even more clear to me.
The film revealed painful details about a civilian woman killed in crossfire with the Germans, most of which you’d been previously unaware.
The thought of that young woman, Katharina Esser, dying on that street still bothers me. Who wouldn’t be bothered? After I saw the film of her driving through the crossfire of our Pershing and another German tank, I couldn’t shake it. What helped was going back to Cologne. It was in 2013 when I went back and met Gustav Schaefer. He had been in that German tank. He first saw the film 10 years earlier and told me he believed he had shot the young woman’s car. He was firing at me. I was firing at him. She drove through that. We still don’t know which of our bullets hit her.
Hearing Gustav say that lightened my guilt. It was good to have someone to share that burden with. We discussed it together. We visited the site where she drove through our crossfire. There it hit us—it was the war that put us in that situation. It was war.
How did it feel to meet a former enemy tanker, face to face?
At first I was a bit nervous. I wondered if he would accept me. It was a big gamble traveling to Cologne just to shake someone’s hand. I met him at Cologne Cathedral. I told him, “The war is over, now we can be friends.” He said, “Ja. Ja. Gute.” It was wonderful. I could see he was as nervous as I was.
When we sat down and drank beer, I learned about the hard fighting he had seen, defending the West Wall down in Luxembourg against our army. It was really something to get chills, picturing myself in a German tank! He told me he had nightmares about Katharina, too. We became like comrades in our three days together, even though we fought on different sides. I never thought this sort of thing could happen but it did and I’m grateful. When he and I were ready to leave Cologne, he told me: “I’ll see you again, in heaven!” ✯