Hero’s 74-year-old lau­rels

Al­len­town WWII vet, now 96, awarded Bronze Star for 1945 tank duel

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Nicole Radzievich

WASH­ING­TON – World War II gun­ner Clarence Smoyer, whose hero­ism in an epic tank duel was en­shrined on film, be­lieved for 74 years he missed his shot at the Bronze Star over chew­ing gum.

Chil­dren in the ru­ins of the Ger­man city of Cologne, just days af­ter the bat­tle there, had be­seeched the 21-year-old cor­po­ral for “Kau­gummi.” Af­ter Smoyer turned his pock­ets in­side out to show them he had no gum, mil­i­tary po­lice pulled up and ac­cused him of frat­er­niz­ing with the en­emy.

That write-up landed him in a meet­ing with his cap­tain, who threat­ened to as­sign him to the kitchen po­lice as pun­ish­ment. KP sounded like a va­ca­tion, re­torted Smoyer. He as­sured his cap­tain he wanted to re­main with his crew in an ex­per­i­men­tal tank that would lead the dan­ger­ous ad­vance across Ger­many dur­ing what would be­come the war’s fi­nal months. That dis­play of de­fi­ance, Smoyer came to believe, cost him the Bronze Star that his lieu­tenant had told him just days ear­lier he would get af­ter tak­ing out two Nazi tanks, in­clud­ing a fear­some Pan­ther, dur­ing the Bat­tle of Cologne.

The seem­ing in­jus­tice now has been righted. Smoyer along with his tank crew, re­ceived the Bronze Star on Wed­nes­day in a sur­prise cer­e­mony at the Na­tional World War II Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Be­fore an au­di­ence that in­cluded fam­ily of his crew, World War II veter­ans and dig­ni­taries, Maj. Pete Se­manoff, of the U.S. Army 1st Cal­vary Divi­sion, pre­sented the mil­i­tary honor to Smoyer, who’s now 96, and posthu­mously to Smoyer’s three tank mates: Homer Davis of Ken­tucky, John DeRiggi of Le­vit­town, Bucks County, and Wil­liam McVey of Michi­gan.

“I wear this in me­mory of all the young peo­ple who have lost their lives in bat­tle,” Smoyer, of Al­len­town, told re­porters af­ter the cer­e­mony.

The pageantry in­cluded World War II reen­ac­tors on a Sher­man tank, the play­ing of the na­tional an­them by the U.S. Army Brass Quin­tet and the Pre­sen­ta­tion of the Col­ors by the U.S. Army Color Guard. Smoyer scanned the au­di­ence, quickly lo­cat­ing and hug­ging old war bud­dies Joe Caserta of New Jersey and Buck Marsh of Alabama, who had vouched for Smoyer for the Bronze Star when au­thor Adam Makos, who fea­tured Smoyer in his book “Spear­head,” be­gan his quest to have Smoyer rec­og­nized for his ser­vice.

“This is a great day,” said Marsh, who of­ten fol­lowed Smoyer’s tank into bat­tle as a 21-year-old in­fantry­man and fought at Cologne. “I feel a great sense of pa­tri­o­tism on oc­ca­sions like this.”

The cer­e­mony was a poignant one at a time when the num­ber of sur­viv­ing World War II veter­ans have dwin­dled. Just 3.1% of the 16 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who served were alive in 2018, ac­cord­ing to the World War II Mu­seum in New Or­leans. Penn­syl­va­nia, where 26,346 World War II veter­ans lived in 2018, is home to more than any other state but Cal­i­for­nia and Florida.

World War II veter­ans of­ten en­dured ex­tra­or­di­nary and har­row­ing con­di­tions. World­wide 15 mil­lion in the mil­i­tary per­ished, and an­other 25 mil­lion in the mil­i­tary were wounded. The United States re­ported 416,800 mil­i­tary deaths in the war.

The Bronze Star was cre­ated in 1944 for heroic or mer­i­to­ri­ous ser­vice dat­ing back to Dec. 7, 1941 — the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor — and con­tin­ues to be awarded for ser­vice to­day. Bronze Stars have been awarded to 395,408 World War II veter­ans, ac­cord­ing to the United States Army Hu­man Re­sources Com­mand.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s of­fice pe­ti­tioned on Smoyer’s be­half for the medal. The of­fice also ar­ranged in 2013 for a Bronze Star to be awarded to World War II vet­eran Bert Winzer of Lower Ma­cungie Town­ship. Winzer was part of an elite com­mando unit, 1st Spe­cial Ser­vice Force, that in 2015 was awarded the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal, the high­est honor Congress can be­stow.

Smoyer’s be­lated dec­o­ra­tion was set in mo­tion by Makos, who re­cently re­leased “Spear­head,” named for the moniker of the 3rd Ar­mored Divi­sion where Smoyer served. The book, pro­vides an in­ti­mate por­trait of Smoyer and his crew’s push east across Europe fol­low­ing D-Day.

Makos met Smoyer in 2012 through a friend, and Makos spent a half dozen years shad­ow­ing Smoyer, in­clud­ing a 2013 meet­ing with a Ger­man whom Smoyer had fought on the ur­ban bat­tle­field at Cologne.

Af­ter the book re­lease this year, Makos and Smoyer toured the coun­try for book sign­ings, pa­rades and in­ter­views with news me­dia from Bos­ton to Den­ver. Smoyer has re­ceived scores of fan mail and gifts such as fudge (the book men­tions Smoyer’s fu­ture wife had sent him the home­made treat dur­ing the war).

Af­ter one book sign­ing in Read­ing, Smoyer’s face was cov­ered in red lip­stick by the time he re­turned to his home in Al­len­town, where he lives with his daugh­ter. Through the pro­mo­tional events, Smoyer has been thanked by a vet­eran who fought at the Bat­tle of Cologne, but whom he had not met un­til this year. He not only re­united with Caserta, he also met the daugh­ter of the lieu­tenant who said in 1945 he was go­ing to rec­om­mend him for the Bronze Star.

In his na­tive Le­high­ton this spring, Smoyer, who dropped out of school as a sopho­more to help sup­port his fam­ily, was awarded an hon­orary high school diploma. Al­len­town threw him a pa­rade, where he once again climbed the tur­ret of a Sher­man tank that led a pro­ces­sion to the lo­cal Veter­ans of For­eign Wars post for a book sign­ing, speeches and news that Toomey’s of­fice had ap­plied for a Bronze Star on Smoyer’s be­half.

At Wed­nes­day’s cer­e­mony, Toomey called Smoyer an “Amer­i­can hero” and said the honor for him and his crew was “long over­due.”

‘Let’s knock the hell out of them.’

The medal rec­og­nizes the crew’s hero­ism dur­ing the Bat­tle of Cologne in March 6, 1945, just months be­fore the war ended. A ma­jor rail­road hub nick­named Fortress City, Cologne had been largely evac­u­ated af­ter more than 200 airstrikes. But the Cologne Cathe­dral, a me­dieval mon­u­ment, still com­manded the sky­line. As his divi­sion was about to en­ter the city, Smoyer still re­calls the words of Lt. Bill Still­man over the ra­dio: “Gentle­men, I give you Cologne. Let’s knock the hell out of them.”

Smoyer rode into the city on an ex­per­i­men­tal tank. One of just 20, the T26E3 Per­sh­ing boasted fire­power far su­pe­rior to any­thing Smoyer had wielded be­fore, though its ar­mor was lit­tle bet­ter than the Sher­man tank. The Per­sh­ing, Smoyer be­lieved, gave his crew a bet­ter chance in bat­tle than a Sher­man tank, which the GIs had nick­named a “cre­ma­to­rium on wheels.”

Smoyer said he demon­strated the Per­sh­ing’s fire­power quickly, tak­ing aim first at a clock tower, where he saw a flicker of move­ment that could have been a Ger­man look­out, and later shot at a build­ing so that fall­ing rub­ble would im­mo­bi­lize an en­emy tank. Later, the Ger­man Pan­ther lit up a Sher­man tank and stood guard at the cathe­dral ready, Makos said, to make a last stand of the Third Re­ich.

Smoyer’s crew vol­un­teered to go af­ter the deadly Pan­ther, con­fronting the en­emy at the cathe­dral. The plan was to shoot once and quickly back up be­cause Pan­thers couldn’t be de­stroyed by one shot. But as Smoyer’s tank crept around the cor­ner, he re­al­ized it was within the Pan­ther’s crosshairs. So Smoyer shot. Then he shot again. And again.

The blasts de­stroyed the Pan­ther, set­ting a fire that burned un­til the next day. Cam­era­man Jim Bates filmed the show­down, and the footage wound up on news­reels Smoyer’s sis­ter and par­ents soon would see back home. Smoyer’s tank pushed on, and he would be cred­ited with tak­ing out two more tanks for a to­tal of five be­fore Ger­many sur­ren­dered May 7, 1945.

Smoyer had been awarded a Pur­ple Heart for a shrap­nel in­jury af­ter a mor­tar ex­ploded on a roof dur­ing his push through France. That was one of three in­juries he sus­tained dur­ing com­bat. Smoyer also burned his fore­arms putting the shells in the loader and suf­fered a con­cus­sion af­ter a shell struck the tur­ret of his tank.

Af­ter the war, Smoyer re­turned to Penn­syl­va­nia and mar­ried Melba White­head, a girl he had met as a teen. He worked at Beth­le­hem Steel’s Waylite Co. and had three chil­dren, his wartime hero­ism fad­ing into a life­time of quiet courage.


Al­len­town res­i­dent and World War II vet­eran Clarence Smoyer, left, smiles as his friend and fel­low WWII vet­eran Joe Caserta of Ocean City, New Jersey, con­grat­u­lates Smoyer af­ter he re­ceived the Bronze Star on Wed­nes­day at the World War II Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Smoyer re­ceived the Bronze Star 74 years af­ter the war.


Al­len­town res­i­dent and World War II vet­eran Clarence Smoyer stands in front of a Sher­man tank Wed­nes­day be­hind the World War II Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Smoyer re­ceived the Bronze Star 74 years af­ter the war.

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