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.
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