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WWII hero receives long-overdue Bronze Star

Bronze Star with valor (US Air Force/Released)
September 21, 2019

The U.S. Army on Wednesday awarded World War II veteran Clarence Smoyer the Bronze Star — the medal he won for destroying a Nazi tank — and then later lost it over a stick of gum.

The ceremony, held at the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., was attended by Sen. Pat Toomey and several of Smoyer’s war buddies and a surprise — a Sherman tank that was driven onto the National Mall.

This comes almost 75 years after Smoyer’s act of heroism when he destroyed a Nazi tank in a dramatic duel in Cologne, Germany, that was captured on film by an Army cameramen and recently written about in the book “Spearhead,” by Adam Makos, whose father, Robert Makos, grew up in Plymouth.

• Here is a link to a video about Smoyer’s story as detailed in Spearhead: https://youtu.be/w7DAS4Yqr5s.

Smoyer, 96 of Allentown, is the only surviving member of the tank crew that won the infamous battle. The others — John Deriggi (of Scranton), Homer Davis, William McVey, and Bob Earley — were also awarded the Bronze Star posthumously.

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“I’ll wear this medal for all the guys who didn’t come home,” Smoyer said at the ceremony.

On March 6, 1945, a German Panther tank had just knocked out two American tanks in Cologne, Germany, killing three men. To stop the rampage, Smoyer and his tank crew went and vanquished the Panther. Film of the duel went worldwide and Smoyer became known as “The Hero of Cologne.” He was told he’d receive the Bronze Star.

Days later, however, Smoyer encountered German children in the city’s ruins. They tugged at his sleeves, begging for bubble gum. Smoyer was searching his pockets for gum when military police turned the corner. They busted him for fraternization and cost him the Bronze Star.

Smoyer went on to become one of the top tank gunners of WWII, destroying five enemy tanks and helping to liberate the Nordhausen Concentration Camp.

Makos, who attended the ceremony and played an instrumental role in convincing the Army to issue the medals, said he and Smoyer worked together for six years to write the book.

“And all the time he was giving to me — his stories, his time,” Makos said. “This was my chance to give something back. Today was the conclusion to events that began long ago in the streets of Cologne.”

Adam said he posed a question to Smoyer: Was it worth the wait?

”Absolutely,” Smoyer said.

Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, thanked Makos for “the extraordinary work” in making the day possible.

“It’s terrific that Clarence and his family are able to be here,” Toomey said. “I wish your brothers in arms could’ve been here for this moment, but it’s great that their families could be here.”

Toomey praised Makos for his book on the battle.

“It’s breathtaking, it’s amazing, it’s moving,” Toomey said of Spearhead. “And it makes clear what heroes these men were. I can’t help but marvel at how such young men, in their early 20s, must have been terrified, but they didn’t waver in their duty — they carried out their mission.”

Toomey said he will share Smoyer’s story as he travels across Pennsylvania and across the country.

“We hear of stories of these heroes that, all too often, are forgotten — the brave men and women who’ve worn the uniform of this country,” Toomey said. “But these stories, and specifically Clarence’s story this morning, is a reminder of why Congress and all Americans owe a huge debt of gratitude to those very men and women.”

Toomey quoted famed Gen. George S. Patton.

”General Patton put it well when he said, and I quote, ‘The solider is the army — no army is better than its soldiers. A solider is also a citizen. In fact the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.’ Clarence Smoyer, John Deriggi, Homer Davis, William McVey, and Bob Earley all embodied that spirit. Today I applaud them, I thank them for their service to the country, and I congratulate them on this long overdue honor.”

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© 2019 The Times Leader