Thanks in a tank: WWII gunner, now 95, gets a nostalgic ride

BOSTON (AP) — The inside of a tank was Clarence Smoyer’s home, and the crew was his family.

In that sense, the 95-year-old veteran returned home on Wednesday for the first time since World War II. One of the last surviving WWII tank gunners, Smoyer was surprised with a ride through the streets of Boston in a Sherman tank.

Smoyer fought with the United States (US) Army’s 3rd Armoured Division, nicknamed the Spearhead Division. In 1945, he defeated a German Panther tank near the 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 the book Spearhead, which was released on Tuesday.

Smoyer would make offhand comments to Makos about how he’d like to get aboard his old Sherman tank one last time. Makos started making calls and Smoyer started doing physical therapy, in case it worked out.

Smoyer, who lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, had expected a taxi to take him from his hotel to the United States Ship (USS) Constitution Museum for a book signing on Wednesday. Instead, he found a 32-tonne 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.

World War II tank gunner Clarence Smoyer smiles as he admires a tank near the Charlestown Naval Shipyard in Boston
World War II tank gunner Clarence Smoyer sits atop a tank as he passes the historic frigate USS Constitution at the Charlestown Naval Shipyard in Boston. – PHOTOS: AP

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.

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 would 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.

Smoyer said he was always scared of rounding a corner and running into the crosshairs of a German tank. He would 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 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.

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

The two veterans shook hands in front of the cathedral and put roses on the grave of a German woman who was killed in their crossfire.

They kept in touch through Christmas cards, letters and Skype until Schaefer died at age 90 in 2017.

Spearhead is the story of how their lives collided. Makos organised the surprise tank ride to show his appreciation for Smoyer.

“He did great things for this country and took great risks,” Makos said. “Now we’re giving him a last salute.”

It was a bit of a struggle to get in and out of the tank at his age, Smoyer said — “It used to go a lot better when I was younger” — but it took his breath away to see it.

As for the book, he said, he hopes readers “understand what the fellas went through during the war. War is bad”.