Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Corporal Clarence Smoyer served in World War II as a tank gunner. After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Smoyer was assigned to the ‘Eagle 7’ M26 Pershing, a “Super Tank” developed for the U.S. Army. With this new assignment came the responsibility of spearheading future attacks, including what would become the Battle of Cologne.
Cologne was a German stronghold. It was defended by a German Panther tank, which was far superior to all American tanks. The Panther sat in the middle of the city, and as the spearhead of the attack, Smoyer and his division were the first to meet it in battle.
In an astounding duel, the Pershing and the Panther faced off. Thanks to Smoyer’s quick thinking and spectacular aim, his crew destroyed the Panther, and Smoyer was dubbed the Hero of Cologne.
Spectacularly, the entire battle was caught on camera by combat cameraman Sgt. Jim Bates. It was shared on newsreels, and seen by Smoyer’s family in a theater in Pennsylvania.
To learn more about Smoyer, check out the New York Times Bestselling book about him and his division, Spearhead.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Corporal Clarence Smoyer. Smoyer served in WWII as a tank gunner, and became the Hero of Cologne after defeating a German tank in an astounding duel that was caught on camera.
Okay. My name is Clarence Smoyer, S-M-O-Y-E-R. I was 20, 21 when we went into Omaha Beach, when we landed over at Omaha Beach. Originally I was the assistant gunner. I would load the 30 caliber machine gun over on my side and also the 75, 76 we had usually.
I don't know if I pronounce it correctly, Villars Facade was the first combat the Third Armored got into and we were told we just had to go into this village and straighten out the lines, push the Germans bike a little bit. Well, we lined up getting ready to go and it was, I remember grassy and wooded area around there and saw the rifle sticking in the ground with a helmets on top, which is indication of a casually there. But we had a second lieutenant as platoon leader and he got up on the fender, on the front of the tank was a tiny little fender. He stood up there to brief us and as he was talking there was a shot in the background. He rolled onto the ground, a sniper got before we even got into combat. But he wasn't killed. He was wounded, but they hit nerves in his arm so that he was sent back home. So consequently we went into battle the first day without our platoon leader. However, it might have helped us out because we were in reserve. They put us in reserve and the other two companies did the attacking. We went down into the village and they had told us it'd be a short engagement. We'd be back by the time of the evening meal. It was dark. We were still down there dark and I think they say it took two days to push those Germans out of there, but we lost quite a few men down in that little village.
At that point I was loading with a gun. Whenever they fire, they tell me what kind of shell they wanted, arm piercing or explosive shell and whatever they call for, I put in. But it kept you real busy, very busy. You didn't have time to breathe. It got very hot in there, and fumes from the shells exploding. We always had the engine noise. You had that and of course the firing. Firing was a lot of loud noise in there. Machine guns chattering away.
Well, like I say, early on we thought it was the best tank in the world to begin with. And a lot of people were fooled, including Mr. Cooper. He told me that himself. He said, "I was one of the people that recommended that tank. After the battle started and I saw what was happening to our tank, I changed my mind." And he even said he wondered how we were going to survive or how we were going to win the war the way we were getting knocked out. The only way... Well, when they knocked one out, there were four sitting behind or five said behind to come up in line.
I think really everybody was scared when you went in like that and especially the first time. Well, I don't think you ever really get over it. You're always scared. Even toward the end of the war when the tank commander would go to be briefed, he would come back and he smoked a pipe and he couldn't hold the pipe steady in his mouth. His pipe would just bounce. But I knew who was going to lead over the hill next time. I always knew who it was going to be because he gets so nervous he couldn't hold his pipe still. But towards the end there, we used to do most of the fighting going down the road and it was hard going over the first hill or around the first corner. Usually we used to rev the tank up, go as fast as we could and see what happened. A lot of times we ran right past the roadblocks before they could get to man their guns.
We were all complaining that our tanks were no good. They were no match for the Germans. Some of the high ranking officers wanted the lighter tanks. I heard many times people saying the heavier tanks like our Pershing was no good, it was too slow. I never saw anybody pass us when we were going down the road. Nobody wanted to get up ahead there.
We were hit in Paderborn, which was Germany's Fort Knox. They taught all their tankers at Paderborn. But we got hit there and it was in the muzzle break of the 90 millimeter cannon. The muzzle break in the front, it hit on the side there, burned through, and the explosion set off the gun. When that fired, the projector went out and the 90 always let a big ball of fire come back in the turret. And our tank commander, his eyebrows and eyelashes were always all singed from that ball coming out the hole where he was. But anyway, he saw the fire inside there. He thought the tank was on fire and he yelled, "Bail out, we're on fire, bail out." And so the three of us went out the turret on the top and the driver and assistant driver went out the escape patch on the bottom.
We got out, we're crawling in a little ditch along the hedge row and they were trying to get us with the machine guns. The Germans were firing across, their zinging across our head, but you can get very close to the ground when you have to. But anyway, we were crawling away from the tank, somebody, I don't remember which one us, turned and looked back and saw the tank wasn't burning up the M26. So we decided we'd better get back in there. It's safer, at least the machine gun shells can't get you. But we got back in there and the Germans kept firing more Panzerfausts. But to begin with, before we got back in the top three went in over the top, the driver went in the bottom and the assistant driver was crawling underneath and the driver didn't realize he started to move the tank. And I didn't remember this until I met him last year. I've been looking for him since the war. I found him last year. But he said, "You don't realize how low that is under there." He said, "That tank was pulling my nose along, rubbing on my nose." He said, "I thought I was goner." But somehow or other they realized that he wasn't in yet. And then he came crawling up and got in with us.
But then we continued. The Germans were firing from behind a raised road. We were at a railroad station and the road that went over the railroad tracks, the bridge the went over was a raised road and they were behind there. We couldn't really do anything. I tried to get the shells to burst in the tree so the shrapnel would go down, didn't have any luck. But we kept moving back and forth and to the side just to get away from them because they must've had a whole bunch of them over there. They kept firing and firing.
Anyways, suddenly Early, my tank commander, my nickname was Smick to him. He yelled, "Smick, a tank." And he grabbed my right shoulder, which was a signal to turn to the right. I swung completely around to the rear, that German tank was coming down behind us and had a real free shot at. Frankly, I don't know why he never fired, but I swung around, fired and knocked him out. But most of our company was in the railroad station coming across the field in toward Paderborn. They all got knocked out and made their way to the railroad station and they didn't realize that we had knocked out this tank. They looked out the window and thought “He's going to get them.” But finally somebody realized that it wasn't moving anymore and it was knocked out. But one of the guys, I never looked into the tanks after we knocked them out like that because I worried it might slow me down the next time I had to pull a trigger, I'd think about what I saw inside the other tank. But this time I did, I opened the hatch and looked in and the assistant driver was laying in his seat and he was dead. I took his P38, which I have today. But one of them got out while we were still in the tank. He got out and ran down the street. I fired over his head. He flopped down in the street and he laid there and I could see his eyeballs, they looked like they were silver dollars watching us. But he stayed there a long time. And finally I looked out of the site on the side and he got up and started to run down the street and I let him go. I couldn't shoot him in the back while he was running away. I figured he's out of the tank. He's not going to bother us anymore.
But with that story, one of the guys, and I think it was John Danforth who they quote in books, and General Griffin addressed our Third Armored association one time, and he spoke of John Danforth complaining that our tanks were no good, we should have better tanks. He said, "I already had two of them knocked out from under me." And I believe John Danforth was one of the men that came out of that railroad station. And his tank had been knocked out there, he came out and later gave me a bottle of champagne for getting the German tank. But a couple of days later, we left Paderborn and I don't recall what the name of the next town was. We were crossing a field and my control, like I said, since we had the biggest gun, most of the time we were up at the front. But we were crossing this field, we were in the lead and my control broke off. There was a rod about a three eighth or inch round rod where the handle was mounted on, turn it side to side to traverse, and the triggers were on there for the machine gun and the 90 millimeter.
Anyway, it broke off and the tank commander radioed to the captain and told him what our problem was. It broke off and couldn't control a gun. Well, he said, "Just use it manual, crank it around their manual." Well, with that big gun hanging out there, as soon as the tank would lean to the side, that thing would take off. It'll almost tear my arm off trying to hold it there. The tank commander called back, told the captain, "We just can't handle it with a gun like that swinging around, there's no control over it." So the captain said, "Okay, face the gun forward and lock it in place." And then instead of leading the column down through that next town, drop back into second place. Well, we did. And I think John Danforth was talking about, I think his tank crew took our place at the lead. And of course with that locked, we had no way to fire really. The lead tank was in front of us, we couldn't fire up that way and the only way you could turn would be to turn the whole tank.
But anyway, we followed the first one down and as we approached the next town, a German infantry man popped up as we passed him, he popped out of a fox hole of the Panzerfaust and he hit us. Luckily not in where we were, he hit the back corner and damaged the reservoir tank for the automatic transmission, the automatic on there. And all the oil ran out and of course the tank stopped and we'd go after the oils out of the transmission. So the next tank banged into us and pushed us off the road, pushed us to the side, and of course we bailed out and we got in another ditch, crawling along the ditch, the safest place is where you can get down a little lower, but their two motors were cracking all around and machine guns were firing. And finally our company half-track came along and he stopped and we started to climb over the top, over the side. And they grabbed us from inside and pulled us in and then took us away. But this tank that took our place, the lead tank, he went up and turned into the town. As soon as he turned the corner to go into town, there was a German tank down there, it fired and knocked him out. And the three men in the top were killed. If it were John Danforth, who I thought it was, the third tank that they knocked out from under him also took him along with it because he didn't survive it.
Somehow, or other they broke our company up and sent us with different units. They made like little task forces, and I think ours was the only medium tank with this group. There were like half tracks and scalp cars, lighter armored equipment. But the first, it was toward the evening, they sent us to this little area in a field and they formed a circle, we were in the center, and as it got darker, you could hear the German equipment going right out over the hill, they were traveling down the road. That went on for hours and hours, a lot of equipment going along the road. But finally we heard a tank coming closer. It got closer and closer. You could hear the tanks squeaking. Finally, he came right up to the corner of the field we were in and it was dark already. We couldn't see exactly where he was. And of course he couldn't see us. But he parked there and shut the tank down and slept with us overnight.
Well, I guess didn't realize we were there, but we knew he was there. And we got up before it got light and we had an idea where he was. So we had the gun turned in that direction. As soon as I could see through the sight and see the German cross on the sight, I put the sight right on there. We fired and knocked them out. I don't know about the people in there. I don't know if they were in there or if maybe they realized before that they were in the field with us and just took off. I never looked at it. They could have all died in there, I don't know.
But anyhow, after that took place, then they sent us out. There was a sunken road between two fields. We went down there and turned left and then a right. There was higher ground ahead of us and we went up this little incline and the front of the tank went up higher and I couldn't really see what was out and down that, but there was an explosion and either tank or a tank gun fired an armor piercing shell and hit the gun tube right in front of my sight, hit the gun tube, ricocheted over the top. Fortunately if that had been a couple inches to the side, I always looked through the telescopic side. It was right over there. Probably would've got that thing in my face. But anyway, it hit and we heard the sound and we didn't know at first where we were hit, we knew we were hit, but we backed off, got out and looked and it just took a real big spoon full of metal out of the gun tube.
So we called the captain and told him what had happened. And we were afraid to fire the gun because we were afraid the gun tube might be collapsed if we fire, the shell might lodge in there and everything would come out the back end inside with us. And he agreed with us. He said, don't fire the gun, just use the machine guns and come back to the area where you were before. Well, we came back to that sunken road at the corner of the field. We stayed there and German infantry had started coming across the field. They kept coming in rows and I kept cutting them down with a machine gun, the 30 caliber. And seems as soon as I cut one row down, another one was right behind. They kept coming and coming. and they were trying to overrun us, I think. But we kept firing and cutting them down. And then pretty soon they started with mortars and a lot of mortars came in and real bad explosions. There were a couple infantry guys that crawled under our tank for protection from the mortars. And they prayed. I never heard anybody pray like that in my life. They made all kinds of promises to the man up there if he would just get them through that. And I often wonder if they really did get through it and if they fulfilled any of those promises they made. But I never heard anybody pray that loud. We heard them inside the tank real good. They talked loud.
But anyhow, finally with the mortar barrages, one of the mortars fell into an open-top scout car. And the men were screaming in there. They were all hurt in there and they screamed. And Faircloth, which was my tank commander, the first tank commander, he jumped out and ran down the sunken road, going to help them. He was going to go down up in the hill to help them. And two mortars fell right beside him and cut his one leg off and threw them up on the bank. And the medics came shortly after that. And I asked him if he was dead and they said, "Yeah, he was killed instantly." Well anyhow, we had to operate with a four man crew instead of five. I used to slide down the seat and look out the top and then go back and fire the gun. But we would've been in bad shape had they brought a tank up there because we would've been faced with trying to fire the cannon or sitting there and letting them knock us out or else get out and run like all heck. But eventually we kept firing and firing and the infantry stopped coming. And of course after he was killed, it eventually quieted down. I think they gave up and figured they're not going to get across that field so easy.
But Faircloth was a very nice man. He was one of the nicest guys I met in the service. But he was a brave, brave man. Whenever there was a problem, he was right out of the tank. And we told him many times, you're going to get hurt or killed like that. Because if you get out and run around, a sniper or anybody could get him. I had been with him since I came to the Third Armor. And like I say, he was one of the nicest men I met. He was a staff sergeant.
First we got to Blindheim. There's a little village of Blindheim before Cologne. And we had to cross a field to take the town of Blenheim. And they sent us out there going across there in a row. From my experience, that wasn't the best way for a tank to fight, it was better going down the road, go as fast as you can and maybe surprise them. But anyway, out in the field you'd get slowed down more. The tracks dig in low. Our tank, the M26, had a wider track and we could handle the softer ground better. Also, I said we had the automatic transmission. You didn't have to clutch to shift gears, you just pull the lever front and back. As we went across the field, they opened up with, I assume it was anti-tank guns camouflaged in the trees. We never could find them.
But the tanks kept getting knocked out and they'd shoot one, we'd be backing up, we'd go across the front and they'd shift gears and we'd go forward and one would go over to the back of us. And that's the only way we survived, or we kept going back and forth and they drove us back. I believe they drove us back two times to the point where we started. And finally the last time we went out, started to fire phosphorus shells into the trees and the white phosphorus created smoke. Also, when it exploded, and I didn't know this at the time, I found out about this after the war. A friend of mine knows a German doctor, and the German doctor told him, German troops feared the white phosphorus shell more than anything we had because when it exploded, that flew all around. And if it hit, it burned right away. They were burned.
But anyway, we fired into the trees with phosphorus and we finally made it a cross there and took our objective and headed to Cologne. As we were approaching a city, they must have been like a suburbs. I remember tall buildings on our right side. And we got in a terrible artillery barrage there. It was like they were bombing us there. And you's wonder if you're going to survive or not.
Anyway, the artillery shell or a mortar shell landing right on top of the turret, it's a death for the tank commander because he's standing right there with his head up there. And that happened back in the hedgerows when mortar landed there. And he was like mush when they tried to get him out of there. They said they'd pick all them, couldn't lift him out.
Anyway, they hit us with a lot of artillery there. And we finally moved ahead more. And I remember one of the lieutenants got on the phone and he said, "Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let's knock the hell out of it." And of course we started firing to the left, Cologne was on the left side there. And we started to fire into there and we went down. There was a underpass where they had pushed trolley cars to block us. And there we had to stop and drag them out of the way so we could go in the underpass.
And there were 88s around there. A picture in my album there that the man said that they had some confusion in their tank and he didn't stop. He kept going full blast and ran up into the wooded area. And there were three 88s there. And he said he thinks he scared the guys away, that they thought he was going to run over them. But anyhow, we've went into Cologne and there was like mortar fire, sniper fire. So we got into town and they stopped. For some reason or another, they stopped us there just before an intersection. And cars and camouflage cars were coming in from the right side. And we fired the machine guns and cut them down there. And suddenly I looked to the left and I see the front end of a German tank coming out beside the building. And by the time we got an armor piercing shell into the chamber and swung over there, he backed away. He must have seen us and backed up. So we've started to fire into that building, which he was to side of. I thought maybe we'd fire armor piercing shells and would go through the building and maybe still get him. But evidently he just kept on backing up and went all the way down to the cathedral.
Well, as things quieted down and we went down the streets and they, they'd tell me the streets were like a wagon wheel with the spokes all going to the center at the Dome plaza for the cathedral. Each street led in like that. Well, one company, I believe it was F Company of 32nd, I'm not certain of it though. They went down the street to our right. And as we went down towards the cathedral Jim Bates, I spoke to you about Jim Bates, he got ahead of the front line troops with his camera. He was down at the street where he could shoot in at the Dome Plaza. And he saw the mark five sitting there and thought it was destroyed. He was filming it when it opened fire and knocked the tank out on the other street, the street over from us. And that's where the three men were killed. And they radioed over to us and asked us if we could go down and try and surprise him and get him, because his gun was pointing at them. And we would come down and he's supposed to be looking away from us. We were to fire, go to the intersection. Then I was to turn the gun right, because his gun was so long you couldn't turn it out to the side to go down. You had to keep it forward. And as soon as I could turn the gun to the right, fire, and then turn back, and put it in reverse and get out there in case we didn't knock him out. Well, as it worked out, we went down, the gun was forward. And as I came to the intersection, I turned and the driver, he had his periscope turned, looking up that way, he saw it first that their gun was coming around to meet us. And when I got there and looked through the sight, I'm looking right into the barrel of their cannon. And he was supposed to stop, like I said, and then fire her back up.
Well, when he saw that gun coming around, he didn't stop. He floored it, put it all the way down the floor as fast as we could go forward. And I fired the first shell on the run, hit him, and then we stopped and fired another one. And then the third one caught fire exploded and started to burn up. But maybe if he had stopped there, we might have been the ones burning up there. And he kept going. And like I say, when I turned and looked up there, he was looking into that hole and that gun tube looks mighty big when you're looking right at it.
So anyway, it started to burn. And I knew two of the crew, I saw them go out. And I didn't go back and look in that afterward because I knew some of them died in there. And somebody had told me that three of them. Two of them were burned up inside. And the gunner, my first shot hit by the gun shield and ricocheted down and went and cut his legs off. And Bates, the photographer, tells me that he'd crawled out, he got to the top of the tank and couldn't go anymore. So he burned up on top of the tank, two burned up in there. And he told me that the two that got out, one ran down the street, he fell over and died.
And the other one, he turned and went behind the tank and he fell over a bicycle there and died on the spot there. All of them were badly wounded anyway. But I spent a lot of time wondering if any of them survived. When I got the video from Bates, and he told how they died, it hurts. It still hurts. Even though they were the enemy, they're still humans. My cousin was killed in the war, and my wife's brother was killed in the war. And I know both the families, that really harmed their families. They were never the same after that. But I often wondered how many of those death notices I sent out because I... A lot of them and a lot of times.
For a long time I didn't talk about it. Not at all. My wife or my kids, nobody knew anything about what happened during the war. I never talked about it until in later years or when we started to go to these reunions, they encouraged us to record our stories because they said the history's being changed. And if you don't record your stories, it's going to be changed. They won't even know what happened. But that was maybe eight years ago or so when they started to push us to talk about the things. And then I started to tell my wife about what happened and the kids didn't know until Elton's book came out and they read the book. They didn't know much about it before that. But for me, I don't know about anybody else, but for me it's hard. Even though at the time they were the enemy and you had not much feeling for them, later on, for me it was hard. I always think about back there at Mons where they kept coming across the field. I know I must've did a lot of damage to them there.
I talked to a doctor at the VA hospital in Allentown, and I think his name was Simbrat, which to me sounds like it might be a Jewish name. When he came into the room, he said, "Mr. Smoyer, before I start examining you, I want to tell you I'm very proud of what you fellas did for the world when you were in World War II." And he said, "Just think what would've happened if you hadn't gone over there and Hitler had taken over everything." He said, "It would be a different world around here today than it is now." But he said, "I'm very proud of what you did, anyway, you fellas." And he gave me an examination. I'll tell you, he really gave me an examination. He had me going to all different doctors for tests and x-rays. But he appreciated it. Anyway, I say, I believe he was Jewish because that sounded like a Jewish name to me, which he might have more feelings for us.
I did my job. Anybody else in the gunners seat there, they would've done the same as I did, I think. After the war, after we started to go to reunions, I met a man from Bath, Pennsylvania, which is 25 miles away from my hometown. In fact, he was instrumental in getting me started to go to the reunions. But he used to... When he found out that I was a gunner in the tank at Cologne, he always used to say to me, "Mr. Smoyer, you saved my life in Cologne. You saved our whole crew." He said, "We had a light tank. We were no match at all. And we had orders to go down and get that tank. We were no match for him. We would've been killed." I said, "Really, I didn't have time to play hero. I saved my life and our crew's life, you came along for the ride. You were just lucky enough to go along for the ride." Because you truly don't have time to think about anybody else. I never had time to think about a hero or anything like that.
I was the only original from our crew, our original crew still with the E7 tank at the end of the war. They were all were killed. First in that police gap where closed that gap, they lost so many of the crews along the way, or the men from the crews that they start taking a gunner and make him tank commander or the driver make him tank commander, and everybody move up and get replacements for the assistants. So anyway, first of all, our gunner went, and that put me over in the gunner's seat and we got a replacement. Then they took the driver and made a tank commander out of him and we got another replacement for the driver. But like I say, even those guys that came in, they were no longer with us at the end of the war, they had gone, moved on a difference spot. I was the only one from the original crew still in E7 at the end of the war.
That was Cpl. Clarence Smoyer. To learn more about Smoyer, check out the New York Times bestselling book about him and his division, Spearhead. You can also watch the footage of Smoyer’s face off with the Panther in Cologne via the link in the show description.
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always looking to improve the show.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.