By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 18, 2019) -- A 95-year-old Army Pershing tank gunner was awarded the Bronze Star medal in a ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington today, nearly 75 years after he and his crew helped take Cologne, Germany, from the Nazis on March 6, 1945.
Clarence Smoyer received the award himself. Tank crewmembers Homer Davis, a bow gunner, William McVey who was a driver, and loader John DeRiggi -- all part of the Eagle 7 tank crew -- were also recognized posthumously with Bronze Star medals -- families accepted on their behalf. Tank commander Bob Earley had previously received the Bronze Star for his actions.
Smoyer and his tank crew were among the first into the city, which was of great importance to the Germans.
Upon entering the city, Smoyer recalled what his lieutenant said over the radio. "'Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let''s knock the hell out of it,' and we obliged," Smoyer said.
Smoyer said while in Cologne, he and his crew had to be aware of what the Germans were doing to stymie their forward advances. "The Germans had a history of dropping Molotov cocktails from the upper stories -- bottle filled with gasoline with a fuse on it. When it'd hit the tank, it would splatter fire all around the tank," he said.
American forces were hoping to capture Cologne from the Germans, said Adam Makos, author of "Spearhead," a book that tells the story of both Smoyer's crew and that of the German tank crew they had faced.
Cologne "was Germany's fortress city," Makos said. "We had to capture it -- the third largest city."
Makos said the battle in Cologne was nearly over on that day, and two Sherman tanks were moving toward the Cologne Cathedral. "Once they took the cathedral, the battle would be won."
One of those tanks was hit by German fire and some of the crew evacuated. Among those was 2nd Lt. Karl Kellner, just 26 years old and already a Silver Star medal recipient. He had been severely injured by the attack. His right leg, Makos said, "had been torn off at the knee. He was bleeding." That tank's gunner also escaped and dove to the ground. Kellner was carried to a shellhole, Makos said -- where he bled to death. Three others in that crew never escaped and died inside their tank.
A German Panther tank was parked in front of the cathedral, Makos said, "daring anyone else to come forward."
Going against that German tank, Makos said "was a suicide mission. That tank crew had come out to stay and to fight to the last round."
Nearby, however, was Eagle 7, the Pershing tank crew with Smoyer and his men. "They made a plan, they volunteered," Makos said. Their Pershing tank was one of only 20 in use in Europe at the time -- and it had a 90 mm gun on board.
Smoyer and the rest of the crew volunteered to face that Nazi tank at the cathedral.
"William McVey held a steady throttle," Makos said. "Bob Earley in the commander's position was talking on the microphone, urging them forward. Clarence Smoyer had prepositioned the gun to the right and lowered it to where he thought that Panther tank would be when they turned the corner. And when they breached the intersection, Homer Davis saw it first. He let out a cry. They were muzzle to muzzle with this German tank, separated by 70 yards."
Smoyer didn't just fire once on that German tank -- he fired three times. He said he did so because he'd learned a lot about the Germans being a gunner in an American tank.
"A German could be injured and he'd just crawl up to the gun and pull the trigger," Smoyer said. "I wanted that tank to burn up, which it did -- it eventually caught fire."
After three shells from the American Pershing, the German tank went up in flames, Makos said.
Nearby, an American cameraman had captured footage of the entire thing. And footage of that battle went around the world to be seen by everyone -- including Smoyer's own sister.
"My sister had gone to the theater with her girlfriend, and as the news came on, I popped up out of the tank. And she said 'oh my God, that's [Clarence]!' ... And she asked the people in the theater if they'd reshow it the next day so they could get my mother and dad to see it."
Smoyer had initially been put in for the Bronze Star -- way back in 1945. But his own innocuous actions put the kibosh on that effort.
"The day after we knocked the tank out my friend and I were walking down the street. Everything was fine, no fighting anymore. But as we walked down the street, these two little kiddies come running out and they're saying 'Kaugummi! Kaugummi!' They wanted bubble gum," Smoyer said.
"I tried to explain to them I didn't have anything. I pulled my pockets out to show them they were empty," he continued. "I took them by their hands and took them back to their mother. And then I turned around and started to walk away, and the MPs pull up alongside of me, and ask for my name and rank. 'You're not supposed to be talking to the Germans' they told me. I think that caused me to lose the Bronze Star."
Now, 75 years later, the bubble gum infraction has been forgiven. Smoyer is now wearing the Bronze Star on his lapel -- and all of his fellow crewmembers have one as well.
"It's an honor. It is an honor, and I will always honor that. I'll do that in remembrance of all the young boys that were killed over there," Smoyer said.
The event at the National World War II Memorial was made possible by the efforts of the Friends of the National World War II Memorial. Additionally, efforts to recognize Smoyer, Davis, McVey and DeRiggi with a Bronze Star were kicked off by Makos.