WWII 'Hero of Cologne' receives valor award nearly 75 years after famous tank battle
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2019
WASHINGTON — With the help of his cane, 96-year-old Clarence Smoyer stood before the shining marble fountains of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall on Wednesday and rendered a sharp salute, admiring the Bronze Star Medal with combat “V” for valor pinned to the lapel of his 3rd Armored Division jacket.
It was a moment that had been a long time coming — almost 75 years. Smoyer had earned the moniker the “Hero of Cologne” as a 21-year-old tank gunner credited with destroying the seemingly unstoppable German Panther IV tank blocking the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division’s march to the Rhine River in the waning months of the second World War. But Smoyer and most of his crew had never received combat awards for heroism, and he wasn’t prepared Wednesday, when the Army finally presented it.
“I was real surprised,” said the soft-spoken Pennsylvanian, who arrived at the memorial Wednesday morning expecting to visit as a tourist. He said he had long ago given up on receiving the valor award he was promised for his actions March 6, 1945.
“It’s an honor,” he said Wednesday of receiving the Bronze Star. “I wear the medal in memory of all the young boys who lost their lives there during that time.”
Families of three deceased members of his tank crew were also awarded the Bronze Star with “V” at the ceremony Wednesday, making the crew — known as Eagle 7 — among the most decorated in Army history, with five Bronze Stars for valor. Medals were accepted Wednesday for Pfc. Homer L. Davis, Pfc. John S. DeRigg and Tech. Cpl. William D. McVey.
After arriving in France just weeks after D-Day, Smoyer knocked out his first tank in September 1944 in Mons, Belgium. He would later be credited with the destruction of five.
When the United States set its sights on Cologne, Smoyer and his crew were tasked with spearheading the invasion. He recalled the fear he felt as they rolled into Cologne, the bombed-out shell of Germany’s third largest city, where the enemy was sure to be dug in.
Over the radio, the unit’s commander gave Smoyer and the other tankers one final instruction.
“He said, ‘Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let’s knock the hell out of it,’” Smoyer said. “And we obliged.”
He fired the first shot of the battle, he said, turning his gun on a clock tower, where German forces were likely waiting.
He was in an M26 Pershing tank, one of about 20 quietly sent to the European front lines for battlefield testing as a replacement for the M4 Sherman.
On March 6, Smoyer and the massive 90mm gun of his M26 Pershing were called upon to face down a German Panther IV tank harassing American forces. The Panther had destroyed a Sherman, killed several U.S. soldiers, and it had left other crews paralyzed, knowing an attempt to destroy the superior Panther likely meant death.
The entire episode, caught on film by a U.S. Army cameraman, would last only 45 seconds. McVey wheeled the Pershing into an intersection, where the crew believed that Smoyer would be able to fire on the Panther’s flank. Instead, they found themselves staring down the barrel of the Nazi tank’s gun, Smoyer recalled.
McVey pushed the gas pedal to the floor. Smoyer fired three successive shots — setting the Panther ablaze in the shadows of Cologne’s towering gothic cathedral and earning him the “Hero” moniker he still brushes off, almost 75 years later.
In Adam Makos’ bestselling book “Spearhead,” on the exploits of Smoyer and Eagle 7 in the final months of World War II, the author describes the moments when the crew members realized they had won the short-lived battle.
“Clarence sat back from the periscope, still stunned by the previous 40 or 50 seconds of furious action. Did that really happen?” Makos wrote. “After some time, Clarence broke the silence in the tank. ‘That was close,’ he said.”
The Bronze Star
Smoyer earned fame as a hero when news programs back in the United States played the grainy, black-and-white footage of the fight filmed by Sgt. Jim Bates. However, Smoyer did not receive a valor award, which he was promised in the wake of the battle.
He believes another action the next day cost him the Bronze Star that his lieutenant had requested.
With fighting lulled the next day, Smoyer was walking the streets of Cologne when a pair of German children approached him looking for bubble gum, which American soldiers were known to carry.
“I tried to explain to them I didn’t have anything,” he said, describing how he flipped his pockets inside out to show they were empty. “I took them by the hand back to their mother, and when I turned and started to walk away, the [U.S. military policemen] pulled up beside me.”
The Unite States had a policy barring fraternization of any kind with Germans, including women and children. The MPs wrote Smoyer a citation for “talking to the enemy.”
“I think that caused me to lose the Bronze Star,” he said Wednesday.
While interviewing Smoyer for his book about two years ago, Makos was appalled to learn of the apparent injustice.
“When he first told me about that I couldn’t believe it,” said Makos, who worked with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to secure the Bronze Star for Smoyer. “How do we go back 75 years and make this right?”
A frantic search through Army records turned up a Bronze Star earned in Cologne on March 6, 1945, Makos said Wednesday. Another member of Smoyer’s crew, Staff Sgt. Bob Early, received it for his part in destroying the Panther. More digging revealed that Bates, the combat cameraman, had also received a Bronze Star for filming the battle.
“What about the man that pulled the trigger?” Makos said.
The author said he worried that Smoyer would not receive his overdue award during his lifetime. Through a friend, word of Makos’ effort reached the upper ranks in the Pentagon.
Eventually an Army awards board reviewed his case and determined that not only did Smoyer deserve the Bronze Star, but that the entire crew of Eagle 7 had earned the valor award that day, Makos said.
“They’re all getting the Bronze Star,” Makos said. “Well done to the Army for going above and beyond to recognize the teamwork of this crew.”
Smoyer still refers to that crew as his family.
They went through the toughest moments of their lives together in the bowels of a tank. He said they fought for one another, and it was only appropriate that they be honored together — even if it had to come nearly 75 years later.
“It’s all for them,” Smoyer said Wednesday. “I will always honor that.”
WWII veteran Clarence Smoyer, 96, has a Bronze Star medal pinned to his jacket by Army Maj. Peter Semanoff during a ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES