Though he had been a hero of World War II, Clarence Smoyer was living in relative obscurity in Allentown, Pennsylvania, until best-selling author and military historian Adam Makos visited him in 2012 on the advice of a college friend. Makos soon discovered that Clarence served as the lead tank gunner who helped liberate Cologne, Germany, from the Nazis in 1945. Clarence was also a man plagued by the mystery of a fatal encounter in the city’s streets that involved a German tank gunner and an innocent civilian. That mystery would lead Makos, Clarence, and two of his Army comrades back to Germany to figure out the whole story – and ultimately befriend a former enemy.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview about his latest best-seller “Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II,” Makos said he learned that Clarence grew up poor during the Great Depression in coal country outside of Philadelphia. Early on, he developed a sense of responsibility that led him to work odd jobs to help support his family. “He was this quintessential Greatest Generation guy who grew up in tough circumstances, and it made him a strong person with a deep moral fiber,” explained Makos.
In 1944, at age 21, Clarence found himself in Nazi-occupied Belgium, serving with the U.S. Army’s Third Armored Division on a job that ran counter to his natural, peaceful personality: tank gunner. He was the one who now had to pull the trigger in order to kill another human being. Far from developing any kind of bloodlust, Clarence’s motivation was simply that he wanted to keep every member of his crew alive. That became increasingly difficult when his tank became the Spearhead, the lead tank going into battle.
Makos learned that the lead tank was usually the one to get hit by German troops with anti-tank guns lying in ambush. “You had to be a special American to be willing to go first,” said Makos. “[The soldiers] were all shaking, but you know what. They did it time and time again.”
One of the ways that Clarence dealt with the fear was prayer. Though he was raised Presbyterian, his parents didn’t go to church often so he never learned how to pray. But war brought out Clarence’s spiritual side. During a tense situation in the Battle of the Bulge, he started talking to God as if he were sitting next to him in the tank. He would either say to God, “Get me through this night” – or “Thank you for getting me through this day.” It was a simple, yet deeply profound way of connecting with his maker in the worst of circumstances.
Clarence and his division lost many of their buddies, yet they had to keep functioning. So how did they do it? Makos said, “You had to almost forget that friend existed. You had to forget what happened yesterday, because you’re going back into it day after day. That’s why the Spearhead division was the bloodiest American tank division. They landed after D-Day and fought their way from France to Belgium into Germany, lost 600 tanks doing that, and over 1000 men…These guys all had that common mantra – somebody has to do this job; we have to get this war over with.”
In a story about Smoyer’s fellow infantryman, Buck Marsh, Makos also explored the other side of that equation: the experience of taking another person’s life. Marsh shot a German soldier, and soon after found himself watching the man die as his fellow German soldiers broke down in tears at his death.
Marsh, who now lives in Auburn, Alabama, couldn’t help but feel some level of guilt and compassion. He was asked by Makos, “How did you cope with seeing this young man, your age, bleeding from the wound you inflicted?”
Marsh answered, “The only way to tell myself that it was okay, was to remind myself that that man was there, five minutes earlier, trying to kill me and my friends. And if I didn’t shoot him and drop him from his machine gun, he might have killed us all when we tried to come across that bridge.”
One of the ways that “Spearhead” is a unique story is that Makos also explores the final days of the war from the perspective of an 18-year-old German tank gunner named Gustav Schaefer, who he was also able to meet and interview over several years.
“He’s one of my favorite parts of the book,” explained Makos, “because the book hinges around the city of Cologne, Germany’s third largest city. It was going to be our biggest urban battle of the European war. So we’re following Clarence leading the Spearhead division into Cologne. Then we have Gustav, sent to stop Clarence. And it’s a suicide mission. He’s basically sent with three other tanks against an American army. Gustav was just a farm kid from northern Germany. His father had been drafted into the military and left them short-handed on the farm, but Gustav had to go, too…I was amazed at how simple his lifestyle was before he joined the military. They didn’t have a radio. They didn’t have power. They would work the fields in this farm, from sun up until sun down. He basically was so far removed from Nazi Germany.”
Makos recalled Gustav’s experience on Kristallnacht: “Kristallnacht was when Hitler and the Brown Shirts found an excuse to attack their Jewish neighbors. A German diplomat had been killed in Paris by a Jewish revolutionary. The Brown Shirts went, and they were burning synagogues, killing people, destroying Jewish homes. Gustav is watching this from the porch of his house. His father was in the fire department…so he watched his father get on the bike and go off to fight the fires. They put out the fires and pulled some of the belongings of the Jewish people out of the burning houses. Then, the Brown Shirts came back and threw all those belongings right back in the fire. The firemen were outnumbered by the bullies, the town miscreants. And there’s a really important metaphor there: a lot of the rise of the Nazi party was done by these brutish people who were willing to use violence. They pushed aside the good people and took control of a country. There were a lot of good Germans, who were stuck powerless, like Gustav,” who would have been sent to a concentration camp if he had refused to serve in the military…”So you get to see this side of this foreign person, and realize he had very simple hopes and dreams. He didn’t want any part of World War II. And suddenly, he’s on a tank, being sent into the city of Cologne, which Hitler had declared the fortress city – the city that was going to make the last stand for Germany.”
Clarence’s tank led the American army through the streets of Cologne, knocking out a German Panzer tank that was guarding Cologne Cathedral. Makos said, “In essence, Clarence liberated the symbol of God in the city of Cologne.”
It was there that Clarence crossed paths with Gustav, though they wouldn’t actually meet until more than 65 years later. Makos said, “We follow Kathi Esser, a young German woman who is struggling to survive in Cologne. When Clarence and Gustav were fighting each other, her car drove through the middle of their gunfire. These two enemies shot to pieces a civilian car. Eventually, she succumbed to her wounds and died there…Her death propelled these two enemies, Clarence and Gustav, to not only seek each other out as old men, but to go back to Cologne in 2013, to reunite on the steps of the Cathedral – and then to go back to the place where they fought, the intersection where this tragic moment occurred, to try to find answers. To try to find, how did we shoot this young woman and how can we make amends for it? How can we seek forgiveness from her?”
Makos cherishes the time he got to spend getting to befriend Clarence and Gustav – and how their story brings the complexities of war to the forefront. He said, “They called themselves war buddies, but they were men who once fought each other, who once tried to kill each other. But at their core, they were good men and they became friends. They used to Skype. They’d exchange Christmas cards. They were buddies until the end (Gustav died in 2017). You follow them through the war and, in the end, you see them shaking hands and crying together. And then they become brothers. I mean, that’s the ultimate war story as far as I’m concerned.”
Makos also notes how his friendships with the military members he’s met over the course of writing biographies, such as “Spearhead,” “Devotion,” and “A Higher Call” have changed him. He concludes, “These men remind me to look for something bigger, strive for something good, and to be about other people, other than just living for myself. I think of how many young men were not as lucky as Clarence and Gustav, who gave their lives at 18, 19, 21, 22…It’s so important for us to remember as we wait in line at Starbucks or go to the office or to a soccer game on a weekend, that 75 years ago, some young guy died in some snowy field in Belgium for us. Or on a street in Cologne in the rubble, bleeding to death with his buddies around him. It’s too important to just go about our lives and forget these people.”
(To listen to my full interview with Adam Makos, click on the podcast link):