Every veteran who served during wartime has a unique story to tell. Clarence Smoyer of Forest Inn is having his told before a national television audience. Smoyer, a tank gunner in World War 11, recently learned that one of his
stories will be the focus of the History Channel's, "Suicide Missions" The episode, titled "Armored Warriors," details his account of an engagement with an enemy tank in Cologne, a major rail junction and river port in
northwestern Germany, on March 5, 1945.
Smoyer told his story to the History Channel while attending a reunion of the Third Armored (Spearhead) Division in Indianapolis on Sept. 1. The account is also mentioned in the book "Death Traps" by Belton Cooper, an ordnance officer who kept a diary during the war. Smoyer first met Cooper about six years ago during a reunion at Ualley Forge, and heard he was writing a book on the division. The libraries in Lehighton and Palmerton have copies of "Death Traps."
The report of Smoyer's memorable battle with the German Panzer tank in Cologne is substantiated by a video report and the still photographs of Jim Bates. The combat photographer won a Bronze Star during the Cologne fighting and his incredible film footage of the street fighting - and Smoyer's tank battle - are included in the National Archives in Washington.
Leading up to the battle for Cologne on March 6, 1945, Smoyer recalls there was a great artillery barrage as his T-26 Pershing tank moved into the city. The Germans had also tried to block the Allied advance by placing trolley cars inside an overpass, but the tank easily pulled the obstacles out of the way.
Photographer Bates was in a building when the Allies approached the square, dominated by the Cologne Cathedral. A German Panther tank in the town square, which the Americans thought was knocked out, suddenly opened fire on the first American tank, killing three in the crew. Smoyer's tank received a call to go in after the German armor. The plan was to go down an adjacent street, move into the intersection just far enough to fire into the side of the enemy tank, which had its gun facing up another street. However, the German crewmen began to swing their turret around as they saw Smoyer's approaching. "When I turned our turret, I was looking into the Mark U gun tube," Smoyer said. "Instead of stopping to fire, our driver drove into the middle of the intersection so we wouldn't be a sitting target. As we were moving I fired once. Then we stopped and I fired two more shells to make sure they wouldn't fire at our side." All three shells from Smoyer's 90-mm high velocity gun penetrated. The first shell struck under the turret, and richoheted into the tank severing the legs of the German tank commander. The next two side hits went completely through and out the other side, setting the tank on fire. It smoldered for two days. None of the German tank crew survived, three of them dying outside the tank.
A war correspondent for Newsweek Magazine also detailed the Cologne fighting in an article on March 19, 1945, and mentioned Cpl. Smoyer in his account. Cooper, the ordinance officer, wrote that "at 1700 hours on March 6, 1945, an officer in the Third Armored Division reported that his men had reached the Rhine River. Cologne, the heart of the Rhineland, was completely in American hands." Smoyer feels fortunate to have been assigned one of the new Pershing tanks after landing on Omaha Beach in June 1944, 17 days after the D-Day invasion of France. The Pershings had thicker armor and more firepower than the Sherman tanks.
After breaking through the Normandy beach defenses on D-Day, the Allies were caught completely off guard by the size of the French hedgerows, which provided natural defense barriers for German machine gunners and snipers. Smoyer's unit suffered a number of casualties in the early action in the thick hedgerows. "Our platoon leader said our mission to straighten out the lines was going to be brief," Smoyer said. "While he was briefing us, a sniper took him out. It took us two days of fighting to straighten the lines." I t was Belton Cooper, the ordnance officer who helped come up with a solution to getting through the hedgerows. The tanks were equipped with giant cutters on the front, which allowed them to bore through the hedgerows.
Another of Smoyer's memorable experiences occurred near Mons, Belgium, a key position to the Germans in defending the Siegried Line. One night, Smoyer said his tank was parked in the same field as a German Panther, but the Germans did not see the American tank. As soon as it became light, Smoyer put his gun on the German tank and knocked it out. Shortly, however, Smoyer's tank also took a hit from an armor-piercing shell. While going up an incline, the Pershing was hit on the gun tube. "Our commander was afraid a shell would lodge in there, and said not to fire," Smoyer said. "We just had machine guns, but went back to the corner of the field, and the Germans started firing mortar shells at us, attacking us with infantry." Smoyer said one of the mortar shells hit a staff car and the tank commander was killed trying to save the men in the car. Meanwhile, his tank kept firing its machine guns at the German infantry until they stopping attacking.
After crossing the Rhine River, Smoyer's armored division was part of the longest overland advance in history - traveling 100 miles in a single day.
From the time he landed at Omaha Beach on June 23, 1944, until his division linked up with Russian forces 20 miles from Berlin in 1945, Smoyer had a number of harrowing experiences, running a gamut of emotions no 20-year-old could expect to experience. His tank was hit four times, twice by German tanks and twice by panzerfausts (German bazookas). Through it all, he came out of the war without serious injury. "Someone was watching over me," he said.
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