Clarence Smoyer was said to be the best shot in the Tank Corps in World War II. A reluctant warrior (drafted into the Army) he was assigned to the Tank Corps because he had taken a night class on aircraft engine repair. Since the Sherman tank had what was basically an aircraft engine, he found himself assigned to be a loader.
As D-Day approached, his commanding officer thought it would be a good idea to cross train tank crews so they could cover for wounded team members. That's when everyone realized that Smoyer was an exceptionally accurate gunner. He quickly became assigned full time at that position, and gained a reputation for coolness under fire and quickness in getting off a first, accurate shot. Since 75% of the time the tank that shot first survived, this was pretty important to his team.
He was assigned one of the first 20 of the brand new M26 Pershing medium tanks. It was in this that he became famous for the tank duel in front of Cologne Cathedral in March 1945.
His tank won that battle. It made the newsreels back home:
Footage of the battle, captured by Tech. Sgt. Jim Bates, a combat cameraman attached to the 165th Photo Signal Company, made its way into movie newsreels worldwide, including back home in Pennsylvania, where Smoyer called home.Smoyer came home from that war, went to work, and married his High School sweetheart. He never talked about the war; he put it behind him, getting on with raising a family. But in the 1990s he was increasingly troubled by his experiences, and began searching for closure. His search led him to Germany to meet Gustav Schaefer, the gunner in the Panther tank in that duel. The men became fast friends, half a century after they tried to kill each other.
"That's Hon!" Smoyer's sister-in-law yelled during an airing of the newsreel, Hon was Smoyer's family nickname.
She later convinced the theater owners to replay the reel, so Smoyer's parents, who had never been to a movie theater, could see their son was still alive.
Smoyer eventually told his story, first to an oral historian collecting stories of the 3rd Armored Division, and later to Adam Makos who wrote it in the best selling book Spearhead. There is an outstanding podcast interview of Makos about his experiences interviewing Smoyer at the History Unplugged podcast. Highly, highly recommended. It covers Shermans and Pershings, tank gunnery, why you really didn't want to be in the lead Sherman, and Smoyer's search for peace.
One final note on Smoyer's strange journey: he was put in for the Bronze Star for his exploits in front of Cologne Cathedral, but was caught talking to some German children who asked for bubble gum. This was a violation of the anti-fraternizing regulations, and in a classic example of Army Charlie Sierra The Powers That Be didn't give him the medal. Makos pushed the Army to reconsider, and last fall they did:
Clarence Smoyer received the surprise — and the award — of a lifetime Wednesday, when the Army bestowed on him the Bronze Star for his heroism as a tank gunner during World War II.
Flanked by a Sherman tank parked on the National Mall just behind the World War II Memorial, Mr. Smoyer and relatives of three of his late crew members received the medal during a special ceremony featuring dignitaries and more than 100 other veterans of the war.His family told him that they were going to take him to Washington D.C. to see the World War II memorial; the medal was kept as a surprise. Nice.
Also last year he was met and thanked by an infantryman who was in Cologne and who said that Smoyer had saved his life. He's making rounds where people are (deservedly) making a fuss over him. Here's a nice story from Boston.
I'd heard about the tank duel, but this is the least interesting part of Smoyer's life. All this attention really can be traced to Adam Makos and his determination to help Smoyer get some closure.