By Tony Rossi
Though he had been a hero of World War II, Clarence Smoyer was living in 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 buddies 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,” Makos recalled that 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.
One of the ways that Clarence dealt with fear was prayer. 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 profound way of connecting with his maker in the worst of circumstances.
Makos also explores the war’s final days from the perspective of an 18-year-old German tank gunner named Gustav Schaefer, who he was also able to meet and interview: “Gustav [was] sent to stop Clarence. It’s a suicide mission. He’s sent with three other tanks against an American army. Gustav was just a farm kid from northern Germany…He didn’t want any part of World War II. And suddenly, he’s being sent into Cologne, which Hitler had declared the city that was going to make the last stand for Germany.”
It was there that Clarence crossed paths with Gustav, though they wouldn’t actually meet until more than 65 years later. When Clarence and Gustav were fighting, a civilian named Kathi Esser drove through their gunfire and was killed. Makos said, “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 to try to find answers to, 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 spent with Clarence and Gustav – and how their story highlights the complexities of war. He concluded, “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 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. That’s the ultimate war story as far as I’m concerned.”
For free copies of the Christopher News Note FORGIVING OTHERS AND OURSELVES, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: email@example.com
Tony Rossi is director of communications for The Christophers.