WWII “Hero of Cologne” awarded Bronze Star in surprise ceremony 75 years later


Clarence Smoyer, at left, receiving the Bronze Star in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 18, 2019, and in a photo from World War II.
Courtesy of AP PHOTO

Washington, D.C. (CBS).- When 96-year-old Clarence Smoyer came to Washington on Wednesday, he thought he was heading to the Pentagon to sign copies of “Spearhead,” a recent book detailing his exploits as a World War II tank gunner. Instead, he found a full Army color guard and ceremony awarding him a Bronze Star, almost 75 years after the battle that made him a hero.

Smoyer is the last living member of his crew manning a Pershing tank destroyed a German Panther tank in a pivotal battle about nine months after D-Day. Smoyer, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, was part of a famous March 6, 1945, battle in Cologne, Germany. The battle was captured on film and Smoyer became known as the “Hero of Cologne.” Smoyer has been credited with destroying five tanks in the war.

Smoyer was told soon after that he would receive the Bronze Star, but a few days later he ran afoul of a minor disciplinary issue that cost him his medal. A military police officer saw him searching his pockets for bubble gum to give to a crowd of German children and charged him with fraternization with the enemy. Meanwhile, Smoyer’s tank commander and the military cameraman who filmed the battle received Bronze Stars of their own.

Smoyer’s story was detailed in “Spearhead” by author Adam Makos, and it was Makos who helped engineer Wednesday’s events. Makos learned of Smoyer’s story while researching a book on World War II and began a personal campaign to convince the Army to reverse what he saw as an injustice. Makos brought Smoyer to Washington on the pretense of a book-signing at the Pentagon.

As he stepped out of the car and saw the crowds gathered at Washington’s World War II Memorial, Smoyer smiled broadly and asked, “Am I getting a Bronze Star?”

The ceremony featured an actual Sherman tank, several of Smoyer’s old World War II comrades and a speech by Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey.

Last year, CBS News published a book excerpt from “Spearhead,” which opened with a description of Smoyer and the men of the 3rd Armored Division behind enemy lines nearly three months after D-Day:

Clarence was twenty-one, tall and lean with a Roman nose and a sea of curly blond hair under a knit cap. His blue eyes were gentle, but guarded. Despite his height, he was not a fighter-he had never been in a fistfight. Back home in Pennsylvania he had hunted only once-for rabbit-and even that he did halfheartedly. Three weeks earlier he’d been promoted to gunner, second in command on the tank. It wasn’t a promotion he had wanted.

… Survival that night would hinge on teamwork. Clarence’s company headquarters had given his platoon, 2nd Platoon, a simple but important mission: guard the road, let nothing pass.

Read the full excerpt here

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