Smoyer Index

Clarence Smoyer
E Co, 32nd A.R., 3rd Armored Division

As told to Vic Damon and Dan Fong of Staff



The events described below are not all in time sequence. These memoirs start with the tank confrontation in Cologne where Clarence Smoyer, as the gunner of the newly introduced M26 Pershing tank, destroyed a German MK5 Panther, as captured on movie film in one of the most famous tank scenes of WWII. The events then backtrack to his first assignment to the Pershing and his first test firings. It then backtracks further to his arrival in Normandy as the loader on an M4 Sherman, and the story then continues forward through the European campaigns, including Paderborn near the end, where many fellow soldiers felt he was deserving of a Silver Star. Also included is a chapter summarizing wounds that should have entitled him to three Purple Hearts, and a chapter listing his qualification as a true ace in the destruction of five enemy armored vehicles. These memoirs, the product of interviews during 2009-2010, offer a new and much broader insight to those who have long been aware only of Smoyer's legendary tank marksmanship in Cologne.

COLOGNE BATTLE - March 6, 1945

Our tank platoon entered the outskirts of Cologne, followed by infantry on foot. As usual our 90mm M26 Pershing was leading. I fired sporadically wherever I felt there was a threat, as we headed toward the downtown section to the cathedral area and near the bridge that spanned the Rhine. At one point we were caught in an artillery barrage that didn't last too long. Our own artillery had probably responded to the German guns, which must have been located on the opposite side of the Rhine.

Then there was another delay where the Germans had blocked our path with a roadblock of trolley cars and other vehicles jammed under an overpass. That was soon cleared out and we moved ahead cautiously. Beyond this overpass I don't recall any 83rd Recon vehicles being ahead of us. Our tank was in the lead. There were no scouting parties up ahead that I ever knew about.

There was small arms fire on occasion coming from buildings and much of that were snipers of course, but I don't remember any anti-tank shooting such as Panzerfausts or anti-tank guns (75mm or 88mm).

Soon we stopped and the next events are the scenes are in the well-known Army Signal Corps movie footage, with my firing down the street with the main gun plus some machine gunning.

When I was firing the machine gun this civilian-looking car suddenly came in my line of fire. I have no recollection of actually aiming at the car. It drove into an intersection while I was firing. If those tracers in the film are mine, I don't know.

Soon after that, I saw a German tank come into the street ahead of us, one to two blocks away, but, by the time I turned the gun around, it had moved back behind a building. So I fired through the building trying to get a lucky hit at a tank I couldn't see. That resulted in several corner stories of the building collapsing in a pile of dust and debris. I didn't know what had happened to the German tank. In
fact, it wasn't until a German news journalist researched the event in 2008 and found that bricks and other parts of the building came down on top of the tank, an MK4, and made it inoperable. The journalist's eyewitness turned out to be the MK4’s radio operator (Gustav Schaeffer), who was still alive and well in

Meanwhile news crackled over our radio that there was a German tank in the Cathedral square that was about to be a threat to us. Shortly before this, that same tank had destroyed one of our Sherman tanks and killed two of its crew. But at the time I was completely unaware of that. Possibly SSgt. Early, our tank commander was aware, but I wasn't.

We were nearing an intersection and expecting the German tank to be visible down the side street to our right. And it was at that point that we stopped and SSgt. Early got down off the tank and spoke with one of the Signal Corps. cameramen (Jim Bates). Early must have anticipated some interesting action, as I later heard that he suggested that Bates get in a good position with his camera. And Bates did exactly that, although I was unaware of it at the time. Bates took a position on the 2nd or 3rd floor of a building, but staying out of sight of the German tank.

With Early back in the tank, the plan was for driver Bill McVey to take us fast into the intersection and then stop, allowing me to turn the turret to the right and fire, then McVey would hit reverse and we would take cover and reassess our next move, which was probably going to be to go out and fire again. Because of the narrowness of the street it was not possible for me to pre-position the turret fully to the right prior to entering the intersection.

Anyway, that was the plan. McVey was to enter fast, then stop, allowing me time to aim and fire, then a fast reverse. But that's not what happened. McVey entered fairly fast, and noticed through his periscope that the Panther's gun was turning to meet us. So McVey's instinct was to keep going so we wouldn't get hit. In that instant, as we were still moving, I had sighted the Panther and, while noticing its gun tube straight at us, I fired, and - bingo - a hit with an armor-piercing 90mm under the Panther's gun shield. That was followed by two more shells, which I sighted and fired as fast as my assistant gunner - John Deriggi - could load. That resulted in two hits in the side that, I learned later, both penetrated and went out the other side. All this happened so fast that I had no time to be nervous. It was just intense, fast work.

To this day, I don't know if shots #2 and #3 were done as the M26 was still moving, or slowing, or if McVey had stopped after the first shot. So much for the original plan. The whole crew was pretty joyful about what we had just done, but we still had to be cautious because, for all we knew, other German tanks were lurking around. As for the German tank crew, I spent many years wondering if they survived. Only in 2008 did I find the answer. The same German journalist mentioned above found that two of the crew HAD survived and lived to be old men. Another had also escaped from the tank, but died later from his wounds. Another was found dead inside the tank, and the fifth crewman died either in the tank or outside.

The following is the crew of the M26 that day in Cologne:
Tank Commander - Robert Early of Fountain, Minn.
Gunner - Cpl. Clarence Smoyer of Lehighton, Pa.
Asst. Gunner - Pvt. John Deriggi of Scranton, Pa.
Driver - T/5 William McVey of Jackson, Mich.
Asst. Driver - Pvt. Homer Davis of Moorehead, Ky.

Now I know that on the Internet (where there are discussions about the filming of the Panther) various people have asked why three shots were necessary when the Panther appeared out of action from shot #1. And wasn't it over-kill and an unnecessary butchering of a German tank crew? First of all, my view was not anything like what the view in the film that Bates shot. I was down on street level. I was dealing with visibility limited by dust and smoke after the first shot. What I could see was the muzzle of the German gun aimed right at us and what I knew was that all that was needed was for one of those German tank crewmen to have survived and to pull the trigger. So I wasn't going to stop after one shot.

Also, during my sighting and firings, I was completely unaware of crew members bailing out and running away. I was unaware of bodies through my gun-sight. The smoke and my low angle contributed to that. Of course, it was years later, when I first saw the Bates film that I realized what the German crew went through and that it was possible that several had survived. Later that afternoon in Cologne, or the next morning, I did see the burned out Panther close up, as we stopped the M26 nearby. Some of the crew got out for a real close view, but I didn't.

The battle was over at least in the downtown area by the next day. We had stayed in that area overnight and slept in the tank. The next day Bates and the other still photographers had a photo shoot in front of the cathedral and used the burned-out Panther as a prop. But SSgt. Early and I weren't there. I'm not sure where were but we missed that photo shoot and so the assistant driver and assistant gunner (Davis and Deriggi) were the ones who were in those photographs. Of course Bates at that point didn't know for sure what he had on his movie film as it hadn't been processed.

I'm only in the movie, and not in any still photos, as far as I know. The group-shot on the tank, which is a somewhat famous photo released in our Division history, is actually a still-frame from some additional movie footage shot by Bates or one of his colleagues. Also, our crew was not at the big ceremony held several days later at the Cologne Stadium, where VII Corps Commander Lawton Collins and Maj. Gen. Rose and other top brass appeared. Our platoon and much of the company had gone out to a small town to clean our guns and re-service. This of course was before anyone knew about the results of the Bates movie film, so we were pretty much the obscure crew that we had been all along, except for that impressive-looking new tank we were in.

I always wonder what would have happened if the Division had arrived in Cologne maybe two hours earlier and if the Germans had not yet blown the bridge at Cologne that crossed over the Rhine. I wonder if we might have been the first to cross the Rhine at that point, if the Germans had been prevented from blowing the bridge or if they made some mistakes with the demolition. I think the Division was so aggressive that Gen. Rose might have decided to go across the bridge regardless of the danger, provided it was still standing.

My recollection is that I heard some massive explosions coming from the area that I later knew to be the bridge and that must have been its demolition. And I was maybe only a 15-minute drive away. The date was March 6, the day before the famous capture and crossing of the Remagen Bridge by the First Army's 9th Armored Division on March 7, 1945. We came so close to another great 3rd Armored "first."


I can't recall exactly when I first set my eyes on the M26 Pershing, but it must have been sometime after the Bulge and before Cologne, probably in February, 1945. I learned well after the war that the Army shipped only a total of 20 M26's to the European theater, with 10 going to the 3AD. Five were sent to my regiment, the 32nd AR, but I never saw the other four. And five went to the 33rd AR, but I never saw those either. During the rest of the war, I was only aware of my crew's M26. By being picked to move up to the best tank in town, we felt that we were the lucky ones. Little did we realize that, because of the big 90mm gun, we would soon be leading the way in most every convoy and attack, followed mostly by M4 Shermans, M5 Stuarts, and halftracks.

It was at a 3AD reunion sometime in the 1980's that I learned how our crew was assigned to the tank. Belton Cooper, the 3AD's WWII tank maintenance expert, and I were chatting and he mentioned that he was at the meeting where the higher-ups decided on which crew,s and the consensus was that our crew, with SSgt Early as tank commander, was the best in the 32nd AR. I told Cooper that no one had ever told me that, and Cooper said it was something I should be proud of.

Again, I can't recall when I first saw the M26, but it must have jolted me, because the design was so radical and simply more fierce looking that the Sherman. I can remember, however, when we first took the tank out to test fire. It was to be both a test firing and a demonstration for a lot of top brass and other higher-ups. I think even top brass from VII Corps was there. As I've mentioned, I was unaware of the four other M26's in the 32nd AR, and it was our crew alone that was being spotlighted at this obviously important demonstration.

We set up on a hillside where we looked out over a valley, and it would have been somewhere between Stolberg and Cologne. Of course it was a completely secure area. Looking into the valley, we could see farmhouses that had been damaged by bombing or artillery.

We were given targets to shoot, such as a certain farmhouse. The first house was out at about 1,200 yards or two thirds of a mile. It had a prominent chimney and we were told, not just to hit the house, but to knock the chimney off. I aimed and fired and there was a big puff of smoke on top of the house and the chimney was gone. I had previously practiced with the new gunsight, and gone through a lot of dry-run firings, but as far as I can recall, that chimney shot was my first live fire of a 90mm round, and we were using either M82 armor piercing or T30 HVAP shot. I do also recall, but very vaguely, that some Army ordnance people that had come over from the States were there to instruct us and that included before the demonstration.

So we were given a second target - a house with a chimney on both sides - a light stone chimney and a smaller red brick chimney. The house was about 1,500 yards away or close to a mile. We fired and again a perfect hit on the light-colored chimney, and then a bull's-eye with the brick chimney. The demonstration went on, and I remember hearing applause from the top brass and on-lookers when it was over. They had to have been impressed, and I bet that many of them wondered why the M26 wasn't available many months earlier.

What I learned later was that these onlookers had gotten a little too close to watch the tank, and the first concussion of the first firing actually knocked a group of them down, literally blew them over. Some in our crew was chuckling about that. The muzzle blast had a very different feel and sound, as compared to a 75mm or 76mm on a Sherman. It was more of a loud crack than the usual explosive sound. And the air pressure was more intense.

I felt very confident with the new this new gunsight. But I was also confident because the trajectory of the 90mm was so straight and true, or nearly so, very much unlike the 75 and 76 mm, where there was a curved arching trajectory which was very obvious at medium and distant ranges.

One problem with the gun, that I don't think was ever solved during those final months of the war, involved a blow-back fireball from the breech. Every time you fired the gun and the breech block would open, a ball of fire came out and went through the turret and out the commander's hatch. SSgt Early had his eyebrows singed a number of times if he wasn't leaning slightly out of the way. Fortunately the fireball didn't affect me because I was off to the side.


It's not exactly an interesting subject for most people, but bore-sighting of the 90mm gun was an exacting and recommended procedure, at least when battle situations allowed some "quiet time" to do it. The M26 was supposed to be bore-sighted every day, but that just couldn't happen. The procedure involved centering two strings at the muzzle to act as cross-hairs. There were notches machined into the muzzle where the strings would be secured. Then, after taking the firing pin out of the breech block, you take binoculars and look through the gun tube to align the tube to a distant target. At night you could even use a star as a target.

Then you unlock all the sight reticle locks on the gunsight, and tweak them until the sight reticle is lined up on the same spot. Once they are lined up to where the gun is aimed, then it's bore-sighted. You then fire three rounds to establish the zero. Then following the three rounds, you adjust your sight reticle to the center of that 3-round group, then lock the reticle, Once everything is locked up, you fire a confirmation round. If you hit the spot, you are finally bore-sighted and zeroed.

Of course, in real combat situations, none of that was possible, so I had to depend on my own experience on where the gun was hitting, and that depended on your last firings. I have no idea when I last bore-sighted prior to the Cologne engagement, but that involved a target only 100 yards away, where it wasn't that critical.


It was just after the Division's action at the Falaise Gap in France, around mid-August, 1944, that my career as a tank gun-loader ended and I moved up a notch. James Mallot, our crew gunner since we landed at Normandy, was promoted to tank commander of another Sherman. For whatever reason, Mallot recommended me to be the new gunner to whomever made those decisions.

Being a gunner was considered a major promotion and normally would involve someone who had special training and skills and the right temperament. In my case, I was completely unproven. I had sighted and fired a Sherman maybe eight times between Stateside and England training. I had no record as an exceptional marksman with an M1 rifle. As a civilian, I had hunted a little with a shotgun and sometimes a .22, but won no trophies. But Mallot made his case, and said something like, "I taught Smoyer all he knows." And suddenly I was a gunner, even after I told him that I didn't want to be.


I arrived in Normandy, France on June 23 as part of the 32nd Armored Regiment (AR). I was a loader in an M4 Sherman tank with the 75mm gun (or possibly an M4A1). As we crossed the channel and neared France I remember seeing bodies floating in the water, and this was two weeks after D-Day. I later understood that, after those initial D-Day landings, American bodies were lined on the beach and the tide came in and took a lot of them out. You never read about that happening, but it did.

The first actual combat against the Germans by our unit was at Villiers-Fossard when we were just very green troops. And the first incident I recall occurred when our platoon leader, a lieutenant, stood up on the fender of a tank to brief us. In so doing he exposed himself to a German sniper. A shot rang out and he rolled off onto the ground in agony. He wasn't killed, but he had an arm wound so severe that there was major nerve damage and he was sent back to the states.

On another occasion we were told that we'd be in combat for part of a day and then back in time for dinner. But we went into this town in the afternoon and stayed all night and part of the next day. Our job was to straighten out a bulge in the line. That was a pretty tough bulge because we lost quite a few guys right there. Several tanks were knocked out and some crew members killed. I don't know how many infantry were killed or wounded, but they took the brunt. Our tank took no serious hits, nor did we have any clear shots at German tanks. We were acting primarily as a machine gun platform against infantry, if we could see them.

It was a scary thing been engaged at night. Shooting had mostly stopped, but you didn't know where the Germans were. Of course we had guards posted in the darkness and every unknown sound put you on the alert. I can imagine that the Germans were just as on edge, and thinking that we were wandering around in the dark looking for them.

As for sleep, in the beginning or tank crew would dig out an area beneath the tank and put a tarp down and try to sleep that way. But as the drive across France continued, we didn't have time for that and we slept inside the tank. It was awkward and uncomfortable, and you were thankful for every moment that you actually dozed off, and there was a sense of security sleeping next to steel. Of course, one of the crew would always be on guard to make sure the German infantry weren't sneaking up on us.

In Normandy, there were few German tank sightings by our group. As tankers, our biggest concern or fear was the German 75mm anti-tank gun which they would always have well camouflaged. The next concern was German infantry with Panzerfausts and rifle grenades. The Panzerfaust could be devastating, and for such a small light weapon. On impact it would could make a small hole in a tank, but penetrate inside. As the war went on I would see the results close-up in a number of knocked out Shermans where crew member were killed. A Sherman had only three inches of armor on the front and less on the sides and rear. That was no problem for the Panzerfaust with a proper impact.


At St Lo, I experienced the true "power of suggestion." Our tank was in line waiting to move out to attack. We were waiting for hours and into the night. German artillery shells came in, and someone yelled "Gas! Gas!" So we put our gas masks on. It was a frantic panic on our part. But it proved to be a false alarm. There was no gas. But, as for the power of suggestion, I swear that I could smell gas a number of times when I was putting my mask off and back on.


Also at St. Lo, on a morning just as the sun came up, there came this steady deep drone from the sky as waves and waves of U.S. bombers (and I assumed British) were all moving in one direction. Then the bombs started to hit in some distant area out of our sight. As distant as that was, the ground beneath us still trembled. Even inside the tank, the vibrations could be felt. This, of course, was the great air armada of Operation Cobra. Every once in a while, a plane would be hit by German fire and I'd see it smoking and coming down, and usually with parachutes following.


Somewhere in the area, I think, of St. James, France, we stopped for a night in a village next to a house with a barn built together as one structure. We went into the barn to eat and one person always stayed in the tank at the gun. On my way back from chow, I was approaching the tank to relieve the guy inside. An infantryman was standing next to the tank and we spoke briefly. I remember him saying he was from New York. He was carrying his rifle and was just a young kid, like a schoolboy.

The guy inside the tank came out and I climbed up, as usual stepping on the boggy wheel first, then up past the white star painted on the side of the turret. I was halfway in the hatch and felt an impact and my lights went out. I was knocked unconscious. I was later told that the explosion decapitated that young boy. It took his head right off. And I was told that if I had been in front of the white star about two seconds earlier I would have been cut in half.

The tank turret had been hit by an artillery shell. But the blast of the exploding shell deflected its force and shrapnel outward away from the thick skin of the turret. Incredibly there was no obvious damage to the tank, except that the star looked like it had been sandblasted. This was the original Sherman that we had at the Normandy landing.

I don't know how long I was unconscious, but I remember coming to inside the tank. There was dust and smoke in the air. I had a concussion with a bad headache, but I had no other injury. I had temporary memory problems and felt rattled for couple of days but I stayed on the job. I had no medical exam, which I guess was my own choice.

The Sherman may not have been structurally damaged, but there was still a serious problem. The tank engine would start but it was misfiring and would only produce low power. Possibly the shell impact or concussion had cracked or damaged the spark plugs. Anyhow, we couldn't get over the next hill. So we were pretty well stuck where we were.

As a result we missed the next battle that same day when our platoon went into the next town and was ambushed by camouflaged Germans. I can't recall the name of the town, but the Germans waited in the last moment when the tanks were very close and unload a barrage of anti-tank weapons.

It was a disaster. Surviving crew members and infantry came straggling back. Many were wounded. I didn't witness what happened next, but it was described to me. As one soldier was making his way back down the road toward us, a shell literally took his head off. More 3rd Armored units eventually came in and eliminated the German force in that town.

So in a bizarre way that German artillery shell probably saved my own crew from injury or death since we couldn't go to the next town. The engine could not be fixed so the 3rd Armored maintenance team came in and replaced the entire engine. I have to have to admire those mechanics. They were fast-working pro's. They were miracle workers and under terrible conditions.

So since we were left behind a day or two from the rest of the task force, we then went off alone to catch up. And eventually we did, while facing no serious threats along the way. Our original "old" Sherman from the Normandy landing was running great.


Our tank and crew was sent to a field on the outskirts of Mons to join a group of miscellaneous men and equipment for the purpose of trapping elements of the 7th and 15th German Armies. I think we were the only medium tank in the group, which consisted of light tanks, armored cars, and half tracks. Our crew in the 75mm Sherman at this time was:

Tank Commander - S. Sgt. Paul Faircloth of Jacksonville, Fl.
Gunner - Cpl. Clarence Smoyer of Lehighton, Pa.
Asst. Gunner - Pvt. John Deriggi of Scranton, Pa.
Driver - T/5 William McVey of Jackson, Mich.
Asst. Driver - Pvt. Homer Davis of Moorehead, Ky.

We arrived in a field late in the day and formed a circle for protection. On this first day, we had very little action; however, we could hear a lot of German equipment moving on the other side of a hill in the direction of Mons. Later this night, we heard a German tank moving in our direction and it kept getting closer and closer until it finally pulled into the same field with us and parked near the middle of our tanks.

Incredibly the German tankers didn't realize they were in an American formation. But it was very dark. We knew it was a German tank from the sound of the engine, but again it was so dark we could do nothing. I recall it as a medium tank with a 75mm. At first light of dawn. I fired a single armor-piercing round and disabled it. It was clear that their gun could not be fired. But the German crew had either abandoned it during the night or was still inside, I never knew for sure.

Shortly after this incident, our crew was ordered to go down a sunken road between the field we were in and the next field, then to proceed in the direction where all the German equipment was moving the night before. As we moved across the field and up a slight incline, suddenly there was a loud explosion and we realized that we were hit, but there was no fire and damage inside, so we stayed in the tank and backed up to a place where we had more cover. Here, we got out to check for damage. After checking, we found that we had been hit by an armor-piercing shell on the gun barrel just forward of the gun sight that I had been looking through. Fortunately for me, when the shell hit the gun tube, it scooped out a large section of the tube, which deflected it over the top of our tank, instead of hitting the gun shield in front of my face.

After this happened, we radioed back and told the commander that we were afraid to fire the gun anymore because it looked like the gun tube was damaged. They told us not to fire anymore, as the projectile might lodge in the tube and all of the explosive force would come out the breach end and into the inside of the tank.

We were then ordered to return to the sunken road between the fields where we had been previously and cover the field ahead with machine-gun fire because German infantry men were advancing across the fields. It seemed like we spent an eternity here firing our machine guns on the attacking infantry. We would cut them down, only to have another wave follow behind them a short while later. Finally, I guess they realized they couldn't make it across the field this way, so they stopped attacking and started firing mortars at us. This was the worst mortar fire we received during the entire war.

After a while, a mortar shell landed in an armored car which was in the field where we spent the previous night. The crew in the armored car was badly hurt and screaming. Paul Faircloth, our tank commander, jumped out of the tank and ran down the sunken road to their aid. I stuck my head out of the tank to watch Paul, when there were two mortar explosions beside him, blowing off his foot and ankle, throwing him up onto the bank and killing him. Immediately, two medics came to examine him and told me he died instantly. Paul Faircloth was one of the bravest and nicest men I met during my time in the army.

For our part in the operation at Mons, Faircloth was recommended for the Silver Star, which was turned down. He was given the Bronze Star instead. I have always felt this was an injustice, since this man sacrificed his life trying to save other soldiers and they turned down his Silver Star.

I have no idea how many Germans I hit or killed. Originally there were hundreds coming across a field. But finally the attacks stopped. Maybe the mortar men ran out of ammunition. We'll never know. Suddenly it quieted down. Or maybe they ran off.


It was after Mons that a new tank commander came our way. This was Bob Early who was originally a gunner who got promoted to Staff Sgt. And with him came a new tank - the standard Sherman but with the new 76mm gun, which had higher velocity than the 75mm. Because Early was the platoon leader or platoon sergeant we had the 76mm, and the rest of our group had the 75mm. As the leader's tank we also had a radio with two-way transmission. The other tanks had radios but could only hear.

Now we knew that we were actually headed for the German border. Belgian people were greeting us everywhere in the streets and even on the country roads. Out came the wine and Champagne and Calvados, a French apple brandy. I had my canteen filled up many times and not with water. I don't recall any specifics about Liege. There were small firefights along the way as we approached the German border, but our convoy kept moving. I don't recall being part of any action when crossing into Germany in the area of Roetgen. The way had been secured by our forward troops.


I recall that our unit found a small area where German farmers had piled dirt high over the concrete "Dragoon's Teeth" of the infamous Siegfried Line to get their farm equipment across. That made a convenient gateway for us. At one point I remember we had a Sherman minesweeper with chains go through but it slid off and got caught on the teeth.

German artillery fire started coming in at that point. Two of our tanks moved in with cables and pulled the minesweeper out. Then my tank started across. It wasn't easy. There was incoming small arms fire and there were some German tanks lurking around. There was an antitank gun well hidden in a nearby building near the area we were crossing. We never saw that gun until we are right on top of it. The crew must have gotten scared and ran off. Then we encountered a pillbox and the platoon surrounded it from three sides and fired away repeatedly.


At Stolberg my tank served as a roadblock status at the top of a large hill on the edge of town. We are there for a month and maybe more. The Division occupied most of the town but not all. The action was surprisingly minor for us. There were no tanks encountered. The roadblock was in case the Germans counterattacked, but no attack ever came. Most of the action was at night. Coming from the German side there were the "screaming mimi's" artillery rockets and also clusters of small anti-personnel explosives like grenades were dropped by German planes.


Next the Battle of the Bulge. Word came suddenly in mid-December, 1944, that we were to pack up ASAP and head back to Belgium, away from Germany. I couldn't believe it. I remember very little of The Bulge. It was three weeks of confusion for me. My crew did not know where we were or who was in the next field, if Americans or Germans. The Division seemed all scattered about. I don't recall any close engagement with any German tanks. Some machine gun fire came from German troops and we responded. Our platoon did some escorting of U.S. infantry. There was some distance firing against German vehicles and troops by our tanks. I remember most the relentless cold. My hands were cold even with gloves, so I was worried about being able to operate the gunsight in such cold. I remember Christmas Day 1944, seeing our kitchen crew coming across a field in vehicles with hot Christmas meals.


The M26 was now off to real combat. Small towns were encountered. U.S. troops and German civilians were in awe of seeing the M26. Some troops thought it was a captured German tank. We were on our way to Cologne and I recall only one major incident before Cologne was Blatzheim on the Cologne plain.

Our company was ordered to cross this field and take the town. We started the attack and ran into heavy fire from anti-tank guns and German tanks hidden in a tree-line. A number of our tanks got knocked out. We pulled back. The Germans had been dug in and were well camouflaged. They had dug deep trenches to keep their tanks low.

We attacked a second time and again had to pull back. Then we attacked the third time. This time I fired phosphorous shells into the tree-line where I thought most of the German firing was coming from. That seemed to stop their firing or greatly decrease it. Then soon there was silence. I'm not sure what happened. Possibly they simply beat a fast retreat. I'm sure they could see that we were determined to take the town. And of course we did.


On another occasion we stopped late in the day. A guy from another tank, an assistant driver, and I had had conversations in the past when we could relax. He was a real "tough guy," always bragging about his various exploits in battle and with women back in the States. His conversation was always laced with cuss words. Yes, a real tough guy.

So, on this occasion, he and his tank's driver walked off to cut tree branches for use as camouflage. Tough Guy was carrying a Tommy gun and the driver had an ax. As they went up the road, about 6 or 8 German soldiers suddenly came out of the bushes and put their hands up to surrender. The Tough Guy with the Tommy gun reacted with complete panic. He ran back toward us yelling, "The Germans are coming! The Germans are coming!"

Of course, we took him seriously and took battle positions. Then, from down the road, came the driver. With only an ax as a weapon, he was marching the surrendered Germans toward us. This was a bizarre scene that remains imprinted on my mind to this day.

I never saw the "Tough Guy" after that. I have no idea what happened to him, whether reassigned to another unit or maybe sent to a hospital for mental treatment.


After our brief reprieve after Cologne, our task force headed south along the Rhine. And it's here that my memory gets muddled. I vague recall that our M26 had to cross over a stationery bridge because the tracks were too wide for the standard pontoon gauge. 3rd Armored's 23rd Engineers had constructed two pontoon bridges over the Rhine, but, at least in my memory, we crossed with the M26 on what could only have been the Remagen bridge. But now I've been told that M26's were too heavy for that bridge, which had been weakened by something -- either failed German demolition or earlier Allied bombing. Whatever the case, I've been told that M26's crossed the Rhine on barges, of which I have no memory. However we crossed, I do remember meeting up with 3rd Armored units on the other side, and soon we were headed off to the east in a task force where, as usual, our M26 was placed in the lead.


Somewhere before Marburg I recall that we were flying down a road through an intersection and I caught a glimpse of a large self-propelled German gun down a side road to our right. So we backed up and I turned the gun and fired once, almost as fast as I had at Cologne and I knocked out whatever it was. It was either an armored artillery piece or an armored anti-tank vehicle. We never got to examine it, but it was clearly disabled and smoking. I've got to assume that it had a crew because it was in an ambush position facing the intersection.


During the race from Marburg to Paderborn, our group moved so fast that several times we passed German roadblocks before they knew what was happening and before they could get off a shot. Along the way, we destroyed a lot of enemy equipment without suffering a lot of damage. And, as usual, our M26 was out there in the lead.

At one point, we entered an area that I learned in later years must have been the Task Force Welborn disaster. I recall there being a lead tank knocked out and, behind it, abandoned vehicles including another tank still smoking. There were several American bodies on the road. This must have happened only hours before.

From that scene of a wiped out convoy was an image that has stayed in my mind grid to this day. I saw the top half of an American soldier with his bottom half blown off. He must have been a tanker, and his tank probably had exploded. He was roasted and his clothes were burned off his body which was a bright red.

As we neared Paderborn we had to cross a large open field and we had gotten word that it was an airfield. Our tank and then the whole company took off across the field to attack the main part of the town, But the Germans had numerous anti-tank guns and Panzerfausts ready, as well as several well hidden tanks. This was our disaster, mainly because we were in the open. By the time we entered the town, the majority of our tanks were either knocked out or had broken down during that attack. In addition to the Germans organizing an effective ambush, we had entered the fight with tanks that were seriously overdue for servicing after our long trip from Marburg.

Finally, after more fighting in town, only two of our company tanks were still operable -- our M26 and the Captain's tank which was a Sherman with a 76mm. We headed toward a railroad sub-station on the outskirts where we could see many of our tankers (now without tanks) taking refuge. There were German snipers in the area and infantry with Panzerfausts. Small arms fire was crackling.

Our two tanks kept changing positions to avoid the Panzerfausts. We kept shooting high explosive shells into the trees lining this road, trying to get the shells to explode in the trees and scatter shrapnel down on the enemy.

Then we got hit. We never saw it coming. In the same instant, a 90mm shell that was already loaded in our gun went off by itself, and from the breech that caused a fireball inside the tank. We didn't know what had happened until much later, when we figured that a Panzerfaust or regular bazooka round had hit our barrel at the muzzle break, somehow causing the loaded 90mm shell to fire. But at the time we got hit, it looked fatal, SSgt. Early yelled, "We're on fire! Bail out!", which we did.

So the crew crawled along a ditch next to the railroad tracks. As we were crawling, German machine-gunners were trying to pick us off. And what seems like sniper rounds were coming in. The hedges and bushes just a few feet above us, and maybe only a foot above us at times, were getting mowed off. By some miracle they didn't aim a little lower. We would've all been killed. The ditch was not offering that much protection, but just enough.

Then we noticed that our tank was not on fire after all. It was still sitting there with the engine running. Only some kind of damage to the muzzle break was apparent, and any smoke from the fireball had cleared away. Then the German machine-gunners stopped; we had no idea why, but very possibly they simply ran out of ammunition. Still there was the sound of small arms in the area and an occasional explosion but not in our immediate area. That none of the crew had gotten hit was a true miracle.

So we crawled back to the tank. Three crewmen went through the turret and two others were headed into the lower hatch. As the driver got seated and put it into gear, the tank started to slowly move. But the assistant driver still not quite inside the hatch. The tank started to move over him, when suddenly the driver realized that he wasn't in. It was a close call that the crew later laughed about.

Early radioed the Captain. We had no idea where his tank was at that point. Early explained that we had been temporarily out of action, but were now back. The assistant gunner loaded a round, after we assessed that the muzzle damage should affect our firing. Then some moments after that, Early grabbed my shoulder and yelled "Tank!." A Panther MK5 was bearing down on us. I whipped our turret around, sighted, and let fire a shell that hit the Panther in front between the driver and assistant driver, knocking out the tank and killing the assistant driver. The rest of the crew bailed out and ran away. I fired over the head of one of them with the tank's machine gun. He flopped down, apparently expecting to get killed. But I couldn't shoot him in the back like that. He got up cautiously and ran away -- I'm sure in disbelief that he wasn't going to get shot.

Later, we learned that the tankers taking cover in the railroad station had seen the Panther coming and were expecting it to start blasting them. These were surviving crews from 12 or 13 of our knocked out tanks. The men in the station later thanked us, believing we had saved their lives. Many were wounded, and that included John Danforth, a tank commander from Texas. He came up to me, shook my hand, said thanks for saving his life, and gave me a bottle of champaign. Who knows were he had found it. Danforth had received some notoriety in the company before that. He had made some unauthorized comments to a press correspondent about how lousy the Sherman was, and, including Paderborn, he had three knocked out under him. Then after Paderborn, he got his fourth Sherman and, with the war almost over, that tank was also knocked out and he was killed.

After the above Paderborn action, German resistance pretty much ended, at least in our area of the town. 3rd Armored infantry and another tank unit came in and, within another day, the whole town was secure. The Captain's tank and our tank then had a brief break for re-servicing. With the company now down to two tanks, we joined another group and headed toward Dessau and the Elbe River.


The next battle occurred only one town over from Paderborn. I recall our tank crossing a field with other tanks behind. Many of these tanks were repair jobs from other units. Then a small but critical mechanical problem happened with the M26. As I did a short burst of the machine gun, the gun control mechanism stopped working. A narrow steel rod that led from the pistol grip to the gun control box somehow broke and the gun control fell on the floor. The pistol grip had a thumb trigger for the 90mm and a finger trigger for the machine gun. The additional consequence was that I couldn't turn the turret. This had never happened before to us.

Early radioed the Captain that we couldn't control the turret, and the Captain told us to control the turret by hand. I tried, but as the pitch of the tank changed as we moved, I simply couldn't maintain control of the turret. So now the Captain said to straighten the gun out and lock the turret in place, and, instead of leading the group, go in second place. Well, you might as well blindfolded me and tied my hands, because I was now helpless as a gunner. But the Captain still wanted us up near the lead, I guess to impress the Germans with the big 90mm.

Then another mechanical problem, but one caused by a Panzerfaust or bazooka round that hit us in the rear left corner. The only serious damage by the blast was to cause a leak in the oil reservoir for the transmission. And the leak kept coming. That put us out of commission completely, and we experienced the humiliation (as M26 men) of having the next Sherman push us off the road so the rest of the group could go by.

It was John Danforth's Sherman that was in the lead. I later learned that he drove up the road, made a right turn, then turned down another road to go into town. Waiting in ambush was a German tank, It fired and hit Danforth's tank in the turret, killing at least three of the crew, including Danforth. My crew realized that, were it not for our mechanical problems, we would have probably been slated for that fatal ambush.

Within some hours, those geniuses from the Maintenance Battalion appeared and went to work on the M26. It was fixed by either that night or early the next day. So on that next day, we were again leading a group and on our way to Dessau. Along the way we encountered no German armor, but pockets of German sniper and small arms fire, and you never knew when a Panzerfaust or bazooka round would fly.

At one point, a German anti-aircraft vehicle sprayed us. It had a mount of 4 guns similar to our AAA M16 quad-.50 but with a smaller caliber. This did no serious damage to our tank, but a piece of shrapnel or a shell fragment went through assistant gunner John Deriggi's cheek and lodged in the other cheek. There was surely some serious internal damage. He was delirious in pain. Medics soon took him away, and we didn't see him again. I thought he might have died. For whatever reason we couldn't find out, as he had disappeared into the Army's hospital system.

For over 55 years, I had no idea what happened to Deriggi. Then a friend of mine did some research on the Internet and eventually - bingo - John was found and very much alive right in my own home state of PA. In 2001, we were reunited by phone and it was wonderful and unbelievable. Among the many things we talked about was the news that his war injury had resulted in eight operations over time. And a priest was present several times. Later that year (2001) we came together in person, when by coincidence our 3rd Armored WWII vets association was having the dedication a Division monument at Valley Forge, PA.

Back to the combat story, our group never did enter Dessau itself. Somewhere on the outskirts we were told to halt. The war for us was over. By the next month, the company had disbanded. Our trusty M26 was turned in at motor pool, and I never saw it again -- that is, until Jim Bates' filming from Cologne eventually appeared in newsreels.


I know there's no such official Army award or designation as a "tank ace." But, as with the Air Force, "ace" status would be the magic number of "five". For a tank gunner, that would mean five enemy armored vehicles destroyed or knocked out. Casting my modesty aside, here is a list of my five victims:

1. Mons: MK4 medium tank, 75mm HV
2. Cologne: MK4 medium tank, 75mm HV
3. Cologne: Panther MK5
4. Marburg to Paderborn: Unidentified armored self-propelled artillery piece or anti-tank gun.
5. Paderborn: Panther MK5


All in all, I was very lucky to have received injuries on only three separate occasions. A lot of German shells and pieces of shrapnel must have had my name on them, but Somebody was watching out for me.

Each of those injuries happened in the Normandy fighting. Probably each was worth a Purple Heart, if I had squawked, but one Purple Heart was fine with me. The first injury came when I was a loader in the Sherman in a tense firefight situation, and I was loading fast and furiously, and hot fumes were still coming out the breech. The fumes shot out and gave my forearm a very bad burn. I was able to continue, but afterwards had to see the medics, who treated me with salve and bandages.

Then maybe a week or more later, I think in the area of St. Jean de Daye, I was briefly outside the tank for a rest break behind a tree and returned. I heard a mortar pop and before I could get back inside the hatch, the mortar shell landed on a roof only several yards away. That blew pieces of roof tile and probably shrapnel into my face. That ripped the end of my nose open and the blood just wouldn't stop. It was also very painful. Still I thought I could handle the blood flow with a little pressure, but Sgt. Faircloth, our tank commander insisted that I go to the medical station, which I did. For that, I did get a Purple Heart.

The third injury, also near St. Jean de Daye was one that the Army did not take seriously enough in those days. It was the severe concussion and loss of consciousness I received when an artillery shell struck the Sherman's turret just as I had gone into the hatch. My head was probably within six feet of the shell's impact. Subtle effects of that concussion are still with me today (in 2010).

- Clarence Smoyer

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