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
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
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,
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
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."
FIRST SEEING AND FIRING THE M26 PERSHING
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.
THE ART OF BORE-SIGHTING
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
THE SWITCH FROM LOADER TO GUNNER
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.
NORMANDY IN A SHERMAN
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
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.
THE SMELL OF A GAS ATTACK THAT WASN'T
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.
THE GREAT AIR ATTACK
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.
A SHERMAN STUCK ON LOW POWER
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
BATTLE AT MONS
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,
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
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.
A NEW SHERMAN 76MM
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.
THEN CAME SIEGFRIED
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.
NEXT STOP: STOLBERG
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.
THE BULGE - COLD & CONFUSION
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.
FIRST ACTION WITH THE PERSHING
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
THE GERMANS ARE COMING! THE GERMANS ARE COMING!
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
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.
CROSSING THE RHINE - ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
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.
ANOTHER HIT ON THE RUN
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.
U.S. BLITZKRIEG & BATTLE OF PADERBORN
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
FATEFUL MECHANICAL PROBLEMS
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.
A "TANK ACE" QUALIFICATION
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
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
BATTLE INJURIES AND PURPLE HEART
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
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