The shell slammed into the German tank, followed by two more quick rounds in a remarkable one-on-one battle that was immortalized on film by an Army cameraman.
The duel knocked out the Panther, achieved a measure of revenge for the deaths of other U.S. soldiers in another tank minutes earlier and brought the end of World War II a little bit closer.
On Wednesday, Smoyer, the last living member of the American tank crew, collected a Bronze Star for his heroism that day. Three more Bronze Stars were awarded posthumously to fellow crew members in his Pershing tank during a ceremony at the National World War II Memorial. An Army color guard saluted, a military band played and an immaculate Sherman tank was rolled onto the Mall for good measure.
The medals — which already had been given to the Pershing’s commander and the cameraman who risked his life to get the battle footage — now make the Pershing’s men perhaps one of the most decorated tank crews of the war. The belated citations honor their teamwork during the battle on March 6, 1945, and reflect the perseverance of author Adam Makos, who tells the crew’s story in his book “Spearhead.”
The medals are perhaps a testament, too, to the enduring power of the moving image. Besides getting the tank duel on film, Sgt. Jim Bates, a cameraman with the 165th Photo Signal Co., captured the moment a few minutes earlier when the same Panther had hit a Sherman tank a few blocks away and its mortally wounded commander bailed from the hatch.
After the battle was over, Bates also recorded a portrait of the victorious American crew, including Smoyer, who wore a shy smile. Smoyer, 96 now and walking gingerly with a cane, acknowledged the honors with the same smile and a shaky salute.
“It was just a great, great honor and a very big surprise,” Smoyer said afterward of his medal. “I’m wearing it for all those who lost their lives.”
His Bronze Star and the ceremony had been kept a secret worthy of D-Day among friends and family until Smoyer was dropped off at the memorial on the way to what he thought would be a book signing.
A crowd of perhaps 100 people was waiting, including graying war buddies, his tank crew’s family members, some military brass and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who had championed the medals under a law that allows for belated nominations.
Other crew members honored Wednesday included Pvt. Homer L. Davis of Morehead, Ky., the Pershing’s bow gunner; Pfc. John DeRiggi of Scranton, Pa., whose duty was to load the tank’s gun; and Tech. Cpl. William McVey of Jackson, Mich., the tank’s driver. The tank’s commander, Staff Sgt. Robert Earley, received his Bronze Star soon after the battle.
John DeRiggi, 66, who accepted the Bronze Star on behalf of his late father, said his father seldom discussed his wartime experience and its lingering effects on him until shortly before his death at the age of 83 in 2005.
“I’m just so proud of him,” DeRiggi said. “My father actually suffered quite a bit. Part of his face was actually ripped up by shrapnel, and some of it they couldn’t get out [because] it was too close to his eye. So he lived without complaining but had some issues after the war. He was just always my hero.”
Makos tracked down Smoyer after a college friend, Peter Semanoff, had suggested looking into his story. Semanoff had grown up in Smoyer’s hometown and heard tales of the soft-spoken gunner’s bravery. On Wednesday, Semanoff, now an Army major, pinned the Bronze Star, along with its “V” for valor, to Smoyer’s jacket.
Makos, the ceremony’s emcee, drew on his book to recount the dramatic battle for what was then Germany’s fourth-largest city and a key gateway to the Rhine River. Many German soldiers, sensing that the war had been lost, surrendered without a fight. But others were willing to fight to the death, including the crew of the Panther that was lurking in a street near the city’s Gothic cathedral as a line of American tanks approached.
When 2nd Lt. Karl Kellner, finding his way blocked by debris, halted his Sherman tank within the Panther’s range, the Germans opened fire.
The shell ripped into the Sherman, killing two crew members and shearing off Kellner’s left leg. Kellner tumbled out of the hatch. Other soldiers rushed to help, including Sgt. Andy Rooney, a Stars and Stripes reporter who went on to become a well-known and irascible commentator for CBS News. The soldiers tried to save Kellner’s life using a tourniquet from a shirt sleeve but without success.
Smoyer’s crew, hearing the radio traffic about the clash, knew that it fell to them to try to knock out the Panther, Makos said. Their Pershing tank, a model recently introduced to the battlefield, was better armed than the Shermans.
Earley, the commander, scouted the Panther on foot, with the cameraman’s help, before they rolled forward into combat.
“He’s just sitting there like he owns the place,” Earley told Smoyer, according to Makos’s book.
Smoyer swung the 15-foot gun barrel into position, careful not to scrape the sides of buildings. Makos said Smoyer knew the first shot mattered most. If he missed, his fellow crew members — men he regarded as family — might die. He often psyched himself up, saying to himself, “Don’t miss, don’t miss.”
As McVey goosed the engine, the tank rolled forward and Smoyer let loose. What he did not know — and Makos learned later — was they also had a bit of luck on their side: For an instant, the Panther’s commander mistook the new American tank for one of his own, and his moment’s hesitation proved costly.
“That was close,” Smoyer was quoted as saying.
Joe Caserta, an attendee Wednesday who had been inside another tank that day 74 years ago, said he was glad Smoyer and the others received their medals. He also recalled what it was like to stifle one’s fears whenever he climbed into a tank and jumped off into battle.
“Once we jumped off, you were scared and you wondered whether you were going to make it another day,” said Caserta, 97, of Ocean City, N.J. “But once you’re in battle, the fear leaves you for a while, and you don’t realize it until you made it back.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Cpl. Clarence Smoyer, who served as a tank gunner during World War II, swung a 15-inch gun into position during a battle in Cologne. Smoyer was positioning a gun whose barrel was about 15 feet long.