The landscape was unfamiliar, particularly for a tank. The cityscape of Cologne, Germany was crumbling from tank fire and riddled with bullet holes as Clarence Smoyer stuck his helmetless head out the top of the American Pershing Tank 74 years ago.
“I stuck my head out, looked around, and was admiring everything,” recalled Smoyer, “And the Jeep pulled up to the side of me and the colonel got out and said, ‘Soldier, get your helmet on!'”
Smoyer, now 95, was a gunner for the tank. After a German tank had just taken out two of its American counterparts, Smoyer avenged them, destroying the German Panther. This and other battles like it led to Smoyer’s nickname, The Hero of Cologne.
The moments that follow are now captured on a painting, dedicated Monday at the Penrose Library.
“We had a hard battle just before that,” Smoyer said. “We were lined up there and Lt. Stillman came on the phone and he said, ‘Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let’s knock the hell out of it.'”
Smoyer thought it was the moment to win the war. Rather, it was one of the last battles fought as Allied forces pushed Germans back beyond the Rhine River.
The battles were captured, for the first time, on film. Americans back home could go to the theaters to see the battles their loved ones fought just several days after they happened.
One of the men who captured them, Jim Bates, was from Colorado Springs.
“It was the best footage of World War II,” author Adam Makos said. “He was ahead of his times, you might say. I mean, this was advanced journalism. He, of course, jumped on Normandy with the 82nd Airborne. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but he fought with his camera. He wanted to inform the homefront of what sacrifices these guys were making.”
Makos is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “Spearhead,” which details the battles of Smoyer and his fellow soldiers as they pushed the German forces back.
It is one of a number of books on American conflict Makos has written, with the help of his brother, Brian.
“The World War II generation is fading so fast,” Makos said. “There’s only 3 percent of them left. Soon, all the lessons, and all the values, the braver those men had, it could be forgotten if we don’t keep stoking that fire and keep telling these stories.”
Bates’ footage helped Smoyer’s family know he was alive. There wasn’t a lot of time to write home, about once a month Smoyer would guess, and it wasn’t until his sister saw his head pop out of the tank’s hatch that they knew then-21-year-old Smoyer was okay.
“For a long time, I didn’t talk about it, until we started going to these reunions,” Smoyer said.
Smoyer and Bates met at one of the reunions to bring veterans of the war together. Bates tried to get Smoyer, a self-described shy guy, on stage to say a few words. After a while, Smoyer obliged.
“Jim Bates is an unsung hero, just like Clarence,” Makos said. “The stuff they did was herculean. I mean, the chances they took, the risks they took, and to build a better world. So we get to enjoy the world that they preserved, the world that they saved. We get to enjoy it, we have to thank them.”
Smoyer hopes the stories of what he and his companions did will live on as well.
“I hope they remember us and keep our stories going so everybody can know about them,” Smoyer said.
Makos returned to Cologne with Smoyer and other World War II veterans who fought there as part of his research for “Spearhead.” It was part of six years of research for the book.