Clarence Smoyer waved as he rode in a Sherman tank to the Charlestown Navy Yard on Wednesday.
Clarence Smoyer waved as he rode in a Sherman tank to the Charlestown Navy Yard on Wednesday.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

‘Here’s an old friend. This tank saved my life’: WWII veteran rides on Sherman tank again

Clarence Smoyer had not been inside a Sherman tank since 1945, when he occupied a gunner’s seat as the Third Armored Division blasted its way inside Germany at the tip of the American advance to help end the carnage of World War II.

But on Wednesday afternoon, as the 95-year-old left the Residence Inn on the Charlestown waterfront, Smoyer was greeted by the startling sight of a Sherman, a 33-ton “sardine can” as he had called it, parked on the street and waiting for him to climb aboard once again.

“Here’s an old friend,” Smoyer said, smiling broadly, as he moved slowly toward the tank, aided by a cane. “This tank saved my life. It’s a beauty.”

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Smoyer, one of only three surviving members of Easy Company’s approximately 200 men, was in Boston to promote and publicize “Spearhead,” a new book about his exploits by author Adam Makos.

The sight of the Sherman rekindled memories of the punishing combat he saw in the months after D-Day, when Easy Company fought across Belgium, at the Battle of the Bulge, and into Germany.

Smoyer recalled that he did not expect to survive the war, and that he believed the Sherman and Pershing tanks he rode would become a coffin as the German army fought desperately to stem the tide.

They’re recollections that Smoyer tried to forget after he returned to Pennsylvania after spending “two years, seven months, and eight days” away from home in the Army. He said he still takes medication to manage the stress of those long-ago days, when each day could be a tanker’s last.

Wednesday, however, was a day to enjoy the good memories — those of comradeship and a job well done.

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Charlestown, MA, 02/20/2019 -- 95-year-old WWII veteran Clarence Smoyer rides in a Sherman Tank to the Charlestown Navy Yard. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 21veteran Reporter:
Residents and service members turned out to see Clarence Smoyer and the Sherman tank in Charlestown.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“We were like a family,” Smoyer said of the five-man crew on the Shermans. “We looked out for each other. They called me ‘Schmick,’ ” he said with a smile.

Smoyer was a curly-haired 19-year-old when he left Lehighton, Pa., and volunteered to be a paratrooper because he thought an elite unit would give him a better chance of coming home alive. Instead, Smoyer was assigned to a tank division after the military noticed he had taken a course in engine maintenance at a local airport.

This shot shows Clarence's T26E3 "Pershing" tank with he and the crew on March 6, 1945. Clarence is shown on top, middle, with his curly hair peaking from under his cap. This image was taken from a newsreel filmed by Army cameramen shortly after Clarence and crew knocked out the Panther at the cathedral. (National Archives) 21veteran
Clarence Smoyer, top center, and his crewmates were photographed with their Pershing tank on March 6, 1945, in Cologne, Germany. This image, from an Army newsreel, was taken just after they had knocked out a German Panther tank.
National Archives

Like so many other young Americans who fought in World War II, Smoyer was the product of a simple upbringing, in simpler times, and completely unprepared for the cauldron of combat he was about to enter.

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Smoyer had dropped out of school in 10th grade to help support his family, peddled wild blueberries to earn a few dollars, and did not like to shoot any living animal — even though he would become a natural shot with a massive tank gun. His passion was roller-skating.

The war changed much of that.

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“Our job was to rain destruction,” he said. “It was survival, is what it was.”

As he approached the city of Cologne, Smoyer’s tank — now a newly arrived, stronger Pershing — was the spearhead as Easy Company approached the heavily bombed city along the vital Rhine River. His Pershing, fitted with a 90-millimeter gun, became the first to enter a major German city during the war.

Unlike the fields and countryside they had been crossing, the urban ruins of Cologne posed a far more perilous and complicated challenge.

This is the Panther that Clarence knocked out, burning, with the Cologne cathedral just out of frame on the left side. (National Archives) 21veteran
This is the Panther tank that Smoyer’s crew knocked out, burning, with the Cologne cathedral just out of frame on the left side.
National Archives

German tanks could be hidden in side streets, poised to deliver a fatal broadside at a passing enemy tank. Molotov cocktails could be thrown from rooftops. And hand-held anti-tank weapons — “panzerfausts” — could be shot without warning from nearly anywhere.

Pushing toward the river, Smoyer spotted a Panzer tank and began trading machine-gun fire with his German counterpart. Smoyer tried to land the kill shot through a teetering brick building. The bricks collapsed, but the Panzer escaped.

This shot shows Clarence's Pershing tank in Cologne on March 6, 1945. (National Archives) 21veteran
This shot shows Smoyer’s Pershing tank in Cologne on March 6, 1945.
National Archives

Later, a German Panther tank knocked out two Shermans within sight of the city’s historic Gothic cathedral. Smoyer and the Pershing quickly got the call to take out the Panther.

The strategy was to advance unseen down a parallel street, roar into an intersection, fire at the side of the Panther, and speed in reverse to safety. But once they turned the corner, they didn’t see the side of the German tank. They saw the muzzle, pointed directly at them.

Smoyer fired off one armor-piercing shot, then another, and finally a third, as the Panther began burning and an Army cameraman recorded the action for newsreels that were seen all around America.

On Wednesday, nearly 75 years later, Smoyer received a new round of congratulations for services rendered.

Outside the hotel, Smoyer was helped slowly to the turret, where a harness helped hold him secure. The Sherman tank, dubbed Liberty, had been donated for the occasion by the American Heritage Museum in Stow.

As they began rolling, Smoyer waved to a cheering crowd during a short parade, led by a color guard, to the USS Constitution Museum. The crew of the USS Constitution stood in formation as the Sherman passed, shouting “huzzahs” as Navy sailors might have in the War of 1812.

Navy Commander John Benda of Dedham, executive officer of the Constitution, was among those paying his respects.

“We’re doing our part. But what they did, that’s insane,” said Benda, shaking his head in a mix of awe and admiration.

A World War II tank rolled along the Charlestown waterfront Wednesday, carrying in its turret a 95-year-old Army veteran who hadn’t ridden in a Sherman tank since the war. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe)
Clarence Smoyer, now 95 years old on Wednesday.
Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe