When Adam Makos was told by a fellow Lycoming College classmate, Pete Semanoff about a gentle old man named Clarence Smoyer, who had been a tank gunner during World War II, from Semanoff’s hometown of Lehighton, Makos had no idea that it would lead to an odyssey that would bring him to Cologne, Germany and
When Adam Makos was told by a fellow Lycoming College classmate, Pete Semanoff about a gentle old man named Clarence Smoyer, who had been a tank gunner during World War II, from Semanoff’s hometown of Lehighton, Makos had no idea that it would lead to an odyssey that would bring him to Cologne, Germany and the reuniting of Smoyer with a German adversary.
All of this has culminated in a new book written by Makos called, Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a collision of Lives In World War II. It is the latest book from Makos who has previously authored two other highly regarded books, called A Higher Call and Devotion. Both were New York Times bestsellers.
Webb Weekly interviewed Makos about his new book and what follows is that interview.
WW: Can you supply me all the particulars such as why did you write it?
“I love searching for untold stories because it gives my readers a chance to see a new side of World War II, or to meet a new hero, like watching a movie for the first time. To me, it’s also about justice. To think that some young man risked his life for us, all those years ago, or maybe he made the ultimate sacrifice and bled-out on some European battlefield, as one of the heroes of Spearhead actually did, I don’t think it’s right for us ever to forget their names.”
WW: What is the background story?
“I truly feel I’m ‘led’ to some of these stories, in the spookiest ways. Back when I was attending Lycoming College, my classmate Pete Semanoff told me about Clarence, a quiet hero from his hometown of Lehighton. So one day, in 2012, I went up to Clarence’s brick row house and knocked on the door. He welcomed me inside, pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and we talked for a bit before he stunned me with a revelation. ‘Would you like to see a letter from the German I fought against?’ He was in touch with his former enemy.”
WW: What research did you have to do?
“I took my research for this story to new lengths. For Spearhead, I traveled to Cologne and the European battlefield settings WITH the veterans who fought there. Three of them were American, one was German, and we toured the battle sites and recorded their memories on the very grounds where the fighting happened. The result is a more accurate, visceral war story, full of action and detail. After that trip, I made more visits to Germany, visiting Cologne twice, and even traveling into the Black Forest to do research at the German military archives there.
“I uncovered a much bigger story than the tale of the famous Panther duel.
“Before I met him, I knew about Clarence’s remarkable, Wild West-style tank duel in the street of Cologne where he battled a German Panther tank that had parked at the steps of the cathedral. It’s considered one of the most famous actions of World War II, all because it was caught on film at the time. Now, anyone can watch it with the click of a mouse button.
“But even putting the reader into the middle of that duel, two tanks quick-drawing on each other, 75 yards apart, wasn’t enough to fill a book. It was the deeper, human story that drew me to write Spearhead. Our World War II tank crewmen faced a terrible reality every time they started their engines. The first tank always gets hit. That was the nature of tank combat on the Western Front in early 1945. The Germans were on the defense; they could dig in and wait for our guys to come over the hill or around the bend. They could wait to fire until the first American tank rolled into their crosshairs.
“So to go first took guts, because that guy was probably going to get hit. When Clarence was assigned the Pershing, a deadly new role fell to him: now, his tank would go first, in every battle.
“So I asked myself: Why would any man saddle up for that? Why did Clarence? And the answer was quite profound. He did it to keep his buddies safe. He told himself: ‘We have the biggest gun; we belong out front.’
“There’s a poignant moment in the movie “Fury,” where one of the characters played by Shia LeBeouf recites a Bible verse that summed up the tanker’s role. ‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord say who shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me.’
WW: Did you face any challenges or problems in writing the book?
“One of them was handling the sensitive issue of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
“Like many veterans, Clarence came home and buttoned-up his memories of the war and never aired out the troubling things he’d seen. He never de-briefed or decompressed.
“So, in his later years, when the memories re-surfaced, there was no one left to talk with — all of the men from his crew had passed. There was just one man he could turn to, who had seen the same horrors in Cologne, but from the other end of the street. This man had been his enemy, Gustav Schaefer.
“When Clarence returned to Cologne in 2013, and sat down to talk with Gustav, his former enemy proved to be his saving grace. Talking. It’s what helped him put his ghosts to rest. And he emerged from the ordeal with a new friend. He and Gustav called each other war buddies. They used to exchange Christmas cards and letters; they even skyped on the computer, talking face to face.
“It’s a one in a million that they’d have found each other, 70 years after they fought. Then to have actually met, with Clarence flying across the ocean and Gustav driving from northern Germany. And then for them to become inseparable friends? You couldn’t script a better ending to a war story. “
WW: What did you learn by writing the book?
“I learned how precious our remaining time is with our World War II veterans.
“I’ve enjoyed my time coming to know and celebrating the heroes you’ll find in the pages of Spearhead.
“Clarence is 95. Buck Marsh, the GI who used to ride into battle on Clarence’s tank, he’s 95. We lost Gustav, the German side of the story, in 2017.
“For now, I just want to throw a big party for these heroes, to let people know their names and celebrate their lives while we still have them, 75 years later.”
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