DENVER — On a late February day in 1945, on a hilltop near the town of Stolberg, Germany, a nervous, curly-haired Army corporal prepared to put on an exhibition of artillery marksmanship for a group of senior officers.
Gen. Maurice Rose, the Denver-raised leader of the 3rd Armored Division, stood among the anxious observers about to see a demonstration of the newest American weapon, a 46-ton behemoth called a T26E3 Pershing tank. They hoped its bulked-up armor and massive 90mm cannon could counter the Germans' devastating Tiger and Panther tanks, hasten the advance across the Rhine River and bring World War II's European conflict to a merciful conclusion.
The young gunner, 21-year-old Clarence Smoyer, fidgeted. Barely more than a kid from a Pennsylvania steel town, he had never fired the new tank's cannon, and here he was about to perform before a general whose legend grew by the day. Smoyer felt lucky to serve under such a fearless and beloved commander in the outfit Rose had dubbed "Spearhead" — so named for its habit of leading the American assault.
Smoyer used the tank's sighting mechanism to draw a bead on an abandoned farmhouse in a village more than a half-mile away. He heard his sergeant call the range and specify a target — "The chimney!" — that seemed hopelessly precise for his first live fire in a just-off-the-assembly-line tank.
But his uncanny eye, honed as a kid during nighttime escapades hunting for frogs with his BB gun, didn't fail him now. With an ear-splitting bang, the shell demolished the chimney, while an unexpected sideways blast of gasses from a newly configured firing system sent the assembled officers, including Rose, tumbling to the muddy ground.
Smoyer picked off a second chimney, then a third — a mile-distant speck in his scope — as the crowd that gathered cheered both his skill and the tank's awesome capabilities. Rose liked what he saw, and felt the new hardware tipped the firepower scales in the Americans' favor.
That brief experience, eight miles behind enemy lines, marked the closest thing to a personal encounter between the two men. In a matter of weeks, Smoyer's resourcefulness under fire would help Spearhead take the German stronghold of Cologne and continue the countdown to war's end.
And shortly after that, Rose, racing ahead of an American column caught in the crossfire of an enemy ambush, would be shot — murdered, the Denver Post headlines proclaimed — after a German tank cornered his vehicle and he attempted to surrender. He became the highest-ranking American officer to be killed by enemy fire in the European theater.
Rose’s legend and legacy would live on. The son of a Polish rabbi who emigrated to the United States, he was memorialized when Denver’s Jewish community built the hospital that still bears his name.
Smoyer, perhaps against all odds, survived the war and returned to Allentown, Pennsylvania. His love and respect for his fallen general never dissipated.
A tank gunner pays tribute
On March 30, exactly 74 years to the day since Gen. Maurice Rose was gunned down by a German tank commander, Clarence Smoyer rumbled down Wynkoop Street in Denver's lower downtown perched in the turret of a vintage M3 Stuart tank, offered by its Loveland owner to deliver him in appropriate style to an event at Union Station.
This time it was ceremony that found him, at 95, once again rolling in an armored vehicle. While perhaps a couple hundred people, from toddlers to gray-haired veterans, waved miniature flags and cheered, Smoyer descended from the tank. Aided by a cane, he made his way from the street through a throng of well-wishers and World War II-era uniformed soldiers, who snapped to attention and saluted as he passed.
Cpl. Joseph Akers served with an Army tank destroyer battalion.
All these years later, at a time when only an estimated 3 percent of World War II veterans are still living, Smoyer had occasion to visit Denver. A local author, Adam Makos of Broomfield, has added Smoyer's story of battle and survival to his other published works recounting compelling tales from military history.
But while Smoyer would greet the public and sign copies of the book — titled "Spearhead," echoing the name Rose gave the armored division — he also came to honor his general as well as other World War II comrades, living and dead.
"We had the greatest general of the war," Smoyer said of Rose. "Everybody liked him. He was right up front with us in battles. He always said he didn't want to be back with the cooks and supply people, he wanted to be up front where the action was."
The choice of Union Station as a focal point was no accident. Many soldiers passed through on their way to catch trains that shipped them off to war. Smoyer and Makos unveiled a painting they commissioned that depicts a tank rolling across a battlefield and will be displayed in the terminal with an explanatory plaque as a remembrance of Rose and his Spearhead division, which played a key role in bringing the war to a close.
"Not a lot of people know that Union Station has that World War II history," Makos said. "We want to draw attention to the fact that some of Denver's bravest men walked through those halls. And some of them never came home."
Earlier, Smoyer and Makos chatted about the book project that took six years to complete, included trips to old battlefields and even reconnected Smoyer with the German soldier whose tank he faced in the brutal battle for the city of Cologne. Portions of that two-day conflict were filmed by renowned combat photographer Jim Bates, who grew up in Colorado Springs and eventually parachuted into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day and followed troops all the way to the fall of Berlin.
As the battle for Cologne loomed, Bates decided to follow one tank throughout the conflict. He picked the lead tank — Smoyer's crew — and his footage captured their defeat of a German tank (one of two they would destroy) near the city's famous cathedral, images that played in movie theater newsreels during the war and now exist in digital form.
"It brings back a lot of memories," Smoyer said of watching his 21-year-old self in action. "Not all of them are good memories."
“Gentlemen, I give you Cologne”
The Army rushed 20 Pershing tanks to Europe after disastrous losses at the Battle of the Bulge, when it resorted to borrowing Sherman tanks from the British. It had become obvious as the Allies punched through Normandy that the German hardware, the Panther and Tiger tanks, had them outmatched. So pressing was the need that the Pershings' first real test came in battle.
"Since his crew was considered one of Gen. Rose's elite crews, they were given this Pershing tank," Makos said. "It had a 90mm gun, as big if not bigger than anything the Germans had. It also had automatic transmission, so if they ran into a dicey situation, they could quickly back up. They could truly go toe-to-toe with the Panther or Tiger."
That's what happened in Cologne, starting on March 5, 1945. Smoyer recalled hearing his company commander's voice crackle over the radio.
"Gentlemen, I give you Cologne," the commander said. "Let's knock the hell out of it."
But at that point in the war, the Germans were desperate to slow the Allied advance.
"We knew they would be defending the city," Smoyer said.
The Battle of Kursk involved 6,000 tanks, 2 million troops and 4,000 aircraft. The battle began with a German surprise attack but ended with a Soviet victory.
The German command ordered Cologne, the third-largest city in the country, to be defended to the last round. The urban warfare would be complicated by their use of tunnels — dubbed "mouse trails" — that let the city's defenders slip from building to building unnoticed.
Smoyer remembers the threat of Molotov cocktails hurled from rooftops and the danger of bazooka-like anti-tank guns called Panzerfaust, which fired rockets that penetrated armor and blew molten metal inside a tank.
But the battle also revealed a resourcefulness in Smoyer — in particular as he engaged a German Panther tank and ultimately prevailed, not with a direct hit but by collapsing a building and showering the tank with bricks and debris that disabled it.
Later, the account would be augmented by the German tank soldier, Gustav Schaefer, who escaped from the tank and eventually surrendered. After he and Smoyer met years later, they became friends, exchanged Christmas cards and even communicated via Skype until Schaefer's death in 2017.
Disaster, then a general’s death
Only weeks after the 3rd Armored Division took Cologne, disaster struck.
Rose's armor spearheaded a lightning fast drive into Germany, behind enemy lines toward Paderborn, in an effort to choke off the industrial heart of the enemy's war machine. Smoyer's unit, Task Force X, was ordered to wait overnight in a forest while Rose accompanied the advance of Task Force Welborn, the leading edge of the thrust.
But the column encountered a deadly German tank ambush that destroyed its lead and rear elements, cutting off retreat and making sitting ducks of all but a few of the remaining vehicles that managed to escape. Enemy fire methodically unleashed a massacre, while Smoyer's unit could do nothing but guess at what was unfolding under a flashing sky.
Rose and his aides eventually sped ahead of the burning column in an effort to get clear of the attack and radio for help. Just as they thought they'd managed to do so, they encountered another German tank that rammed Rose's jeep into a tree. The account in Makos' book describes Rose and his driver attempting to surrender, with the driver slowly removing his shoulder holster and placing it on the enemy tank.
Rose's sidearm was holstered around his waist. He undid the belt and let it slide to his feet, then raised his hands again when suddenly the German tank commander let loose with a burst from his machine pistol. Rose fell dead, struck 16 times, while the driver and an aide managed to bolt away and escape before the German could reload.
"The Germans didn't know who they'd killed," Makos said.
The next day, Smoyer's unit was the first to the site where Rose died and recovered his body.
"Everybody liked him. We were all broken up," Smoyer said, noting that the March 30 anniversary has stayed with him. "It's a special date."
The driver's account advanced the narrative that Rose had been murdered. But the tank commander's motive for opening fire remained an open question. In 2013, Makos and Smoyer toured the site of what became known as the Welborn Massacre looking for clues. They learned of one tank commander in that ambush who was still living, and requested an interview.
He knew the identity of the soldier who shot Rose, a young "daredevil sergeant," who was killed just a few days after he gunned down Rose. But why did he shoot a man trying to surrender?
He reportedly told other German tank commanders that he had nearly been shot "by a very tall American," Makos' account says. But he had moved more quickly and fired first.
Whether or not the soldier truly felt that Rose was making a move for his sidearm, the result was the same: The Army lost one of its top generals in the darkness of the German countryside. But nowhere was that loss felt more keenly than in Denver.
Gen. Rose left a broad legacy
Although Rose remains a significant figure in "Spearhead," the account focuses on the narrative that brought Smoyer and his enemy, German Pvt. Gustav Schaefer, into conflict and, decades later, friendship.
Another Denver author, retired attorney Marshall Fogel, last year published "Major General Maurice Rose, The Most Decorated Battletank Commander In U.S. Military History."
But as Fogel points out, Rose's military career predated tanks and began when he dropped out of East High School to join the military in time for World War I. Wounded in the battle of Saint-Mihiel, France, he disappeared from the hospital and was presumed dead. He had returned to his unit, against doctor's orders, to continue fighting.
"That was the genesis of understanding that this guy was a patriot, he really wanted to engage the enemy," Fogel said. "And he was not afraid to do so."
Rose returned from the war as a captain in 1920 and went into the meat business, Fogel said. But he realized he was a soldier at heart and returned to the Army in 1940, and was one of the few selected to attach to the U.S. military's early armored divisions.
He served with the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions in North Africa and earned the first of two Silver Stars in the battle for Tunisia in 1943. He rose to the rank of brigadier general just before the invasion of Sicily, where his unit was the first to enter the city of Palermo.
In August of 1944, just weeks after D-Day, he was given command of the 3rd Armored Division in Normandy. From there he fought pivotal battles across France, Belgium and finally into Germany, where Spearhead Division was the first to capture a German city. In an amazing feat just before his death, he led his unit on a 100-mile sprint in a single day, the longest advance through enemy territory in the history of mechanized warfare.
"He's already beginning to be the father of tank warfare," Fogel said.
After Rose's death, the hospital that was already being planned by a group of Jewish doctors was named in his honor — General Rose Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1949. Fogel notes an interesting military twist: "When the 3rd Armored Division found out they were building a hospital honoring Gen. Rose, soldiers took money out of their measly paychecks and raised $35,000. (Gen. Dwight) Eisenhower laid the cornerstone and came back for the dedication of the hospital."
Fogel remembers as a boy seeing the helmet Rose wore at his death, punctured by two bullet holes, encased at the hospital. (It now resides in an Army museum in Washington, D.C.) That triggered his interest with the general and his career.
"All my life, I thought, 'Who is this guy? Why doesn't anybody know about him?'" Fogel said. "He's a fascinating guy, brave as hell. They don't make 'em like that. That's what a soldier is all about. Talk to any soldier, any historian, and they'll tell you, Rose is like a saint."
In fact, his legacy extended beyond his achievements on the battlefield. Around the time of Rose's first stretch in the military, Fogel said, the U.S. government was concerned that Eastern European Jews coming to the country might be agents of the Bolshevik revolution, and had misgivings about accepting them for military service.
Rose overcame that. Adding to a civil rights theme, the hospital named for him became the first in the region to accept an African-American doctor on its staff.
"They led the way in civil rights," Fogel said. "To build a hospital that would be for everybody and leave the legacy it did, honoring a Jewish war hero, many historians believe he's the first Jewish national hero. There's a lot to his legacy. I think he set a tone of reducing this whole idea of prejudice."
A credo for survival
As the war dragged on, Clarence Smoyer acquired a fatalist outlook that had him all but convinced his position in the lead tank made a violent death inevitable. Especially after the Pershing arrived.
"The biggest tank, biggest gun, that's where it belongs, at the front," he said. "But it gets very nerve-wracking."
Constant fear? "You just had to put up with it," Smoyer said.
But it led to a credo for survival: "I used to say I had to shoot fast and straight," he said, "so I could get the shot in before they shot at me."
Makos broke it down like this: "Statistically," he said, "when a tank would get hit, one guy was going to die and one would be wounded badly. Those were the odds. If you didn't shoot first, and shoot straight, it was going to be one dead, one wounded, and that would be among guys who you considered your family. It was like roulette.
"Clarence lost his commander in front of his eyes and also lost his general — people closest to him and highest above him," Makos added. "He knew the guys he lost, but he'll never know how many he saved by taking on the responsibility of leading the way. Nobody wanted to be in the lead in a tank."
But on a chilly spring morning in Denver, Clarence Smoyer stood tall in the turret and smiled. His story, and that of the general he so admired, carry on.
Information from the Denver Sun.