Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

by Adam Makos

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“A band of brothers in an American tank . . . Makos drops the reader back into the Pershing’s turret and dials up a battle scene to rival the peak moments of Fury.”
The Wall Street Journal

From the author of the international bestseller A Higher Call comes the riveting World War II story of an American tank gunner’s journey into the heart of the Third Reich, where he will meet destiny in an iconic armor duel—and forge an enduring bond with his enemy.

When Clarence Smoyer is assigned to the gunner’s seat of his Sherman tank, his crewmates discover that the gentle giant from Pennsylvania has a hidden talent: He’s a natural-born shooter.

At first, Clarence and his fellow crews in the legendary 3rd Armored Division—“Spearhead”—thought their tanks were invincible. Then they met the German Panther, with a gun so murderous it could shoot through one Sherman and into the next. Soon a pattern emerged: The lead tank always gets hit.

After Clarence sees his friends cut down breaching the West Wall and holding the line in the Battle of the Bulge, he and his crew are given a weapon with the power to avenge their fallen brothers: the Pershing, a state-of-the-art “super tank,” one of twenty in the European theater.

But with it comes a harrowing new responsibility: Now they will spearhead every attack. That’s how Clarence, the corporal from coal country, finds himself leading the U.S. Army into its largest urban battle of the European war, the fight for Cologne, the “Fortress City” of Germany.

Battling through the ruins, Clarence will engage the fearsome Panther in a duel immortalized by an army cameraman. And he will square off with Gustav Schaefer, a teenager behind the trigger in a Panzer IV tank, whose crew has been sent on a suicide mission to stop the Americans.

As Clarence and Gustav trade fire down a long boulevard, they are taken by surprise by a tragic mistake of war. What happens next will haunt Clarence to the modern day, drawing him back to Cologne to do the unthinkable: to face his enemy, one last time.

Praise for Spearhead

“A detailed, gripping account . . . the remarkable story of two tank crewmen, from opposite sides of the conflict, who endure the grisly nature of tank warfare.”
USA Today (four out of four stars)

“Strong and dramatic . . . Makos established himself as a meticulous researcher who’s equally adept at spinning a good old-fashioned yarn. . . . For a World War II aficionado, it will read like a dream.”
—Associated Press  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804176736
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 6,928
File size: 76 MB
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About the Author

Hailed as “a masterful storyteller” by the Associated Press, Adam Makos is the author of the New York Times bestseller A Higher Call and the critically acclaimed Devotion. Inspired by his grandfathers’ service, Makos chronicles the stories of American veterans in his trademark fusion of intense human drama and fast-paced military action, securing his place “in the top ranks of military writers,” according to the Los Angeles Times. In the course of his research, Makos has flown a World War II bomber, accompanied a Special Forces raid in Iraq, and journeyed into North Korea in search of an MIA American airman. He lives in Denver.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 

The Gentle Giant

September 2, 1944

Occupied Belgium, during World War II

Twilight fell on a country crossroads.

The only sounds came from insects buzzing in the surrounding blue fields, and something else. Metallic. The sound of hot engines ticking and pinging, decompressing after a long drive.

With silent efficiency, tank crewmen worked to rearm and refuel their tired Sherman tanks before the last hues of color fled the sky.

Crouched behind the turret of the leftmost tank, Corporal Clarence Smoyer carefully shuttled 75mm shells into the waiting hands of the loader inside. It was a delicate job—even the slightest clang could reveal their position to the enemy.

Clarence was twenty-one, tall and lean with a Roman nose and a sea of curly blond hair under a knit cap. His blue eyes were gentle, but guarded. Despite his height, he was not a fighter—he had never been in a fistfight. Back home in Pennsylvania he had hunted only once—for rabbit—and even that he did halfheartedly. Three weeks earlier he’d been promoted to gunner, second in command on the tank. It wasn’t a promotion he had wanted.

The platoon was in place. To Clarence’s right, four more olive-drab tanks were fanned out, “coiled,” in a half-moon formation with twenty yards between each vehicle. Farther to the north, beyond sight, was Mons, a city made lavish by the Industrial Revolution. A dirt road lay parallel to the tanks on the left, and it ran up through the darkening fields to a forested ridge, where the sun was setting behind the trees.

The Germans were out there, but how many there were and when they’d arrive, no one knew. It had been nearly three months since D-Day, and now Clarence and the men of the 3rd Armored Division were behind enemy lines.

All guns faced west.

Boasting 390 tanks at full strength, the division had dispersed every operational tank between the enemy and Mons, blocking every road junction they could reach.

Survival that night would hinge on teamwork. Clarence’s company headquarters had given his platoon, 2nd Platoon, a simple but important mission: guard the road, let nothing pass.

Clarence lowered himself through the commander’s hatch and into the turret, a tight fit for a six-foot man. He slipped to the right of the gun breech and into the gunner’s seat, leaning into his periscopic gun sight. As he had no hatch of his own, this five-inch-wide relay of glass prisms and a 3x telescopic gun sight mounted to the left of it would be his windows to the world.

His field of fire was set.

There would be no stepping out that night; it was too risky even to urinate. That’s what they saved empty shell casings for.

Beneath Clarence’s feet, the tank opened up in the hull, with its white enamel walls like the turret’s and a trio of dome lights. In the bow, the driver and bow gunner/assistant driver slid their seats backward to sleep where they had ridden all day. On the opposite side of the gun breech from Clarence, the loader stretched a sleeping bag on the turret floor. The tank smelled of oil, gunpowder, and a locker room, but the scent was familiar, even comforting. Ever since they’d come ashore, three weeks after D-Day, as part of this M4A1 Sherman had been their home in Easy Company, 32nd Armor Regiment, of the 3rd Armored Division, one of the army’s two heavy tank divisions.

Tonight, sleep would come quickly. The men were exhausted. The 3rd Armored had been charging for eighteen days at the head of the First Army, leading two other divisions in the breakout across northern France. Paris had been liberated, the Germans were running back the way they’d come in 1940, and the 3rd Armored was earning its nom de guerre: the Spearhead Division.

Then came new orders.

The reconnaissance boys had spotted the German Fifteenth and Seventh Armies moving to the north, hightailing it out of France for Belgium and on course to pass through Mons’s many crossroads. So the 3rd Armored turned on a dime and raced north—107 miles in two days—arriving just in time to lay an ambush.

The tank commander dropped into the turret and lowered the split hatch covers, leaving just a crack for air. He slumped into his seat behind Clarence, his boyish face still creased by the impression of his goggles. Staff Sergeant Paul Faircloth of Jacksonville, Florida, was also twenty-one, quiet and easygoing, with a sturdy build, black hair, and olive skin. Some assumed he was French or Italian, but he was half Cherokee. As the platoon sergeant, Paul had been checking on the other crews and positioning them for the night. Normally the platoon leader would do this, but their lieutenant was a new replacement and still learning the ropes.

For two days Paul had been on his feet in the commander’s position, standing halfway out of his hatch with the turret up to his ribs. From there he could anticipate the column’s movements to help the driver brake and steer. In the event of a sudden halt—when another crew threw a track or got mired in mud, for instance—Paul was always the first out of the tank to help.

“I’m taking your watch tonight,” Clarence said. “I’ll do a double.”

The offer was generous, but Paul resisted—he could handle it.

Clarence persisted until Paul threw up his hands and finally swapped places with him to nab some shut-eye in the gunner’s seat.

Clarence took the commander’s position, a seat higher in the turret. The hatch covers were closed enough to block a German grenade, but open enough to provide a good view to the front and back. He could see his neighboring Sherman through the rising moonlight. The tank’s squat, bulbous turret looked incongruous against the tall, sharp lines of the body, as if the parts had been pieced together from salvage.

Clarence snatched a Thompson submachine gun from the wall and retracted the bolt. For the next four hours, enemy foot soldiers were his concern. Everyone knew that German tankers didn’t like to fight at night.

Partway through Clarence’s watch, the darkness came alive with a mechanical rumbling.

The moon was smothered by clouds and he couldn’t see a thing, but he could hear a convoy of vehicles moving beyond the tree-lined ridge.

Start and stop. Start and stop.

The radio speaker on the turret wall kept humming with static. No flares illuminated the sky. The 3rd Armored would later estimate there were 30,000 enemy troops out there, mostly men of the German Army, the Wehrmacht, with some air force and navy personnel among them—yet no order came to give pursuit or attack.

That’s because the battered remnants of the enemy armies were bleeding precious fuel as they searched for a way around the roadblocks, and Spearhead was content to let them wander. The enemy was desperately trying to reach the safety of the West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, a stretch of more than 18,000 defensive fortifications that bristled along the German border.

If these 30,000 troops could dig in there, they could bar the way to Germany and prolong the war. They had to be stopped, here, at Mons, and Spearhead had a plan for that—but it could wait until daylight.

Around two a.m. the distinctive slap of tank tracks arose from the distant rumble.

Clarence tracked the sounds—vehicles were coming down the road in front of him. He knew his orders—let nothing pass—but doubt was setting in. Maybe this was a reconnaissance patrol returning? Had someone gotten lost? They couldn’t be British, not in this area. Whoever they were, he wasn’t about to pull the trigger on friendly forces.

One after the other, three tanks clanked past the blacked-out Shermans and kept going, and Clarence began to breathe again.

Then one of the tanks let off the gas. It began turning and squeaking, as if its tracks were in need of oil. The sound was unmistakable. Only full-metal tracks sounded like that, and a Sherman’s were padded with rubber.

The tanks were German.

Clarence didn’t move. The tank was behind him, then beside him. It slowed and sputtered then squeaked to a stop in the middle of the coiled Shermans. Clarence braced for a flash and the flames that would swallow him. The German tank was idling alongside him. He’d never even hear the gun bark. He would just cease to exist.

A whisper shook Clarence from his paralysis. It was Paul. Without a word, Clarence slipped back into the gunner’s seat and Paul took over.

Clarence strapped on his tanker’s helmet. Made of fiber resin, it looked like a cross between a football helmet and a crash helmet, and had goggles on the front and headphones sewn into leather earflaps. He clipped a throat microphone around his neck and plugged into the intercom.

On the other side of the turret, the loader sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

Clarence mouthed the words German tank. The loader snapped wide-awake.

From his hatch, Paul tapped Clarence on the right shoulder, the signal to turn the turret to the right.

Clarence hesitated. The turret wasn’t silent, what if the Germans heard it?

Paul tapped again.

Clarence relented and turned a handle, the turret whined, gears cranked, and the gun swept the dark.

When the gun was aligned broadside, Paul stopped Clarence. Clarence pressed his eyes to his periscope. Everything below the skyline was inky black.

Clarence told Paul he couldn’t see a thing and suggested they call in armored infantrymen to kill the tank with a bazooka.

Paul couldn’t chance some jittery soldier blasting the wrong tank. He grabbed his hand microphone—nicknamed “the pork chop” due to its shape—and dialed the radio to the platoon frequency, alerting the other crews to what they likely already knew: that an enemy tank was in the coil. In a Sherman platoon at that time, only the tanks of the platoon leader and platoon sergeant could transmit. Everyone else could only listen.

“No noise, and no smoking cigarettes,” Paul said. “We’ll take care of him.”

We’ll take care of him? Clarence was horrified. He had hardly used the gun in daylight and now Paul wanted him to fire in pitch-darkness, at what? A sound? An enemy he couldn’t see?

He wished he could return to being a loader. A loader never saw much. Never did much. On a tank crew, the loader was pretty much just along for the ride. That was the good life. A gentle giant, Clarence simply wanted to slip through the war without killing anyone or getting killed himself.

No time for that. The German tank crew had likely realized their mistake by now.

“Gunner, ready?”

Panicked, Clarence turned and tugged on Paul’s pant leg.

Paul sank into the turret, exasperated. Clarence rattled off his doubts. What if he missed? What if he got a deflection and hit their own guys?

Paul’s voice calmed Clarence: “Somebody has to take the shot.”

As if the Germans had been listening, they suddenly cut their power. The hot engine hissed, then went silent.

Clarence felt a wave of relief. It was a reprieve. Paul must have been biting his lip in anger, because he said nothing at first. Finally, he informed the crew that now they would have to wait to fire at first light.

Clarence’s relief faded. His indecision had cost them whatever advantage they’d had. And against a German tank, they’d need every advantage they could get, especially if they were facing a Panther, the tank of nightmares. Some GIs called it “the Pride of the Wehrmacht,” and rumor had it that a Panther could shoot through one Sherman and into a second, and its frontal armor was supposedly impervious.

That July, the U.S. Army had placed several captured Panthers in a field in Normandy and blasted away at them with the same 75mm gun as in Clarence’s Sherman. The enemy tanks proved vulnerable from the flanks and rear, but not the front. Not a single shot managed to penetrate the Panther’s frontal armor, from any distance.

Clarence checked his luminescent watch, knowing the Germans were probably doing the same. The countdown had begun. Someone was going to die.

The loader fell asleep over the gun breech.

Three a.m. became four a.m.

Clarence and Paul passed a canteen of cold coffee back and forth. They had always joked that they were a family locked in a sardine can. And like a family, they didn’t always see eye to eye. Unlike Paul, who was always running off to help someone outside the tank, all Clarence cared about was his family on the inside—him and his crew.

This had been his way since childhood.

Growing up in industrial Lehighton, Pennsylvania, Clarence lived in a row house by the river, with walls so flimsy he could hear the neighbors. His parents were usually out working to keep the family afloat. His father did manual labor for the Civilian Conservation Corps and his mother was a housekeeper.

With the family’s survival at stake, Clarence was determined to contribute. When other kids played sports or did homework, twelve-year-old Clarence stacked a ballpark vendor’s box with candy bars and went selling door-to-door throughout Lehighton. Just a boy, he had vowed: I’ve got to take care of my family because no one is going to take care of us.

Clarence checked his periscope. To the east, a faint tinge of purple colored the horizon.

He kept his eyes glued to the glass until a blocky shape appeared about fifty yards away.

“I see it,” he whispered.

Paul rose to his hatch and saw it too. It looked like a rise of rock, highest at the midpoint. Clarence turned handwheels to fine-tune his aim.

Paul urged him to hurry. If they could see the enemy, the enemy could see them.

Clarence settled the reticle, as the gun sight’s crosshairs were known, on the “rock” at center mass and reported that he was ready. His boot hovered over the trigger, a button on the footrest.

“Fire,” Paul said.

Clarence’s foot stamped down.

Outside, a massive flash leapt from the Sherman’s barrel, momentarily illuminating the tanks—an olive-drab American and a sandy-yellow German—both facing the same direction.

Sparks burst from the darkness and a sound like an anvil strike pierced the countryside. Inside the turret, without the fan operating, smoke hung thick in the air. Clarence’s ears throbbed and his eyes stung, but he kept them pressed to his sight.

The loader chambered a new shell. Clarence again hovered his foot over the trigger.

“Nothing’s moving,” Paul said from above. A broadside at this range? It was undoubtedly a kill shot.

The intercom came alive with voices of relief, and Clarence moved his foot away from the trigger.

Paul radioed the platoon; the job was done.

Through his periscope, Clarence watched the sky warm beneath the dark clouds, revealing the boxy armor and the 11-foot, 8-inch long gun of a Panzer IV tank.

Known by the Americans as the Mark IV, the design was old, in service since 1938, and it had been the enemy’s most prevalent tank until that August, when the Panther began taking over. But even though it was no longer the mainstay, the Mark IV was still lethal. Its 75mm gun packed 25 percent more punch than Clarence’s.

More light revealed the tank’s dark green-and-brown swirls of camouflage and the German cross on the flank. Clarence had nearly placed his shot right on it.

“Think they’re in there?” One of the crewmen posed the question, seeing that the Mark IV’s hatch covers hadn’t budged.

Clarence envisioned a tank full of moaning, bleeding men and hoped the crew had slipped out in the night. He had no love for the Germans, but he hated the idea of killing any human being. He wasn’t about to look inside his first tank kill. A shell can ricochet like a super-sonic pinball within the tight quarters, and he’d seen maintenance guys go inside to clean and come out crying after discovering brains on the ceiling.

“I’ll go.” Paul unplugged his helmet.

Clarence tried to dissuade him. It wasn’t worth looking inside and getting his head blown off by a German.

Paul brushed away the concerns and radioed the platoon to hold their fire.

Through his periscope, Clarence watched Paul climb the Mark IV’s hull and creep toward the turret with his Thompson at the ready. With one hand steadying his gun, Paul opened the commander’s hatch and aimed the Thompson inside.

Nothing happened. 
He leaned forward and took a long look, then shouldered his gun. Paul sealed the hatch shut.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

1 The Gentle Giant 3

2 Baptism 14

3 "Bubi" 25

4 The Fields 31

5 The Foray 43

6 Beyond the Wall 49

7 Respite 58

8 The Fourth Tank 68

9 Hope 77

10 Something Bigger 88

11 American's Tiger 103

12 Two Miles 115

13 Hunting 137

14 The Fire Department of the West 143

15 Going First 155

16 Victory or Siberia 178

17 The Monster 201

18 The Conquerors 218

19 The Breakout 232

20 The American Blitz 244

21 The Fatherless 256

22 Family 268

23 Come Out and Fight 280

24 The Giant 292

25 Getting Home 307

26 The Last Battle 313

Afterword 337

Acknowledgments 345

Sources 349

Notes 351

Photo Credits 383

Index 387

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Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Makos’ gifted storytelling will bring you up close and personal with Spearhead’s Easy company. A great read. God bless those who served and continue to serve this great country.
caochedSC More than 1 year ago
Adam Makos reminds me of the great World War II writer, Cornelius Ryan. If you read "D-Day" by Cornelius, you will find Adam's latest book, "Spearhead" just as compelling. Mr. Makos has done his research on both sides of the conflict. Stories you have never read about before. And photos you've never seen, either. Well done.
GraceAHulbert More than 1 year ago
What a story! A lot of history books focus on just the battle -the military leaders making the decisions -But when you read accounts from the men who fought, and survived, those battles -The results almost never disappoint. I read this book in less than 48 hours. I couldn’t put it down. I HIGHLY recommend it. I laughed, I cried... The action and suspense had me at the edge of my seat more than once. The dedication of tank gunner Clarence Smoyer to his “family”– his tank crew –is truly inspiring, and his determination to keep them alive is unforgettable. Makos takes us into the tank with the crew, and into the trenches and woods with the infantry as they fight their way to Cologne. We’re also taken into the tank of Gustav Schaefer, a young German gunner, also bound for Cologne, in a desperate attempt to hold off the American army pushing their way into Germany. When these two former enemies meet up, decades later, both seeking closure and healing, they form an incredible friendship Mr. Adam Makos, once again, does an incredible job at, again, bringing to life a story that will “stay with you long after you close the cover.” Thank you, Mr. Makos, for continuing this amazing story. And thank you, Mr. Smoyer, for reliving the horrors of war to keep history alive.
FranTheMarine More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading Spearhead and can honestly say it brought me to tears. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. First and foremost, it’s a war story- filled with gut-wrenching combat, and then it’s also inspirational. A story about the power of forgiveness and friendship. The characters are well developed and easy to get behind- Clarence Smoyer, the reluctant gunner who isn’t eager to kill but must learn to in order to keep himself and his crew alive. Gustav Schafer, a poor farm kid raised without electricity. Instead of his dream job as a train conductor he’s now inside a Panther tank fighting the oncoming tide of allied forces. There's Buck Marsh, a happy-go-lucky Alabama boy raised in a prosperous southern world who joins an armored infantry unit of hardened veterans. Buck is eager to earn their respect, going as far as volunteering to be lead scout. Spearhead puts you in their boots, in the mud, in the tanks, as they fight for survival during the final months of the war. This is as zoomed in as a war story can get. And definitely don’t just think this is just a story of a tank duel in Cologne. Like with this author’s other books- it’s what happens during, before, and after, that center cinematic encounter, that makes this book stand above others. I think it’s clear that Makos has developed into a stronger storyteller, and I’m happy to recommend this book wholeheartedly.
Anonymous 20 days ago
Highly recommend .
DRWWA More than 1 year ago
Wow!!! This is one of the best WWII books I have read (if not the very best). It felt like I was part of the crew and sharing the emotions of these these brave men as they rode straight into the shadow of war. Highly recommended.
Castellid More than 1 year ago
For fans of Adam Makos, who loved "A Higher Call" and "Devotion", you are going to love his new book "Spearhead"!! Adam is not only a World War II historian, but a masterful storyteller as well. And, once again, Adam introduces us to another forgotten World War II Veteran, who deserves to be remembered, and honored for his heroism. We get to meet Clarence Smoyer, a lovely, unassuming, 95 year old Pennsylvania gentlemen, who was a young, 21 year old, deadly accurate tank gunner, on the US army's top-secret M-26 Pershing tank, that led the 3rd Armored Division into the battlefields of Europe, to the final stages of World War II. We really get to know Clarence and his crew -- their backgrounds, their friendships, the hardships they endured, their fears, their hopes for the future, and their courage in battle. We are able to re-live the legendary 1945 battle for Cologne, between Clarence's M-26 Pershing, and the enemy, Gustav Schafer's, Panther tank, that was actually caught on film by a US Army cameraman. That film, when discovered 70 years later, awakened the memories that Smoyer had tried to forget, and led Clarence back to Cologne, to meet the enemy, and to learn the truth of what really happened that fateful day. In the introduction, by the author, Makos tells us to "Shut the hatches. Tighten your chin strap. It's time to roll out." Good advice -- Makos is putting the reader in the tank, alongside Clarence and crew, and what a ride!!!
jmgallen 4 months ago
“Spearhead” is what I call small history. It is the history of the tank crews, both American and their German adversaries. The author follows the crews through a series of episodes from Belgium on September 2, 1944 to Paderborn in April 1945. The breakthroughs and the pushbacks, the friends and enemies who were killed and the families shattered by speeding bullets pull the reader through a roller coaster of emotions. The Americans’ encounters with young German women leaves one wondering, will they get back, or did really read of their final goodbyes? Then there are the flashbacks to be dealt with and the reunions in advanced age. My appreciation for this book ebbed and surged as I read. I generally prefer big history, the outlines of movements, leaders, victory and defeat rather than the tales of the soldiers and civilians who lived through great events. The deaths of characters to whom we had been introduced shined spotlights on the unpleasantness of war that we know occurred but prefer to conceive of as aggregate statistics rather than personal tragedies. The parts I liked most were those that echoed what I had heard from veterans, eating Hershey bars on the troop transport, the German phases used and a German veteran’s observation that “This was about staying alive, not about winning.” I learned a lot about the Sherman and Pershing tanks. The image of soldiers opening up on a heard of deer with rifles and machine guns for fresh meat inserts levity into an otherwise dreary saga. The end is surprising so I will not spoil it. I think this is very much a 21st Century World War II book that would not have been written when the memories were fresher. When you start, stay the course, ride the ups and downs and reserve your opinions until the last pages.
Anonymous 8 months ago
I found this book a very good read. Well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago