By LISA SPENGLER
Cpl. Clarence Smoyer, America’s most famous tank gunner and the subject of the new book “Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy and a Collision of Lives in World War II,” surprised his friend and comrade, Sgt. Joseph Caserta, at his home on Wednesday.
Smoyer, 95, a Sherman tank gunner from Leighton, Pa., and Caserta, 97, a Sherman tank driver and commander from Ocean City, were part of the famous 3rd Armored Division (3AD) called “Spearhead.”
They share a unique history and deep personal bond.
The last time they were together was at a book signing for “Spearhead” in Allentown, Pa., in early 2019.
“It was a circus,” said Caserta. “We really didn’t have time to talk.”
That’s when 3rd Armored Division Association Board Member Carol Westberg “hatched this plan” to reunite Smoyer and Caserta.
Westberg is from Montevideo, Minn., and daughter of the late Neil Westberg, also a member of E-Company, 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division.
Westberg emailed Smoyer’s daughter Cindy, who in turn contacted the Caserta family.
In just a few months they planned out how Smoyer would be head to Ocean City and Caserta would open his front door to his dear friend and fellow decorated patriot.
While the Ocean City resident and World War II veteran was being honored last week by City Council and U.S. Army Brotherhood of Tankers at VFW Post 6650, Caserta’s sons finalized the plans for the special surprise reunion.
As with most WWII veterans, Smoyer and Caserta were young strangers, becoming young soldiers brought together in battle with unforeseeable sacrifice.
Cpl. Smoyer, at 18, and Sgt. Caserta, at 19, went from training in the United States to landing in France.
Smoyer started out as a loader on a Sherman tank crew and Caserta was a replacement as a Sherman tank driver.
Both men were assigned to E-Company, 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division and landed at Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day.
In March 1945, the “Spearhead Division” entered the German city of Cologne. At 21, Smoyer was the gunner on a Pershing, a top secret experimental American tank. There was only one of 20 sent over for testing in battle during February 1945.
As a gunner in the Pershing tank, Smoyer earned the reputation as “the best gunner in the world.” The Pershing tank and a German Panther faced off in a brutal battle for the city of Cologne.
That epic tank fight was known as the last battle of World War II.
During the Battle of Cologne, a combat photographer, Jim Bate, who parachuted into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day, followed troops all the way to the fall of Berlin.
Specifically, Bates followed one tank throughout the Battle of Cologne, the lead tank. That lead tank had Smoyer’s crew. Bates’ footage captured their defeat of a German tank, one of two, near the city’s famous cathedral. Those images played in movie theater newsreels during the war and now exist in digital form.
Before the book was published, Caserta was asked to write a testimony about his friend and comrade. Actually, it was a testimony to prove that Clarence Smoyer was in fact the tank gunner from the Battle of Cologne.
“He was offered a Bronze Star but never got it,” said Caserta.
Smoyer was told to get three affidavits to prove that he was there, even though the Battle of Cologne was captured in pictures and video taken by Bates, the American war correspondent. Even now with a best-selling book detailing the Battle of Cologne. Bates is the only man who received a Bronze Star for his actions during the duel at Cologne.
Smoyer is still waiting for his Bronze Star.
Smoyer and Caserta sat in silence after recounting details surrounding the Battle of Cologne and the yet to be received Bronze Star.
The look of admiration for each other captured the attention of all those around them, especially Matthew (Caserta) Styer, a 9-year-old grandson of Sgt. Caserta.
Matthew listened intently as the two men spoke. When asked if he read “Spearhead,” he proudly exclaimed, “Oh yes.”
“I love history. I may even be a history major in college,” he said.
Matthew has his own signed copy of “Spearhead” from Smoyer with the inscription, “To the grandson of my true hero.”
Cindy Smoyer then shared a story about a 15-year-old who calls her father every week.
“He took on a shop project of building a tank. Once it was graded, he sent it to my dad and still keeps in touch,” she said.
With only an estimated 3 percent of World War II veterans still living, it is encouraging to see our youth take an interest in history, especially WWII. Smoyer, Caserta and all those who know them are given a sense of peace knowing that their legacy will continue for generations to come.
Both soft-spoken and humble, Smoyer and Caserta took turns sharing pieces of their history and details from the book. In true modesty, Smoyer turned the conversation from himself and the book to Pete Semenoff.
“I have to give credit to Pete,” he said.
Pete Semanoff, from Leighton, Pa. was a young man raised in a military family full of tradition and history. He found Smoyer while working on an Eagle Scout project. He sought out 30 area veterans. Smoyer was one of them.
Semanoff attended Lycoming College, where he met a fellow history buff named Adam Makos. It was there, with Semonoff’s prompting, that Makos met Smoyer and wrote the best-selling book.
“Spearhead” made the best seller list two weeks after it was released.
Smoyer has done book signings in Harrisburg, Boston and Allentown. Each time riding in a Sherman tank down the main street. Each time the books sold out.
“I remember lines wrapped around the streets for the signing. When we ran out of books, people would hand me papers to sign. One woman asked if she could even give me a hug,” Smoyer said with a smile.
Their moving stories of bravery and comradeship detailed in the book are an important contribution to WWII history.
However, what cannot be written is the admiration and respect that these two men have for each other.
That has to be seen. It has to be felt.
After two years of war, and for Caserta, after six months as occupational forces, he was furloughed and spent six days on the French Riviera before coming home.
After two years at war, Smoyer was furloughed and came home. However, his captain had other ideas and made a serious attempt at persuading him to reenlist.
“My captain said he would give me a three-day furlough, send me home and then bring me back with a raise in rank,” Smoyer said. “I said, ‘No thank you’ and came right home.”
“If it wasn’t for the 50th reunion of the 3rd Armed Division Association being held in Valley Forge, I never would have gone. I wouldn’t have seen Clarence again,” said Caserta.
Chuck Miller paid Caserta’s dues to get him to the reunion. Their group was reconnected. Clarence Smoyer, Joseph Caserta and Chuck Miller. Miller was a tank gunner when Caserta was a driver.
“It was probably the 50th reunion that became my first,” he said. “It was close to home and from that time in Valley Forge, I was hooked.”
Smoyer told the story of when a man approached him and said, “You saved my butt.” Smoyer replied, “No, I saved mine and you came along for the ride.”
That reunion saw at least 750 veterans. Two years ago, there were three.
As the number of living tank crewman grew smaller, the “Young Guys,” the Association of the 3rd Armored Division from the Cold War Era and Persian Gulf War, recently merged with the 3rd Armored Tank Division Association.
Due to a number of factors, both men are not able to attend the association’s reunions as much as they did in the past.
Sgt. Caserta attends the patriotic flag raising on the Boardwalk at OC Waterpark at Plymouth Place every morning. He goes to watch his friend J.R. Robinson, a recipient of three Purple Hearts, raise the flag.
But on Thursday, nothing could make Caserta prouder than to sit beside his dear friend and “battle buddy” during the song, “Proud to be an American.”
Surrounded by family and friends, Cpl. Clarence Smoyer and Sgt. Joseph Caserta stood at attention and watched proudly while the “Star-Spangled Banner” played over the loudspeakers.
Editor’s note: Cpl. Clarence Smoyer and Sgt. Joseph Caserta, thank you for your service and your sacrifice. More importantly, thank you for sharing your stories with generations to come.