WWII Veteran Returns to Germany to Find Answers to a Memory That Has Been Haunting Him for Decades

Clarence Smoyer served in the US Army during WWII as a tank gunman. On one particular day, the tank was driving through the streets of Cologne, Germany, with relentless German gunfire. Suddenly, a black car speeds down the streets and Clarence was commanded to shoot anything that moved.

Fast forward 70 years and Clarence finds himself with one of the German soldiers that was there that day but on the opposing side. Clarence thought he moved on from the war, having started a family and with all the decades that passed. But the second part of his saga just began.

The Day Was March 6, 1945

The M26 Pershing tank that Clarence Smoyer was in smelled of sweat and blood. The tank was known as the “Crematorium on Wheels.” On March 6, 1945, his tank crew crept through crawled through the city of Cologne.

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Source: CBS News

They were about to hit an intersection, but they stopped. The boys were silent, hardly breathing. Fatigued and wearing the same uniform for a week, they were anything but ready for what was to happen.

The Calm Before the Storm

The street was eerily silent in this city center of the war-torn country. The soldiers were aware that any moment could be their last. They then heard a muted voice over the radio.

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Source: Rail Trail’s Video

Their commander’s faded voice stated: “Gentlemen, I give you Cologne.” he said. Then an eternal pause loomed until the radio, still cracking, continued when the commander ended with: “Let’s give them hell.” And that’s when 19-year-old Smoyer, only a boy, was basically prepared to die.

But something else happened instead.

He Had One Obligation

Smoyer didn’t have time to dwell on his mortality. He was trying not to think about his cousin and his brother in law that were killed in action, their lives ended a world away from home.

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Source: History 101

But he and his crew had to act. Smoyer only had one obligation: to destroy the enemy. They tensed up, preparing to attack when the radio came on again as they heard “staff car!” Before Smoyer processed the words, a black car raced into the intersection that the tank was waiting at. And he instinctively pulled the trigger.

Shoot Anything That Moved

Smoyer’s orders were simple and undebatable: “shoot anything that moved.” This command had been ingrained in his mind.

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Source: Lonesentry

As he pulled the trigger, bullets firing, he saw that the Germans from the opposing tank were also firing at this car. The car collapsed and crashed into the sidewalk.

Smoyer knew that if both sides were shooting, something was wrong and one of them might regret what just happened. Smoyer ceased fire and watched as the door to the driver’s side opened. He waited to see who it was, expecting a German official to fall out. But instead, what he saw was completely unexpected. His stomach turned when he saw a small frame of a person fell out of the driver’s side of the car. All Smoyer saw was a mess of curly brown hair. The rest was a blur.

Could it Be That I Just Shot a Woman?

He was so sure that a German was driving that speeding black car. His mouth went dry and his heart almost came out of his throat. He wasn’t certain, but it looked like he just shot a woman.

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Source: MSN

And if it was a woman, what is a civilian doing driving like a crazy person through a war-torn city with tanks rolling in and gunfire everywhere?

Smoyer didn’t know that everything was being filmed.

Turning a Blind Eye

Smoyer didn’t have time to dwell on the casualty. If soldiers were to mourn each and every wounded and slain human, the war would last much longer than it did.

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Source: Breitbart

He was forced to turn a blind eye, and continue on in the fight between life and death. So he and his crew pushed on until the city was secured. But he knew he wouldn’t forget what had just happened.

About to Conquer the City of Cologne

All this happened at a point when American troops were about to achieve a huge milestone: conquering the German city of Cologne. On that particular day, there were correspondents, photographers, and cameramen following US troops.

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Source: forums.g503.com

Three German tanks were circling the city. US troops destroyed their only exit point, which was a bridge linking Cologne to the river.

But it would pose a risk to them as well.

It Was a Matter of Time Now

Destroying the bridge meant abolishing the only access for the Allies to enter the city. Once the bridge was successfully destroyed, the Germans were backed into a corner with no means of escape.

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Source: KSL

It then became a matter of time for the Germans. This day in March of 1945 would go down in history as the Battle in Cologne. And many lives were lost, on both sides.

Retrospective Guilt

In an interview from the documentary March 1945 — Duel at the Cathedral: US Troops Battle for Cologne and the Rhine, First Lieutenant of Germany’s 9 Panzer Division, Engelbert Bockhoff, spoke about this battle and their mindset of killing as many of the enemy as possible before surrendering was simply wrong.

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Source: History 101

He admitted that lives could have been saved, and that his fellow men could have lived.

But he wasn’t the only one holding heavy guilt.

Having Nothing, With Everything to Lose

As Bockhoff admitted to war-time guilt, the opposite side also held feelings of remorse. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. When looking back on war, soldiers were forced to enter a mindset of “us vs. them.”

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Source: PressForm

On that day, Smoyer and his crew were up against a German tank known as the “Monster.” Their shells were so strong that they could tear through the walls of a tank like tissue paper and even rip through another one.

Bringing the Monster Down

Smoyer and his crew managed to bring “The Monster” tank down. And they were later celebrated as heroes for doing it.

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Source: CBS News

The battle was documented by American combat cameraman, who was live on the site and capturing as much as possible.

And one day, his footage would come in particularly useful.

Six Months Later…

Just six months later, the war was over. Like that. And like all of Europe, Clarence Smoyer’s mind was a complete disaster.

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Source: CBS News

Shellshock may have described the immediate after effect of what happened to Smoyer, along with all soldiers of the war. But PTSD is what described the years that Smoyer struggled with back home.

Flashbacks, Nightmares, and Memories

The war veteran was riddled by vivid flashbacks of the war, the nightmare of seeing his dying brothers in arms, and relentless memories of real life horror stories.

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Source: Ledger Enquirer

In the books, they won the war. But in reality, he was battling his mind. He tried not to think of the past, to move on and live a normal life.

But could that woman in the car ever leave his haunted mind?

As Much as He Tried…

He was able to forget that day in Cologne when the black car drove through the crossfire. It was naive for him to think that he could move on and forget such a thing.

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Source: PressForm

He couldn’t be certain of it, but he had a strong feeling that he basically killed an innocent woman. He said in an interview, “I often thought: ‘Why the hell would somebody drive into a place like that?’”

Settling Down, Or At Least Tried To

Like every other soldier who came home alive, Smoyer settled down, got married, and had a couple kids. He was living the “American dream.” And as the years and decades went on, his memory of that day started to fade.

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Source: History 101

Until about 50 years later, when a friend of his from the war sent him a VHS tape of the battle in Cologne called “Scenes of War.”

This was a real turning point for Smoyer, and you’ll see why.

He Held His Breath

As soon as Smoyer got his hands on the tape, he popped it into the VCR and watched in anticipation as the scenes in front of him unfolded.

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Source: rheindvd.de

As he sat on his couch, watching the tape, he was sent back in time to that day in March of 1945, watching the battle and almost living again. He had no idea that a combat cameraman shot the very moment the black Opel drove through the intersection. He held his breath as he watched.

There She Was

He waited for the moment: the tanks, the gunfire, the car crash, and debris littering the entire scene. The cameraman went up to the vehicle and there she was.

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Source: Rail Trail’s Video

There on the screen was what his mind was replaying over and over for so many years. She had a floral cardigan sweater and brown curly hair. He watched as she dropped out of the car and fell into herself.

But then he saw on film what he didn’t have a chance to see after it happened.

Seeing Now What He Didn’t See Then

What Smoyer didn’t see after the event was that the woman was then surrounded American medics who covered her with a blanket. He saw her in the footage, looking up at the sky, her expression fixed in a daze.

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Source: med-dept.com

He found it hard to breathe as he watched. Was it him that caused her death? Was he the sole reason this woman’s life ended?

It All Came Back To Him

As Smoyer recalled in an interview, “I had forgotten about it for decades, the car was just a blur, and now the whole thing came back, clear as day.”

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Source: Rein-dvd.de

And then his nightmares came back at full force. Smoyer would find himself waking up swinging and punching the ghosts of his past enemies. He had to take medication to calm his nerves.

But his attempts to erase her from his mind weren’t working.

He Had Enough

After a long period of sleepless nights, the man had enough. He had to find out who she was and if he was the one whose bullet ended her young life.

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Source: The Collings Foundation

He made a point to figure this out. He needed closure if he was going to want to stop suffering. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy because he had no one to turn to.

Who Would Help Him?

All Smoyer’s fellow war compatriots had already passed way, and the one that gave him the tape couldn’t find any information. So he had to think outside the box.

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Source: Dierk’s Page

He thought of who else was at the scene. And that’s when he considered the Germans. Was the German gunman from the other tank still alive?

He didn’t realize what he was about to embark on.

Gustav Schaefer: An Enemy of the Past

As soon as he decided to head down this path, his life changed. And for the better. He did his research and made many calls. And amazingly, he managed to reach the German gunman.

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Source: CBS News

Gustav Schaefer was one of the men who was there on that day. And Smoyer found out that, like him, Schaefer also pulled a trigger at the black car that day.

He Agreed to Meet Him

Gustav Schaefer was a gunman for the Panzer brigade 106. He had no idea why Smoyer was reaching out to him. He couldn’t imagine why an opposing tank gunman that he battled against 70 years ago would want to contact him now.

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Source: lestweforgetww2

Despite finding it very strange, Gustav still agreed to meet with the American war vet. The two met it in Germany and discussed the events that took place that day. Schaefer admitted to being nervous.

Would he remember the girl, though?

He Was Only a Teenager

Gustav, like most of the other soldiers, was only a teenager during the war. He was all of 5 feet tall when he was assigned a tank. And he did what his country demanded of him, like Smoyer did.

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Source: MSN

The ironic pair of veterans shook hands when they met in Germany. Smoyer said: “The war is over and we can be friends now.” And Schaefer was visibly relieved. Schaefer was not a typical Nazi soldier. He was a farm boy who grew up admiring American culture.

He Loved Western Films

Schaefer told Smoyer how much he liked Western films and would read tales of cowboys and Indians. He claimed that he never had any anti-Semitic beliefs personally.

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Source: The Art of Manliness

The two old men sat and drank together, looking as if they were old war buddies catching up. And while it was nice to reminisce, the real issue about why Smoyer came there in the first place was the pink elephant in the room.

But what would Schaefer be able to bring to the table?

He Wasn’t the Only One to Pull the Trigger

When Smoyer asked him, Schaefer said, “I didn’t shoot the car on purpose. All of a sudden, she was driving through there.” Smoyer nodded in understanding and was even relieved that he wasn’t the only one pulled the trigger.

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Source: World War Media

They talked about that day and shared their memories of the event. Smoyer became emotional with tears welling up, overwhelmed with the severity of it all. “It was war,” Schaefer said. “It’s in the nature of it. It can’t be undone.”

Her Name Was Katharina Esser

They discovered the name of the woman who drove the car: Katharina Esser. She was known as “Kathi” to her older sisters, and she was only twenty-six years old when she died that day.

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Source: CBS News

Smoyer recalled, “I saw movement over my left side. I fired armor-piercing shells through the corner of the building thinking maybe I’d get a lucky hit that would knock the tank out.”

And they found more information about her.

This Little German Car

“This little German car came around the corner right down the street in front of us, and I think I may have been the one who hit the car and wounded Katharina,” he continued.

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Source: pantoffelkinovideo

Now that the flood gates were open, Smoyer began to recall things that he thought were lost. “A young girl was taken out and lying in the street there,” he said when he returned the exact spot where the car crashed. “Still alive, but she was shot in the chest.”

Asking for Forgiveness

“She didn’t deserve to die in that way.” During his visit, Smoyer reached out to Katharina’s surviving family members and asked for their forgiveness. He was worried about how they would react.

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Source: CBS News

To his surprise, they welcomed him to their home and thus Smoyer was able to get a glimpse of the short life of young Katharina Esser.

The Cool Aunt

Katharina Esser was the youngest of four sisters. She was remembered as loving, compassionate, and the caretaker of the family. To her nieces and nephews, she was the “cool aunt.”

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Source: CNN

Katharina was a hard working student. She attended night school, majoring in home economics while also working shifts at a grocery store.

The Black Opel

The black Opel she drove that day actually belonged to her boss. According to her family, they believed she must have gone stir crazy from constantly being in hiding. And she was desperate to escape. Katharina lost family members to the war.

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Source: Express

Both Smoyer and Schaefer discovered that all of Katharina’s brothers-in-law had died in the war. She was surrounded by death, and felt like all was lost in a losing war.

And she would end up risking it all to get out.

In a Depressive State

Katharina was depressed. “Life only has these (sad) things to offer us nowadays,” she wrote in a letter to a family member after the death of one of her brother-in-laws.

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Source: zakhor-online

“I don’t believe in a good outcome anymore.” She was so fed up with the life she was living and was ready to risk it all to escape.

Paying Their Respects

Katharina was buried at a church cemetery a few hundred yards from where she died. Smoyer and Schaefer decided to pay their respects by visiting her grave and putting flowers on it.

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Source: History 101

Once they walked into the graveyard, they saw a wooden post carved with the words “The Unknown Dead.”

Did she have her own grave?

Yellow Roses

Due to the fact that they were unable to identify Katharina at the time of her death, she was ultimately buried in a mass grave. She was only discovered and then identified after being seen in the film that Smoyer saw.

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Source: koelnprogramm.weebly.com

Both of the old men placed yellow roses on her grave and silently asked for forgiveness. It was hard for Smoyer to go through it all, but it was the closure he needed.

“Be at Peace”

When giving his condolences to Katharina’s family, they told him to “be at peace” and reassured him that Katharina was the type of person that would have forgiven him. It was in her nature.

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Source: CBS News

The family told him that the way they see it is, despite what happened, it was the war that killed her. “The people who started this war are the ones who killed Katharina.”

Hypocrisy of the Time

Katharina’s family considered the hypocrisy of the German regime of the time. They wondered what the world would be like if all those officials who made the decisions had to go in and fight on the front-lines themselves.

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Source: World History US

They wondered if there would have even been a war at all under those circumstances. And they have a point. As forgiving of a family as they were, Smoyer still felt responsible.

The Leaders of the Countries

Smoyer stated: “War is hell…no matter what side you stand on. A lot of young people get killed. But it’s the leaders of the countries who should have to do the fighting on the front lines. If that happened, I’m sure there wouldn’t be wars anymore.”

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Source: Dierk’s Page

Smoyer and Schaefer remained friends after going back to the US. They were in close contact until Schaefer’s passed away in 2017.

And Smoyer paid his respects to him as well.

“I Will Never Forget You”

Smoyer sent the ex-soldier a bouquet of flowers with a note that read: “I will never forget you! — Your brother in arms, Clarence.”

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Source: Amazon

Smoyer’s story is going to become a book written by historian Adam Makos. It will essentially be about the consequence of war through the eyes of a man who was trained to deal with death.

One Out of Every 20

“You don’t think a WWII veteran as holding onto something like this,” says author Makos. “But they suffered just like the guys in the modern wars.”

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Source: CNN

One out of every 20 WWII veterans suffered from bad dreams, irritability, and flashbacks. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 25,000 WWII vets were still receiving disability compensation for PTSD-related symptoms in 2004.