It all started on March 6, 1945

The inner hull of Clarence Smoyer’s M26 Pershing tank smelled of decay, sweat, and blood. He’s been pushed inside the husk of a powerful military weapon known to his crew only as the “Crematorium on Wheels.” Saymore and his tank crew crawled through the heart of the German city of Cologne and on March 6, 1945, they came through with the purpose of turning the tide against Hitler’s war.

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As they made their way toward an intersection, they stopped. Silence crept over them and the boys swallowed hard and scarcely breathed. Sleepless and wearing the same uniform for days (nevermind showering), the men were tired and the hull was warm with the smell of metal and stench. 

They didn’t know if they would live or die

Hot sweat dripped over their gritty brows while they listened to the eerie silence of Germany’s destroyed metropolis. They knew any moment could be their last. The tank just finished firing against a German tank — a monster of a machine — in the town center, just across the intersection and found themselves at a standstill.

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Then, a muffled voice comes over the radio: Smoyer’s commander’s withered voice — aged with the violence of war — graze their ears. “Gentlemen, I give you Cologne.” he said. A pause looms over them, the radio still cracking with static until their commander finally said: “Let’s give them hell.” Nineteen-year-old Smoyer was on the edge. He was prepared for the worst: He was prepared to die.

He was out for blood

Smoyer knew what would happen if a shell tore through their hull. If their opponent succeeded in puncturing their quarters, they would be flambeed — extra crispy. But Smoyer didn’t have time to dwell on his mortality. He was seething. It wasn’t long ago that his cousin and his wife’s brother were killed in action, murdered a world away from home.

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To Smoyer, he only had one duty: destroy the enemy and have them blend with the surrounding rubble. Their bodies tensed as they prepared to spring into action, until their radios crackled back to life with a rushed “staff car!” Before the words could process, a black Opel raced into the intersection. Smoyer instinctively pulled the trigger.

Smoyer was commanded to shoot anything that moved

His orders were simple: “shoot anything that moved.” He remembered the ingrained command and pulled the trigger, firing bullets and tracers. It wasn’t just coming from his tank, but from the opposite tank as well. The car buckled under the artillery fire and crashed into the sidewalk.

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Smoyer ceased fire, the echo of their fire dying under the hiss of steam rising from the car. Smoyer watched as the door to the driver’s side opened. He anticipated the enemy, but instead, his stomach flipped when out dropped the small frame of what looked like a young woman. All Smoyer saw was a mess of curly brown hair, the rest of his view was obscured.

Did I just shoot a woman?

His mouth felt like it was suddenly stuffed with cotton, but he couldn’t be too sure whether it was a woman or not. Even if it was, what was a civilian doing driving like a bat out of hell through a war-torn city with opposing tanks rolling through the rubble?

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Unsure of who the driver was, Smoyer pushed aside his initial dread and placed his focus back on what was at stake. On the edge between life and death, he continued to push through until the city was secured. There was, however, one problem: He couldn’t forget what had transpired in the intersection. When the war ended and the boys shipped home, Smoyer couldn’t help but think: “did I just shoot a woman?”

Cologne was the “Fortress of Germany”

Eight months after D-Day, the troops were on the cusp of achieving a monumental milestone: taking the German city of Cologne. Settled on the Rhine, the city laid northwest of Frankfurt and is the largest city that the GI’s took during the war. On that particular day, correspondents, photographers, and cameramen followed US troops into what would be the most famous scenes of World War II.

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Three German tanks circled the city and to trap them, US troops took drastic measures to destroy their only exit point: a bridge linking Cologne to the east end of the river. However, that action didn’t only pose a risk to Germans.

The Germans didn’t quit

Destroying the bridge also meant destroying access for the Allies to the city should things go sour. Although it had been an arduous march, US troops knew that victory was theirs. Once the bridge was destroyed, enemy troops were backed into a corner with no means of easy escape. The enemy knew it was only a matter of time.

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“We had the order to defend the city down to the last cartridge,” said First Lieutenant of Germany’s 9 Panzer Division, Engelbert Bockhoff. He and the rest of his own tank crew were trained to fight until every man and resource was exhausted. Bockhoff looked back at that moment and couldn’t help but to think that things could have gone differently.

It was a mistake to let them die

In an interview from the documentary “March 1945 — Duel at the Cathedral: US troops battle for Cologne and the Rhine,” Bockhoff reflects that moment in history and admits that the mindset of killing as many of the enemy as possible before admitting defeat was wrong. He felt lives could have been saved, that his brothers in arms could have been spared.

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Though Bockhoff retrospectively admitted to war-time guilt, the feeling was mutual with the Allied troops. In times of war, the only thing both parties were thinking about is “us vs. them.” Both sides have nothing, yet everything to lose. At least that’s what Smoyer thought.

The Cathedral was still standing

The battle in Cologne was an all tank battle. The final showdown was right in front of the Cologne Cathedral. Its gothic spires loomed overhead — a giant that served as a reminder of mortality. It stood for what both opponents must have felt: Either a beacon of faith or a lack there of.

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Smoyer and his crew were toe-to-toe with a German tank only known as the “Monster.” CNN reported that their shells were so strong, they could tear through their tank hull like tissue paper and still rip through a second one. No wonder it was referred to as a “coffin on wheels.” Smoyer was celebrated as a hero when he brought the Monster down.

The battle was documented but forgotten

Though Smoyer and his team brought down the dreaded German tank, in the end, it was clear who the victor of the battle was. The battle was even documented by American combat cameraman, who was live on the scene. The US had achieved their goal, and a mere six months later, the war was over. Like Europe, Clarence Smoyer’s mind was in complete shambles.

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Shellshock, or rather, PTSD, held a tight grip on the war vet, who suffered from vivid flashbacks of the war and nightmares of his dying friends. They may have won the war, but for Smoyer, it raged on in his mind and in his dreams.

Smoyer tried to erase the past

Smoyer tried to not think about the war and spent much of his time burying the sound of artillery fire and smoke from his memories. All… except one. He couldn’t forget that day in Cologne when that black Opel drove through the crossfire. He can’t help but wonder whether he was the one to deliver death’s blow to what could have been an innocent woman.

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“I often thought: ‘Why the hell would somebody drive into a place like that,?’” Smoyer remarked in a CNN interview. Nearly 70 years later, his mind would whisper, was that a woman? If so, why was she there? But the one question that haunted him most was: Did I kill her?

He couldn’t forget the girl

When he returned home, Smoyer did what any returning soldier did: settled down, had a couple kids, and continued to live within the parameters of the American dream. As life went on, his memories of that fateful day in 1945 grew more distance — that is, until a war buddy sent him a VHS of the battle in Cologne entitled “Scenes of War.”

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Smoyer didn’t waste any time and popped in the tape. The tape slid in with a click, and the blue screen flickered until the tape began to play. To his surprise, a combat cameraman shot the very moment the black Opel drove through the intersection. He held his breath as he watched.

He put in the tape and there she was

There it was: the tanks, the crash, debris littering the city. Finally, the cameraman approached the vehicle. There she was. On the scree was that young woman he thought he had seen 50 years prior. She had a floral cardigan sweater and tousled brown curly hair. He watched as she fell out of the car and crumpled into herself.

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American medics surrounded her, covering her with a blanket and tending to her. She looked up at the sky, her expression in a complete daze. He felt like an anvil pressed against his chest. It was suddenly hard to breathe. Was her death in his hands?

He’d forgotten all about it until he saw the film

The memory from that day flashed before him. “I had forgotten about it for decades, the car was just a blur, and now the whole thing came back, clear as day,” he said on CNN. That’s when the nightmares came back at full force. Smoyer woke up swinging, trying to punch away a phantom of his past. He even had to take medication to calm him down.

Clarence Smoyer, World War II vet

But it was no use. Over and over, he kept seeing the same woman in his dream. After a string of sleepless nights, Smoyer had enough. He had to know the truth. Who was that woman? And was he responsible for her death?

He wanted to know what happened to her

It was time to start digging, but it wasn’t going to be easy. There was no one Smoyer could turn to. All his war compatriots had passed, and his war buddy that gave him the VHS tape couldn’t find enough information. That’s when Smoyer came up with an idea. Was the German gunman from the opposing tank still alive?

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That’s how the story of forgiveness, healing, and an unlikely friendship begins. He picked up the phone. After some research and several calls, he managed to reach the German gunman, Gustav Schaefer. Like Smoyer, Schaefer had also pulled a trigger at the black Opel that day.

He reached out to a German gunman

Gustav Schaefer was a gunner for the Panzer brigade 106 on that fateful day March 6, 1945. He told CNN in an interview that he had no idea why Smoyer was reaching out to him, considering he was in the opposing tank gunman he faced nearly 70 years ago. Though he found it strange, he agreed to meet with the American war vet.

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Though the war seemed like a lifetime ago, Schaefer admitted to being nervous. He was only a teenager during the war and was just over 5 feet tall when he was assigned a tank. He did what his country demanded of him — just as Smoyer had.

He wasn’t a typical German soldier

As they met in the German city, Smoyer and Schaefer shook hands. It was Smoyer who said: “The war is over and we can be friends now.” Relieved, Schaefer smiled. It was reported that Schaefer was not a “prototypical Nazi soldier.” On the contrary, he was a farm boy who grew up admiring American culture. Like most young boys, he was fascinated by Western films.

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He grew up reading tales of cowboys and Indians and didn’t hold anti-Semitic beliefs personally. There wasn’t a mean or hateful bone in his body. The two war vets sat and drank together as if they were old war buddies catching up on lost time. It was good to reminisce, but the real issue was still lingering at the back of their minds.  

They both didn’t mean to shoot

What happened that day nearly 70 years ago? Schaefer would go on to say, “I didn’t shoot the car on purpose. All of a sudden, she was driving through there.” Smoyer nodded and was somewhat relieved he wasn’t the only one who had to shoulder the burden of pulling the trigger.

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They began to talk about that day and shared their recollection of that day. That’s when Smoyer became emotional. Tears welled in his eyes as a flood of guilt and anger overwhelmed him. The entire city had been a complete bloodbath, so why did she take the risk? Why did she put herself in danger?

Her name was Katharina Esser

The young woman must have known what would happen if she drove through the battlefield. “It was war,” Schaefer said. “It’s in the nature of it. It can’t be undone.” But Smoyer couldn’t shoulder all the blame for what happened that day.

Katharina Esser, World War II, Clarence Smoyer
CBS News

There was blame to go around, but that didn’t change that he felt like he had played a part in the death of an innocent civilian. That’s when the two veterans learned the name of the woman who drove the car. Her name was Katharina Esser. Known as “Kathi” to her older sisters, and she was only twenty-six years old when she died.

He thought he could hit the opposing tank

Smoyer remembered the moment he hit the car as well as Katharina tumbling out of the vehicle. “I saw movement over my left side,” he said in a CBS interview. “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.

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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.” Smoyer was racked with guilt as he continued to dive into his memories of that fateful day.

He asked for forgiveness

As he reached back into the far corners of his memory, he recovered a wealth of information he thought he long forgotten. “A young girl was taken out and lying in the street there,” Smoyer said when returning to the very spot where he took the shot. “Still alive, but she was shot in the chest.

Katharina Esser, World War II, US History

I saw the medics were there and treated her and left her lying beside the car. She didn’t deserve to die in that way.” While in the city, he reached out to Katharina’s surviving family members and asked for their forgiveness. He was surprised by their welcome and got a closer look at the short life of young Katharina Esser.

She majored in home economics

Katharina Esser was the youngest of four sisters. She was loving, compassionate, and her family’s caretaker. She was the “cool aunt,” and often took her nieces and nephews for strolls. She was a student who worked hard. She had been attending night school, majoring in home economics while also working at a grocery store.

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Like many young women, she was a hard worker striving pursuing a dream.  The black Opel she had been driving that day belonged to her boss. Her family believed she was getting stir crazy from constantly being in hiding in war-torn Cologne. She was desperate to escape.

Katharina felt all hope was lost

It must have been difficult for Katharina. Like Smoyer, Katharina had lost family members to the war. Smoyer and Schaefer reached out to Katharina’s surviving family and learned that all three of her brothers-in-law had died in the war. Surrounded by bloodshed and death, she couldn’t help but think all was lost.

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“Life only has these (sad) things to offer us nowadays,” she wrote to a family member after the death of a brother-in-law. “I don’t believe in a good outcome anymore.” She was in a depressive state and deeply yearned to get out of the restricted way she had been living — a risk she was ready to take. 

They placed yellow roses on her grave

Katharina was buried at a church cemetery no more than a few hundred yards from where she died. Smoyer and Schaefer decided it was time to pay a visit to her grave and give their condolences. They entered the churchyard where they saw a wooden post carved with the words “The Unknown Dead.”

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Because they were unable to identify Katharina at the time of her death, she was buried in a mass grave. They discovered her body after some digging (an unfortunate pun) and identified Katharina in the film. When they approached, both war vets placed yellow roses on her grave and asked for forgiveness.

They told him to “be at peace”

During his visit to Germany, Smoyer had the opportunity to pay his respects to Katharina’s family. When giving his condolences, Katharina’s family told him to “be at peace” and reassured him that she would have forgiven him. It was in her nature. They continued to assure Smoyer that despite what happened, it was the war that killed her. “The people who started this war are the ones who killed Katharina.”

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It’s easy to send others to do the fighting. Katharina’s surviving family wondered what the world would be like if those calling the shots and sending people into battle had to fight on the front-lines themselves. They wondered whether there would have been a war at all.

He still feels responsible

CNN quoted Smoyer: “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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CBS News

Smoyer felt comforted knowing Katharina wasn’t forgotten — she was loved, and her family readily forgave him for what had transpired that day 70 years ago. Accomplishing his mission, Smoyer turned to his newfound friend and shook hands. They remained friends long after he returning to the US. They stayed in close contact until Schaefer’s death in 2017. Smoyer paid his respects the best way possible.

Schaefer was a comrade in arms

Upon Schaefer’s death, Smoyer sent the ex-soldier a bouquet of flowers with an not that read: “I will never forget you! — Your brother in arms, Clarence.” Smoyer hoped that his friend found peace before his death, and that someday, he would too. 

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CBS News

Smoyer, on the other hand, still struggles with Katharina’s death. Although he’s no longer throwing punches in his sleep, he still has dreams about her. There are days that he still feel guilt about her death. But compared to the past, and healed by the forgiveness of her family, he is better equipped to cope with the haunting memories.

He wanted to share her story

Today, Smoyer continues to tell his story — not for his own sake, but for Katharina’s. His story will be remembered through a book written by historian Adam Makos, author of the upcoming novel “Spearhead.” The novel is about the consequence of war through the eyes of a man who was trained to deal with death.

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Her death was one memory he couldn’t shake. “You don’t think a WWII veteran as holding onto something like this,” says Makos. “But they suffered just like the guys in the modern wars.”  Though he was forgiven, Smoyer had a hard time forgiving himself. 

He struggles to forgive himself

Smoyer knows all too well what happens when war consumes you whole. He knows how it feels to be alive, but feel like there’s an emptiness inside of you. He personally knew commanders who, after the war, took their own their lives because the past continued to follow them long after conventions and treaties were signed.

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Though Smoyer successfully drowned out the war, he still continues to dream about Katharina curled beside her car looking skyward, waiting for her end. Smoyer continues to endure each day knowing that Katharina knows peace. Her family does not blame him. It is only a matter of forgiving himself.

The battle is far from over

According to the National Center for Post, one out of every 20 WWII veterans suffered from bad dreams, irritability, and flashbacks after returning from the war. And according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 25,000 WWII veterans were still receiving disability compensation for PTSD-related symptoms in 2004.

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The number of veterans affected by PTSD-related symptoms reminds us how delicate the human mind and heart is. No matter how well conditioned or desensitize to violence we become, there comes a time where the reality of war sets in. Clarence Smoyer continues to think about it — he probably always will. “Spearhead” will be released on February 19 as a hardcover.