BOOK REVIEW: ‘Spearhead‘ by Adam Makos

By Philip Kopper – – Tuesday, April 16, 2019



By Adam Makos

Ballantine Books, $28, 393 pages

Claustrophobes, beware. “Spearhead” spends many of its pages inside tanks — doughty Shermans, dreaded Panthers, one mighty Pershing in particular — and inside the heads of World War II tankers, the men who drove them, lived in them, fought them.

This singular book is redolent with war. I cannot remember another narrative in which my abiding sensory experience was tasting grit and smelling smoke so often — the stenches of blood and bowels, high explosives and the crumbled stones of ruined cities. The good news, the surprise, is that for all the dark tragedies, terrors and dismemberments, “Spearhead” shimmers in eclipsing moments of valor, luck and compassion.

A gripping read, this is not for the tender of heart or the weak of stomach. It honors one difference between fiction and nonfiction: In war novels, the author decides which characters get to live and fight another day and which don’t; in a combat history the villains and heroes alike are pawns of fate and the fickle gods of war.

Thus, the highest officer here, an admired and able two-star general dressed up like George C. Scott playing Patton, risks his neck leading his men and their lumbering vehicles at the front. Who can predict his future? Battle is gruesome, terrifying, lethal and crap-shoot uncertain.

On the other hand, every author of nonfiction — “works of verity” to borrow Richard Rhodes’ term — gets to calibrate his story and to frame it as he likes. Here, Adam Makos proffers a false start in homely Allentown, Pennsylvania, seven years ago, then three pages and one map later he leaps back beyond enemy lines to a Belgian crossroads three months after D-Day, 1944.

Thereafter Mr. Makos follows Cpl. Clarence Smoyer, at 21 a veritable geezer among teens who had been “promoted to gunner, second in command on the tank. It wasn’t a promotion he wanted.” Mr. Makos shadows and channels him for seven months, through Europe’s worst winter, through Belgium and across Germany to the Rhine. Ultimately in a place called Paderhorn, his unit in the 3d Armored (“Spearhead”) Division links up with confederates to encircle the “Ruhr Pocket” and capture 325,000 German troops. The war’s end in Europe is near, but it’s never over ‘til it’s over, and not even then.

The narrative, copiously sourced and annotated, benefits from cogent diagrams, combat photos and blurry snapshots casually displayed. It proceeds chronologically and geographically, west to east, following this combat company from skirmish to skirmish, battle to battle, bizarro to bizarro, interspersed with lulls that have a habit of exploding.

When five American tanks secure for one dark night — “coiled” in a defensive arc — another tank draws up and parks among them. Blacked out and silent, Smoyer and four mates in their might-be-iron-coffin must wait until the false dawn to get a safe shot at their accidental neighbor, a Mark IV Panther.

There are duels. One between snipers could have modeled the hair-raising eye-to-eye matchup in “Saving Private Ryan.” A tank duel in Cologne, which happens to be filmed by a combat photographer, plays out between Smoyer’s Pershing and another Panzer like Hollywood gunslingers at high noon.

Instead of six-guns, Smoyer’s 90mm cannon fires 24-pound shells at 2,774 feet-per-second and can penetrate five-and-a-half inches of steel armorplate. The key questions as the two behemoths seek each other out in the rubbled streets around a landmark cathedral: Who will see the other first? Who will fire first? Which, if either, will rumble away?

Miraculously, at least one German crewman escapes a fatal engagement, and unmiraculously author Makos tracks him down after a lifetime to complete the frame he chose for this chronicle. Clarence Smoyer and Gustav Schaefer, two erstwhile tankers, meet again in mufti and solemn celebration. This humane book rarely slides into sentimentality.

Completing the tankers’ epic, Mr. Makos itemizes some of the untallied costs of war. Item: Six decades later Kathi Esser, a pretty civilian killed in the run-up to the Cologne duel, haunts Smoyer’s dreams, rendering this brave survivor an old man afraid of the dark.

Item: His company commander, Capt. Mason Salisbury, graduates from Yale and Columbia Law, joins a white-shoe firm, and five years after V-E Day spends an autumn weekend with his parents in their Long Island mansion, but doesn’t live to see Monday morning. Crippled by “the battlefield loss of friends,” he takes his own life to become one of the myriad casualties of war that never get counted.

Today, we would attribute Salisbury’s delayed death to PTSD, aka “shell shock,” aka “battle fatigue” in America’s earlier wars. What the reader must wonder after closing “Spearhead”: How did any tanker survive WWII and come home without PTSD? Perhaps enlistment posters today should carry a warning like cigarette cartons, wine bottles and restaurant menus: Service in war is dangerous to your mental health.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Chevy Chase Md., writes about American history, culture and science.

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