When Adam Makos rolls into the Mobile Bay area in late February, it marks a return to familiar surroundings. The Denver-based author knows the area and its residents well.
“Fortunately, I got to spend a summer in Mobile working with Dr. Sid Phillips, editing his memoirs,” Makos said. “That was my introduction to your city and I came to love it.”
Phillips’ book described U.S. Marines in the second World War’s Pacific Theater. It’s just one portion of a global conflict that forever reshaped Mobile in ways documentarian Ken Burns made famous. For Makos, the era is a lifelong passion culminating in published works, a legacy from grandfathers who embedded in him their generation’s struggle.
“One was a radio man on a B-17 bomber and the other was stateside guarding Brooklyn Naval Yard,” Makos said. “They took me to air museums, built models for me and told me stories about [Medal of Honor winners] John Basilone and Joe Foss, so their heroes became my heroes.”
His latest work — “Spearhead” — follows European theater tank crews, specifically a hallmark confrontation that unplugged Allied access to Axis Germany’s core. It came courtesy of an old college pal.
Makos’ buddy told him of an aging participant in a legendary duel at the foot of historic Cologne Cathedral, where Axis Germany’s nearly insurmountable Panther tank met America’s new Pershing model, specifically designed to face the feared enemy counterpart. Intrigued, Makos sought out the hometown hero.
“I went to this little row house in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Clarence Smoyer opened up a door,” Makos said. “Like so many veterans, he was humble and quiet and pulled up a chair at his kitchen table and started telling me war stories, then stopped and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a letter from the German I fought against. I’m planning on going to meet him.’”
Makos said he “heard the angels sing” having just completed “A Higher Call,” a book about airmen Franz Stigler and Charles Brown. The German Stigler and American Brown faced off in European skies, then became friends nearly five decades after the war.
“It was war told from both sides, which is something I love because I think it’s the truest way to tell a war story,” Makos said.
The writer followed suit with Smoyer’s tale, joining the veteran tanker and comrades as they traveled to Cologne and met with Gustav Schaefer, the young crewman from the Panther tank they battled. Over six years, Makos researched all of their stories to craft a concise and riveting book.
Makos’ style fits the action, tucking depth into its crannies. In one passage, Smoyer hears voices rising through the tank in the midst of battle and recognizes them as American foot soldiers seeking refuge beneath him, “making promises to God if he’d only save them now. Clarence violently stepped on the trigger and drowned out their prayers with gunfire,” Makos wrote.
The author is clear about lingering his fascination with WWII — “truly a good versus evil situation with little ambiguity” — but realizes his “both sides” coverage can appear muddier.
“I’ve seen there are clearly good men on both sides and a lot of Germans didn’t ever really want Hitler,” Makos said in pointing to Schaefer’s bucolic, idyllic youth on a farm and how German forces drafted first his father, then him. “I sympathize for the young men who never wanted to be there but at the same time thank God we had men like Clarence Smoyer who helped us defeat Nazi Germany.”
Makos will be at Fairhope’s Page and Palette (32 S. Section St.) Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. to speak and sign books. Buck Marsh, one of the men who reunited in Cologne, will join him.
Marsh has a tie with Mobile, too. When he returned to Auburn University after the war, he would spend afternoons with fraternity brother and Mobile native Eugene Sledge talking about their war experiences.
“They healed in a different way and basically found a place to put these memories and decompress,” Makos said.
Sledge famously turned his Pacific experiences into “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” long hailed as one of the best firsthand accounts of combat’s horrors and aftermath. Sledge was also a boyhood pal of the aforementioned Phillips, which means Makos had inroads with both family circles.
“I know [Sledge’s sons] John and Henry,” Makos said. “When I was working with Sid I was also working with his sister Katherine. I hope to see her when I get down there.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).