Life always seems to come down to numbers and stats. Each year, numbers of children are born, numbers of people die. We divide our populations into generations, boomers, x, millennial, etc… A certain number of people will contract a disease or sickness. Stats document people affected by the coronavirus or the flu. War seems to be defined as much as numbers of causalities as much as defining the winning and losing sides. At times it seems that life is just a big number crunching exercise by statisticians.
What seems to be lost in the shuffle are the stories, the people behind these numbers. I frequently read magazines and books related to military history, and often throughout the content, I see the numbers of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice during an engagement, and it’s important to understand the size and nature of what occurred. I attempt to reflect and understand that each of these numbers represent a person. Someone with hopes and dreams. A father or mother who wants to get home to their family. A son or daughter who wanted to make their family proud, or just wanted to get home. These are people, not numbers.
It’s also important to reflect on those caught in the crossfire. The civilians who are displaced, wounded, or killed. While reading Spearhead, by Adam Makos, the effect war has on the people really comes to light. Spearhead documents Allied tank gunner Clarence Smoyers as the 3rd Armored Division pushed into Germany in the final phase of World War 2, and Gustav Schaefer, his German counterpart.
Their stories intersect at the height of fighting in Cologne, Germany in March, 1945. Smoyer’s Pershing tank came face to face with Schaefer’s as he rounded a street corner. The ensuing duel was nothing short of destructive chaos.
Although most of the Cologne citizens fled as the armies converged on the city, some were still trying to get out as the fighting commenced. Katherina Esser, known as Kathi to her family and friends, and her boss at the local grocery store she worked at, were driving in desperate attempts to get to safety. Rounding the corner in their desperate flight to safety, they sped straight into the street between the two firing tanks. Thinking the car had German officers or Nazi officials, Smoyer sprayed fire from his tank machine guns.
Amid the firing tanks, the car drifted to a stop as the fighting continued. After taking damage, the German tank ducked back around the corner, when Smoyer decided to fire at the adjacent building, bringing down large chunks of brick and material onto the German tank, as the crew decided to abandon the fight.
Medics examined the car, finding the driver already dead from multiple gunshot wounds, but Kathi was critically wounded, but still alive. They worked to stabilize her, but the wounds were mortal. Medics could only offer her a final act of comfort as she passed. A briefcase in the car contained her papers, including letters to and from family and a degree in home economics. She was a sister. She was an aunt. She was a loyal employee, staying far past when she should have escaped the city.
Smoyer never realized the entirety of what happened. He would continue fighting the Germans as the Allies won Cologne, and further pushed into Paderborn, where the Third Reich collapsed and the war came to an end. Although the confrontation was over, battle still raged throughout the city.
Decades after the war, Smoyer found a video copy of the tank duel, and saw the final moments of Kathi Essen. Distraught over the knowledge that he pulled the trigger that ended her life, Smoyer experienced bouts of depression and latent PTSD. By the 2000s, Smoyer felt that he needed to learn all he could about the incident, and was able to locate Schaefer, who was still alive. They arranged a meeting in Cologne. Once they were enemies fighting in the city, now meeting as would-be friends.
Schaefer mentioned to Smoyer that he also fired on the car. The confusion of battle, resulting in firing at the flurry of motion. Each man thought, they were the ones to kill Kathi, now both were able to share this burden. After the battle, Kathi’s papers were separated from her body, and she was interred in a group of unknown civilians. Smoyer and Schaefer shared a moment at the grave, each leaving a flower and promising to remember and honor her memory.
Whenever I hear people spoiling or wanting to move towards some armed conflict, I always think about the stats of war. I think of the stories of the soldiers and the people. I think of the finality. People who will never get a chance to enjoy a full life. People in war always lose something.
We all need to fully appreciate the gravity of war. Fully understand the costs and consequences before spoiling for a fight. Kathi Essen never had a chance to have a full life. Countless others shared the same tragic end. Countless soldiers died, also never having a chance to live all phases of life. Always take the time to honor our fallen, and to honor those who may just be a number on a casualty of war list somewhere.
Rest in peace, Kathi and all those like her.