News | May 31, 2016

Maynard Smith - First enlisted Airman to earn the Medal of Honor

By Robert Vanderpool JBER Historian

Maynard H. "Snuffy" Smith was born on May 19, 1911 at Cano, Michigan. The son of a school teacher and a prominent attorney with the Ford Motor Company who later became a judge, Smith grew up in an affluent environment, which largely allowed his family to escape the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Hoping to instill some disci¬pline in a son who was considered at the time to be living a life of "convenience and privilege," Smith's parents sent him to military school as a teen.

Smith worked a few different jobs after completing school but largely got by on the sizable in-heritance his father left behind after passing away when Smith was just 23 years old.

Married and divorced with a young son by the age of 30, Smith soon ran into trouble with local authorities for failure to pay child support.

Faced with the choice of going to jail or joining the military, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force on August 31, 1942. He was 31.

Upon completing basic train¬ing, Smith volunteered for training at the Aerial Gunnery School, to serve as a machine gunner aboard bomber aircraft.

Irked at being five to 10 years older than many of the noncom¬missioned officers who had been giving him orders during basic training, Smith recognized that aerial gunners were all NCOs - and he saw becoming an aerial gunner as an opportunity to gain rank more quickly. He finished his training in February 1943 and was promoted to staff sergeant.

Smith shipped overseas to England in March 1943, joining the 423rd Bomb Squadron, 306th Bomb Group, assigned to the Eighth Air Force.

He earned the nickname, "Snuffy," shortly after arriving in England based on the popular comic strip character "Snuffy Smith" - a result of their shared character traits of stubbornness, obnoxiousness, and general in¬ability to get along with others or function effectively within the military system.

Considered by many an "unde¬sirable," it took nearly six weeks before his first combat mission; no bomber crew wanted to take the perceived risks associated with giving him the opportunity to prove his mettle in combat.

Eventually, heavy casualty rates forced them to relent.

Smith's first combat mission came on May 1, 1943, when he was assigned as the ball turret gunner of a B-17 Flying Fortress attack¬ing German submarine facilities located at St. Nazaire, France.

To the north of St. Nazaire, in a direct line between friendly air bases in England and St. Nazaire, were the French cities of Brest and Lorient, both of which were heavily defended by the Germans. This mission marked the eighth time Eighth Air Force had flown bombing sorties in the area in a little over a four-month period. In response to the increased fre¬quency in bombing of that area, the Germans shifted large numbers of fighter aircraft to the region to help with defense efforts.

Originally scheduled as a multi-squadron 70-bomber at¬tack, only 29 aircraft arrived on target due to various mechanical and weather issues. To avoid the anti-aircraft batteries at Brest and Lorient, the flight path was a wide arc from England to the west over the Atlantic Ocean. As the bombers approached St. Nazaire over water, German fighters were noticeably absent - and then the anti-aircraft guns opened fire in a heavy barrage.

The B-17s arrived over the sub¬marine facilities largely unscathed and successfully dropped their ordnance on the target before turn¬ing back to the west for the relative safety of the Atlantic Ocean.

A short time later, the anxiety which normally accompanied a bombing mission began to pass as the lead bomber sighted land in front of the formation and the group dropped down to 2,000 feet approaching what they believed to be the coast of England.

Unfortunately, due to naviga¬tor error, the formation had made their turn back to the east too early. Instead of approaching England, the bombers were approaching the French coast, heading right for the German defenses at Brest. The sky erupted with enemy flak as soon as the bombers reached the coast.

Dropping suddenly to avoid the flak while heading directly for the English Channel, the B-17s were attacked by German fighters.

From his position in the ball turret beneath his aircraft, Smith returned fire on his attackers as he watched several bombers burst into flames and plummet as a result of enemy fire.

Later, Smith recalled engaging a German fighter from the rear.

"I was watching the tracers from a (German) fighter come puffing by our tail, when sud¬denly there was a terrific explosion. Whoomp, just like that."

Smith's bomber had been hit, rupturing the gas tanks and set¬ting the entire mid-section of the aircraft on fire. The explosion destroyed communications within the aircraft and knocked out the electrical controls of the ball turret.

Unable to maneuver his weap¬on, Smith elected to climb out of the ball turret into the interior of the airplane - only to find himself caught between a fire in the radio room ahead of him and another fire in the tail section behind him.

"At this point, I had lost my electrical controls and I knew some¬thing was wrong," he said later. "I manually cranked the thing around, opened the armored hatch and got back in the airplane when I saw it was on fire. The radioman became excited and jumped out the window."

Seeing Smith's bomber on fire and trailing smoke, the Germans continued their attack hoping to finish off the stricken aircraft.

The two waist gunners, seeing the radioman bail out, also decided to exit the aircraft.
Smith decided he was not yet ready to give up the fight, and be¬gan to fire at the attackers from the waist guns - and fighting the fires between enemy passes.

"The smoke and gas were re¬ally thick," he said. "I wrapped a sweater around my face so I could breathe, grabbed a fire extinguisher and attacked the fire in the radio room. Glancing over my shoulder at the tail fire, I thought I saw something coming, and ran back. It was the tail gunner, painfully crawling back, wounded. He had blood all over him."

Smith began administering first aid to the wounded gunner, while continuing to man the machine guns and fight the fires.

The temperature of the radio room began to rise to a point where it started melting holes in the exte¬rior of the fuselage. Smith fought the fire as best he could while toss¬ing loose materials from the radio room out of the opening in the side of the aircraft, in an attempt to deny the fire fuel. When am¬munition stores began to explode due to the intense heat, he tossed those out too.

All the while, the German fighters continued their attack, forcing him back to the guns.

"I fired another burst with the waist guns, and went back to the radio room with the last of the extinguisher fluid," he said. "When that ran out I found a water-bottle and a urine can and poured those out. After that I was so mad I uri¬nated on the fire and finally beat on it with my hands and feet until my clothes began to smolder. That (fighter) came around again and I let him have it. That time he left us for good. The fire was under control, more or less, and we were in sight of land."

Approximately 90 minutes after first encountering the Ger¬man defenses at Brest, the B-17 landed in England. The aircraft was burned out in the center and riddled with more than 3,500 bullet holes - with nothing but the four main beams holding it together.

Ten minutes after landing, the aircraft collapsed and broke in two.

The three Airmen who bailed out of the aircraft were never seen again

As a result of Smith's actions, the other five Airmen on board his aircraft all survived. For his efforts, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The citation reads in part: "This Soldier's gallantry in action, un¬daunted bravery, and loyalty to his aircraft and fellow crewmembers, without regard for his own personal safety, is an inspiration to the U.S. armed forces."

On July 12 that year, Smith was presented his award during a ceremony in England which was officiated by Secretary of War (equivalent to today's Secretary of Defense) Henry L. Stimson, marking the first time the office of the Secretary of War presented a Medal of Honor to a living recipi¬ent in the theater of action in which it was earned.

True to his nature, at the time of the ceremony Smith was on "special duty" as a result of dis-ciplinary issues. Uninformed by his command that a ceremony had been scheduled, Smith was hurried to the event after a short search where he was located in the mess hall kitchen scraping leftovers off of breakfast trays.

Years later, Smith demurred about his actions.

"To me it was a dream," he said. "I had just done what I had been trained to do. I didn't know what the hell it was all about. I wasn't there to get a medal; like millions of others, I just wanted to get it over with and get home."

Following his Medal of Honor action, Smith flew an additional four combat missions before he was re-assigned to a non-combat clerical post. Suffering from what a medical board deemed "opera¬tional exhaustion," Smith was also reduced to the rank of private.

He returned to the United States shortly after the war ended and was discharged May 26, 1945.

Smith was the first enlisted Airman in American military his¬tory to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He remains one of only seven enlisted Airmen who have earned that honor.

Smith's other notable legacy - which remains in Army and Air Force use - is the moniker Snuffy, (as in Airman Snuffy or Joe Snuffy) sometimes given to those who dis¬play similar character traits, or who experience discipline challenges.

Maynard H. Smith passed away at the age of 72 on May 11, 1984. His remains were interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, near Wash¬ington, D.C.