MOH: helped save his burning B-17 by urinating on the fire, drove off waves of German fighters & saved the lives of 6 crew members


Maynard Harrison “Snuffy” Smith was such a screw-up, he joined the US Army to avoid jail. He earned the nickname, “Snuffy Smith,” because no one could stand him, either on base or off of it. That was the polite version. They also called him “Sad Sack”. Despite this, his first mission made him the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor in the European theater (after Jimmy Doolittle in the Pacific), as well as the first enlisted airman to receive it.

Smith was born to a wealthy family and developed delusions of grandeur. Horrified at what they had produced, his parents sent him to a military academy to fix him, but it did no good. He found work as a tax collector, but when his father died, he quit to live with his mother, retire on his inheritance and give lectures to anyone who’d stand still long enough.

Which was how he got in trouble. A woman stood still long enough, they got married, had a child, and then he abandoned them. He was 31-years-old, and it was 1942, so a judge gave him a choice: pay child support or go to jail. Smith chose the third option: he ran. So they caught him and gave him another choice: go to jail or join the army.

Smith chose the latter and volunteered to train at the Aerial Gunnery School in Harlingen, Texas where he became a sergeant. After more training at Casper, Wyoming, he became a Staff Sergeant and was sent to Turleigh, England in March 1943 as part of the 423rd Squadron, 306th Bomb Group.

As soon as they got to Europe, men were put to use right away, but not Smith. No one liked him or wanted to fly with him, so he spent his time at pubs giving locals the benefit of his wisdom and earning another nickname that cannot be published.

It couldn’t last, of course. The 8th Air Force flew at least two missions a week the mainland. Their main targets included the German submarine pens at St. Nazaire in Nazi-occupied France. Because of its importance, it was so heavily defended that the Allies started calling it “flak city,” but that wasn’t all.

The Saint-Nazaire submarine base
The Saint-Nazaire submarine base

To get from their base to St. Nazaire, they first had to fly past Lorient and Brest, which were also heavily defended. Not all on board the planes sent to bomb St. Nazaire made it back alive, and of those who did, many could no longer serve because of their injuries. A flight crew had to trust and work with each other, but no one liked, trusted, or could work with Smith – which was how he avoided action for six weeks.

On the last day of April, however, Lieutenant Lewis P. Johnson, had to pilot his B-17 Flying Fortress with eight other veterans, but it wasn’t enough. They needed another to man the ball turret, and Johnson drew the short straw – he got Smith.

The Sperry ball turret of a Royal Air Force B-24
The Sperry ball turret of a Royal Air Force B-24

On 1 May 1943, Smith’s squadron flew toward the mainland. They were to rendezvous with other B-17s from the 91st, 303rd, and 305th Bomb Groups – a total of 78 Fortresses to deal with St. Nazaire.

It didn’t go well. Twenty didn’t make the rendezvous and had to speed up, the strain of which forced five to return to base. Mechanical problems forced another six bombers back while the bad weather made another 38 do the same. That left only 29.

It was enough. They dropped their bombs then veered off toward the Atlantic. Enemy planes took to the air, but they were too late as the bombers managed to elude them by flying into a large cloud bank. The Allies sighed in relief. They’d suffered no losses as they made their way back to Britain. Or so they thought.

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