Maynard Harrison Smith Was Given Two Options: Go to Jail or Join the Army – He Wound Up Receiving the Medal of Honor

Photo Credit: Fred Ramage / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (Colorized by
Photo Credit: Fred Ramage / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (Colorized by

Often, war brings out traits in people they never quite knew they possessed. The most outwardly confident and confrontational individuals can turn out to be cowards, while otherwise quiet, shy men can show their true colors as fearless heroes. Then there are the misfits and outsiders who end up surprising everyone with their unexpected heroics. Maynard Harrison Smith, a strange and often obnoxious man who was disliked by his peers, turned out to be one such individual.

Maynard Harrison Smith’s early life

Exterior of the John Badlam Howe Mansion at the Howe Military Academy
John Badlam Howe Mansion at the Howe Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Magicpiano / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Maynard Harrison Smith was born in Caro, Michigan, on May 19, 1911. The son of a schoolteacher and an attorney, he didn’t have an overly difficult upbringing. However, he quickly developed a reputation for being a misfit who didn’t get along well with others and was sent to the Howe Military Academy in Indiana.

While he worked as a tax field agent with the US Treasury Department during his early adulthood, Smith largely lived off an inheritance he’d received. He married in 1929, but got divorced just three years later.

He wed, again, in 1941, only to divorce the following year, the unsuccessful union bearing one child. This marriage ultimately came back to bite Smith in the behind, for something that was entirely his own fault.

Two options: Go to jail or join the US Army

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses flying over another parked on the grass
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flyover during Maynard Harrison Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony, 1943. (Photo Credit: United States Army Air Forces / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Soon after Maynard Harrison Smith got divorced for the second time, he was arrested for not paying child support. For this, he was sentenced by a judge who offered him one of two choices: go to jail or join the US Army. Not wanting to be behind bars, he chose the latter.

At 31, Smith was at least 10 years older than most of his peers in basic training and resented having to take orders from men he saw as being little more than kids. Realizing that joining the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) would give him with the fastest route to rank advancement within the Army, he volunteered for the Aerial Gunnery School.

Smith was a small man and, as such, was well-suited to the cramped confines of a ball turret. After completing his training, he was promoted to staff sergeant and given an assignment with the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group, Eighth Air Force, serving aboard a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Attacking the U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire

Exterior of the Saint-Nazaire U-boat pens
Saint-Nazaire U-boat pens, 1943. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Maynard Harrison Smith’s fellow airmen didn’t like him much and he was soon given the nickname, “Snuffy Smith.” He flew his first combat mission on May 1, 1943, which would be the first time the irascible, disagreeable aerial gunner would show his true colors.

The target of the mission was the German U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire, on France’s west coast. The location had been nicknamed “Flak City” by Allied airmen because of the heavy German anti-aircraft defenses that had been erected there.

The first part of the mission suffered issues, as many of the American bombers tasked with attacking the site suffered mechanical problems, but the middle portion went off without a hitch. After the B-17s had dropped most of their bombs, however, they were engaged by Luftwaffe fighters.

The American bombers fled into a large cloud bank to evade the Germans, and while this was successful as an evasive maneuver, it resulted in them flying well off course.

Fire aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

Maynard Harrison Smith manning a machine gun aboard an aircraft
Maynard Harrison Smith, 1943. (Photo Credit: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The lead navigator saw land and thought it was the British coast. The pilot started to descend to 2,000 feet, but it was the French coast they were approaching – Brest, if we’re being specific. As they emerged from the cloud cover the bombers immediately came under heavy attack from the German fighters, as well as anti-aircraft fire from below.

The B-17 that Maynard Harrison Smith was aboard took some of the worst damage. The entire bomber was raked with flak and one of the fuel tanks on the wing had ruptured. Fuel began pouring into the fuselage and fires raged throughout the interior, the flames intensified by oxygen that was escaping from the damaged oxygen system.

Smith’s ball turret lost all power and he had to crank it around manually to escape. When he emerged, he was confronted with a scene of chaos. Everything, it seemed, was on fire and huge holes had been ripped in the fuselage. Controls had been destroyed. Two crewmen were seriously wounded and the rest were in a state of sheer panic. The radioman was so terrified that he jumped out of the bomber without a parachute.

Two more crew members decided they’d rather take their chances in the ocean than burn to death and they bailed out, too.

Maynard Harrison Smith takes control of the situation

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress in flight
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 1942. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Maynard Harrison Smith didn’t know if the pilot was alive or dead, or whether he’d bailed out of the burning B-17 like the other three had just done, but he did know that six crewmen with varying degrees of injuries remained and he wasn’t one to just stand there and let them burn to death.

As long as the B-17 kept flying, Smith decided he would do what he could to extinguish the flames, help out his injured comrades and fight off the Germans, who were still attacking the burning bomber. Wrapping himself in whatever protective clothing he could, he fought the flames first with fire extinguishers. When those were used up, he used bottles of drinking water and any other non-flammable liquids he could get his hands on.

Despite his best efforts, the fire continued to spread, and the flames were getting so intense in some areas that ammunition was starting to go off. Smith realized he had another task to take on single-handedly: toss the burning ammunition boxes overboard before they could explode.

Between throwing burning ammunition into the sea, tending to his wounded comrades and fighting an endless battle against the flames – for which he even used his own urine in desperation – the aerial gunner also manned two machine guns, fighting off the German fighters until they finally gave up and flew away.

At this stage, it was clear the B-17 was a write-off and their only hope was to land before it fell apart. Somehow, the pilot managed to achieve this and landed the almost-destroyed bomber on a British airstrip. A few minutes after landing, the B-17, riddled with 3,500 bullet holes and held together only by the four main beams of its frame, fell apart. The men were all safe, however, thanks to Smith’s heroic actions.

Maynard Harrison Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor

Henry L. Stimson placing the Medal of Honor around Maynard Harrison Smith's neck
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson presenting Maynard Harrison Smith with the Medal of Honor, 1943. (Photo Credit: Cfpresley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

For his immense courage, Maynard Harrison Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first enlisted airman of the US Army Air Forces to receive this distinction.

When the time came to award him with the medal, however, he was nowhere to be found. Eventually, he was located scraping leftovers from breakfast dishes, having been assigned this duty as a disciplinary measure. It was ultimately presented to him by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson at the Eighth Army Airfield in England.

Following his gallantry in the skies, Smith flew four more combat missions, before being grounded for combat stress reaction. He was subsequently assigned to clerical work, which he was less than adequate at – his poor performance led to him being demoted to the rank of private.

He returned Stateside in February 1945 and was discharged a few months later. On top of his Medal of Honor, he was awarded the USAAF Enlisted Aircrew Badge, the Air Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Campaign Stars and the World War II Victory Medal.

Maynard Harrison Smith’s later life

Maynard Harrison Smith's gravestone
Maynard Harrison Smith’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Arlington National Cemetery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Shortly before the close of the Second World War, Maynard Harrison Smith married his third wife, with whom he had four children – three sons and a daughter.

While he initially ran into legal troubles during his re-entry into civilian life, Smith did manage to make a comfortable living. Following his retirement, he moved to Florida. He passed away from heart failure on May 11, 1984, at the age of 72.

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Like so many veterans, he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Jay Hemmings

Jay Hemmings is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE