Smith was sentenced by a judge who offered him one of two choices: he could go to jail or join the army. He chose the latter.
Often, war brings out traits in people that they never 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, however, there are the misfits, outsiders, and people who have never fit in anywhere, who sometimes end up surprising everyone with their very unexpected heroics. Maynard Harrison Smith, a strange and often obnoxious man who was disliked by many of his peers, turned out to be one of these, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for an extraordinary act of heroism and immense courage.
Maynard Harrison Smith was born in Caro, Michigan, on May 19th, 1911. The son of a schoolteacher and an attorney, he didn’t exactly have a difficult upbringing, but he quickly developed a reputation for being a bit of a misfit who didn’t get along well with others.
Although he worked as a tax field agent, he largely lived off an inheritance he had received. He got married in 1929 and then divorced in 1932 after having one child with his first wife. He got married again in 1941, but his first marriage would come back to bite him in the behind – for something that was largely his own fault.
Soon after he got married for the second time, he was arrested for not paying child support. Smith was sentenced by a judge who offered him one of two choices: he could go to jail or join the army. He chose the latter.
At the age of 31, he was at least ten years older than most of his peers in basic training, and he especially resented having to take orders from men he saw as being little more than kids. Realizing that joining the US Army Air Corps would provide him with the quickest 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 gunner turret. After he had completed his training at the Aerial Gunnery School, at which time he was promoted to staff sergeant, he was assigned to 423rd Squadron, 306th Bomb Group as the operator of the ball gun turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
His fellow airmen didn’t like him much, and he was soon given the nickname “Snuffy.” He flew his first combat mission on May 1st, 1943 – and this was to be the mission in which the irascible, disagreeable “Snuffy” would show everyone his true colors.
The target of the mission was German U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France. Saint-Nazaire had been nicknamed “Flak City” by the airmen because of the heavy German anti-aircraft defenses there. Despite the presence of these defenses, the first part of the bombing raid went off without a hitch.
After the B-17s had dropped most of their bombs, though, they were engaged by German fighters. The B-17s fled into a large cloud bank to evade the German fighters, and while this was successful as an evasive maneuver, it resulted in the bombers flying off course.
The lead navigator then saw land, thought it was the British coast, and started to descend to 2,000 feet – but it was actually the French coast they were approaching. As they emerged from the cloud cover the bombers immediately came under heavy attack from German fighters as well as anti-aircraft fire from below.
The B-17 that Smith was in took some of the worst damage of the attack. The entire plane was raked with flak, and one of the fuel tanks on the wing was ripped off. Fuel poured into the fuselage of the plane and fires started to rage throughout the interior, the flames intensified by oxygen that was escaping from the ruptured oxygen system.
Smith’s ball turret lost all power, and he had to crank it around manually to escape from it. When he emerged from the ball turret, he was confronted with a scene of total chaos.
Everything, it seemed, was on fire, and huge holes had been ripped in the fuselage. Vital controls had been destroyed, as had the oxygen system. Two of the crew members were seriously wounded, and the rest were in a state of sheer panic. The radioman was so terrified that he jumped out of the plane without a parachute.
Two more crew members decided that they’d rather take their chances in the ocean than burn to death, and they bailed out too. Smith didn’t know if the pilot was alive or dead, or whether he had bailed out of the burning plane like three men had just done – but he did know that six crew members with varying degrees of injuries remained, and he wasn’t going to just stand there and let them burn to death.
As long as the plane kept flying, Smith decided he would do what he could to extinguish the flames, help out his wounded comrades, and fight off the German fighters, who were still attacking the burning B-17.
Wrapping himself in whatever protective clothing he could get hold of, 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 flames continued to spread, and they were getting so intense in some sections that ammunition was starting to explode. Smith now realized that he had another task to take on single-handed: tossing burning ammunition boxes overboard before they could explode.
Between throwing burning ammo boxes into the sea, tending to his wounded comrades, and fighting an endless battle against the flames – for which he even used his own urine, peeing on the flames in desperation after he ran out of water – Smith also manned two machine guns, fighting off the German fighter planes until they finally gave up and flew off.
At this stage it was clear that the plane was lost, and their only hope was to land before it fell to pieces. Somehow, the pilot managed to achieve this, and landed the almost-destroyed B-17 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 the frame – fell apart completely. The men were all safe though, thanks to the heroic actions of Maynard “Snuffy” Smith.
For his immense courage, Maynard Harrison Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor, and became the first living airman of the US Army Air Corps to receive this honor for an action in the European theater of the war. When the time came to award Smith his medal at a ceremony, however, he was nowhere to be found. Eventually, he was located scraping leftovers from breakfast dishes, having been assigned to do this as a disciplinary measure.
After the war, Smith divorced his second wife and married his third, with whom he would have four children – lucky the third time, it seemed. He founded a law enforcement magazine, Police Officers Journal, and lived a relatively quiet life until passing away in May 1984 at the age of 72.