|Born||19 May 1911|
|Died||11 May 1984|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseNo one could really remember how Staff Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith got the nickname of "Snuffy", In fact before 1 May 1943 there was not anything much to remember about Snuffy at all. He was thirty-two years old, small, slim and grey haired, red of eye, flat of feet and big of Adam's apple – a tax clerk, son of a circuit judge from Caro, Michigan, United States, where he lived with his parents on South State Street.
ww2dbaseSmith enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in 1942 and after completing basic training he volunteered for aerial gunnery school. At the time all aerial gunners were non-commissioned officers and the move to the school was a quick way for the private to gain rank and pay. His size meant he was soon chosen to be a ball turret (a cramped, Perspex and metal globe that hung beneath the aircraft's fuselage) gunner on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
ww2dbaseIn the spring of 1943, after completing the aerial gunnery course, Smith was deployed to England, United Kingdom where he joined the 306th Bomb Group (Heavy) "The Reich Wreckers" based at Thurleigh in Bedfordshire (US Station 111). Compared with the thousands of young 18 and 19 year-old airmen sent to England, Smith at 32, was considered an "old man." He was perhaps a little too old because he did not suffer Air Force discipline easily, and quickly gained a reputation as a somewhat stubborn and obnoxious airman who did not get along well with the other servicemen stationed there, which is likely how he obtained his nickname. As a consequence it would be some six weeks before he would be assigned his first combat mission.
ww2dbaseOn 1 May 1943 Smith was ball turret gunner in Flying Fortress 42-29649 of the 423rd Bombardment Squadron detailed for a mission against the heavily defended submarine pens at St. Nazaire, France. 1st Lieutenant Lewis Page Johnson, the pilot, was hoping for an easy ride. It was to be his last combat mission before his tour of duty would be completed and he could return to the United States. Whilst many American bombers were boldly decorated with names and/or flamboyant nose-art the cautious Johnson was one pilot who never wanted such extravagances on his B-17 which might attract the unwelcome attention a German fighter pilot.
ww2dbaseBy contrast this was Sergeant Smith's first operational trip. Despite intense flak and thick cloud conditions, the gleaming American bombers reached their target, released their bombs and turned away to commence their journey home. Eventually the pilots saw land ahead and believed this meant England and safety. Unknowingly, through a navigational error, the B-17 bombers had left target flying in the wrong direction. They were now heading towards the heavily defended Brest Peninsula and as the bombers crossed the coastline a hail of flak burst around the formation. Co-pilot Bob McCallum recalled:
ww2dbaseThe German Focke-Wulf fighters roared in to pour their deadly 20-millimeter cannon fire into the B-17 bombers' thin aluminum fuselages. Lieutenant Johnson's aircraft bore the brunt of several direct hits and near misses, resulting in the intercom and oxygen systems being wrecked, No. 4 engine's nacelle was shot off, and severe damage was inflicted on the top turret, nose section shattered, flaps damaged, and the port wing fuel tank ruptured and burnt out. More dangerously fires had started in the tail wheel housing and in the radio operator's position. Escaping oxygen fed the flames, creating such a furnace heat that parts of the rear fuselage structure and fittings began to melt.
ww2dbaseThe first Smith knew of the threat was when enemy tracer shells whipped past his turret. Moments later he was shaken by a huge explosion. With both the intercom and power to the ball turret disabled, Smith slowly hand-cranked himself back into the fuselage and climbed out to find the two fires raging, the two waist gunners and the radio operator bailed out (Smith suspected that the radio operator was leaping to almost certain death as his Mae West life jacket had been burnt off and they were still over water). The port-side gunner had become trapped by his chute snagging on the gun mounting. Smith pulled him back inside but the terrified gunner insisted that he wanted to get out of the burning plane; so Smith wished the gunner luck and helped him jump from the rear escape hatch. Smith might easily have followed suit and abandoned the aircraft (The three crew members who bailed-out were never recovered and were presumed lost at sea). However, despite the damage, the Flying Fortress bomber was still flying level and Smith guessed Lieutenant Johnson must still be at the controls. With this in mind, he decided to stay and fight the fires. Wrapping a sweater round his face to shield his eyes and throat he grabbed an extinguisher and began to tackle the blaze in the radio compartment. At first the flames flared up but then slowly began to die away. Smith was just making headway when he glanced round to check the tail section – and saw movement. He recalled:
ww2dbaseNo sooner had Smith picked up the extinguisher again than another, more deadly interruption occurred. Another Fw 190 aircraft was zooming in from the side. With amazing coolness he gave it a burst from the right waist gun, then stepped across the plane to fire a second burst from the left waist gun as the fighter swept underneath.
ww2dbaseAs the heat began detonating spare ammunition boxes nearby, Smith threw these and other burning debris overboard through either the large holes that the fire had melted in the fuselage or away from the flames. In all Smith fought the fire for some ninety minutes, using every extinguisher he could find, alternating between shooting at the attacking fighters, tending to the wounded crew members and fighting the fire. To starve the fire of fuel, after the fire extinguishers were exhausted, he continued to fight the flames with his flying jacket, and finally – in a gesture of sheer defiance by urinating on the fire.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, Pilot Lewis Johnson in the front cockpit struggled to ride his weakened aircraft home. Then the English coast came into view. Smith also noticed this through the gaping hole burnt out of the fuselage wall, and he started throwing out everything loose he could lay his hands on in order to lighten the ship; the fuselage was so weak from damage it might break up at any moment. Spotting RAF Predannack, Cornwall, Johnson brought his battered bomber in for a smooth landing, although it broke in half as it touched down. The B-17 aircraft had been hit by more than 3,500 bullets and pieces of shrapnel, but Smith's efforts on that day had undoubtedly saved the lives of the six men still aboard, including the two crewmen who had been severely wounded.
ww2dbaseIn his mission report Johnson gave fulsome praise to his turret gunner. He wrote: "his acts performed in complete self-sacrifice were solely responsible for the safe return of the aeroplane, the life of the tail gunner and the lives of everyone else aboard." As a result Smith was awarded the blue star-studded ribbon that held the Medal of Honor, only the second Eighth Air Force serviceman to win this rare award. This was placed around his neck by Secretary of War Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson a few weeks later, while the group of Flying Fortress bombers with which Smith flew roared in tribute overhead.
ww2dbaseThey took Smith off combat at his station; but they kept him around. It was not that he was scared to fly – because he made four more missions before being returned to the United States. It was just that the other crews decided that his medal had gone to his head. It was not true that Smith had become conceited but simply that, as the number one hero, people expected him to become big headed. As a matter of fact he took his Medal of Honor a lot humbler than some others who received the Air Medal awarded for completing five missions before going home. But Smith remained "difficult to handle." Only four days before the award ceremony, he was on kitchen patrol duty in the station mess hall as a punishment for arriving late to a briefing. The senior officers in the 423rd Bombardment Squadron were almost relieved when he was withdrawn from service and sent home. Ironically, he was now far more useful touring the United States to rally the fighting spirit of the American public.
ww2dbaseSmith was not quite equipped to cope with the strange forces that work against a man who had been labelled "Number One Hero in the European Theatre of Operations." For instance he got this cable from his hometown:
ww2dbaseThe press loved the Smith story for he had become an all-American hero. Sam Boal a journalist with the Office of War Information (OWI) would write a story about Smith for "The New Yorker" magazine which included the anecdote: "Late one night, when he was cooking some spam in his barracks, a Major came screaming in to find out who was stinking up the place. But when he saw Snuffy, he just said, 'Oh, it's you - okay.'" Another journalist, Andy Rooney, at the time a reporter for Stars and Stripes, was at the base where Smith's plane landed and wrote a front-page story about it. While reflecting on Smith's award years later on "60 Minutes", Rooney indicated "I was proud of my part in that." Then OWI's James Dugan wrote a biting piece built on the fact that Smith signed his letters "Sgt. Maynard Smith, C. M. H." – like the British who traditionally put the initials of their decorations after their names.
ww2dbaseOld true heroes are ever forgotten, but not Snuffy Smith. When he died on 11 May, 1984 (aged 72) at Saint Petersburg, Pinellas County, Florida, United States he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with full military honours.
ww2dbaseMedal of Honor citation
ww2dbaseFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. The aircraft of which Sgt. Smith was a gunner was subjected to intense enemy anti-aircraft fire and determined fighter aircraft attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943. The aircraft was hit several times by anti-aircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter aircraft. Two of the crew were seriously wounded, the aircraft's oxygen system shot out, and several vital control cables severed when intense fires were ignited simultaneously in the radio compartment and waist sections. The situation became so acute that three of the crew bailed out into the comparative safety of the sea. Sgt. Smith, then on his first combat mission, elected to fight the fire by himself, administered first aid to the wounded tail gunner, manned the waist guns, and fought the intense flames alternately. The escaping oxygen fanned the fire to such intense heat that the ammunition in the radio compartment began to explode, the radio, gun mount, and camera were melted, and the compartment completely gutted. Sgt. Smith threw the exploding ammunition overboard, fought the fire until all the firefighting aids were exhausted, manned the workable guns until the enemy fighters were driven away, further administered first aid to his wounded comrade, and then by wrapping himself in protecting cloth, completely extinguished the fire by hand. This soldier's gallantry in action, undaunted 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.
ww2dbaseThe 306 BG(H) of the 1st Air Division, Eighth Air Force USAAF) operated from Thurleigh from 1942 to 1945. They would complete 342 missions with the loss of 171 B-17 bombers. In addition to the Medal of Honor awarded to Sergeant Maynard H Smith the Group was also famed for having the first 8TH USAAF man to complete a tour of duty, Technical Sergeant M. Roscovich (5th Apr 1943), and on 6 Jul 1944 Princess Elizabeth rechristened a 367th Bomb Squadron B-17G bomber (42-102547) with the name "Rose of York" in honour of her 18th birthday.
Peter Hepplewhite & Neil Tonge: World Wat II in Action (Macmillan Children's Books, 2005)
Chaz Bowyer: Guns in the Sky (J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1979)
Capt. John (Tex) McCrary & David E. Scherman: First of the Many (Robson Books, 1944)
Dennis F. Lain: Memorials to the Mighty Eighth (Serendipity, 2004)
Wikipedia - Maynard Harrison Smith
Last Major Revision: Mar 2019
Maynard Smith Timeline
|19 May 1911||Maynard Smith was born in Caro, Michigan, United States.|
|11 May 1984||Maynard Smith passed away in St. Petersburg, Florida, United States.|
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937