Maynard “Snuffy” Smith was born in the small town of Caro, Mich., on May 19, 1911. He was the son of a school teacher and a successful attorney, and had the reputation early in life as being spoiled, trouble prone, and an absolute nuisance to others around him. He lived off an inheritance and worked as a tax field agent until his misconducts caught up with him. A failure to pay child support charges caused the judge to offer Smith two options: jail or the military.
At the age of 31, Smith hated taking orders from men who were usually 10 years younger than he was Smith shocked his basic training instructors by volunteering for Aerial Gunnery School in Harlington, Texas. Since this field was the quickest route to gaining rank, Smith was promoted to staff sergeant after completion of training and assigned to the 423rd Squadron, 306th Bomb Group in Turleigh, England.
In the days where B-17’s had a 50 percent survival rate, Smith went out on his first mission and significantly made history. On May 1, 1943, stepping in as a replacement, his mission was to bomb St. Nazaire, France, better known to bomber crews as ‘Flak City.’ Smith’s small physique made him perfect for the position in the ball gunner turret. When his aircraft was hit repeatedly by flak and cannon fire from FW-190s, Smith stepped up to the plate rendering first aid to the wounded crewmen. In the heat of combat, he also manned machine guns, desperately throwing exploding ammunition overboard. The aircraft suffered from severe damage, cutting the wing tank off and causing gasoline to pour inside the plane, catching it ablaze. “At this point, I had lost my electrical controls and I knew something was wrong,” said Smith. “I manually cranked the thing around, opened the armored hatch and got back in the airplane when I saw it was on fire.”
Medal of Honor Citation: For 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 antiaircraft 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 antiaircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter aircraft, 2 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 3 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.Because of his heroic efforts and saving the lives of six remaining airmen, the aircraft made it out of the ‘hot’ zone and landed safely near the southwest tip of England.“Somehow we got the plane back,” Smith said. “The plane was riddled with about 3,500 bullet holes. It was all burned out in the center. There was nothing but the four main beams holding it together. Ten minutes after we landed, the plane collapsed.”For his actions, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. This would be the first Medal of Honor presented to a living Airman, the first awarded to an Airman for heroism in the European theater, the first awarded to an enlisted Airman and the first Medal of Honor to be presented by the Secretary of War in the theater of action. During the preparation of the ceremony, leadership failed to inform Smith of the presentation, which lead to an embarrassing moment for everyone involved. With the band in place, the Secretary of War waiting at the podium and the bombers prepared for their flyover, ‘Airman Snuffy’ was nowhere to be found. A search party was released to find the war hero, and he was eventually located scraping leftovers from breakfast trays after being placed on KP duty for disciplinary reasons. This scenario, reported by the Stars and Stripes, shocked the world, but was nothing new to the men of the 306th Bomb Group.“In the real military such men are the misfits that cannot be changed, only tolerated; until they can be transferred elsewhere and become someone else’s problem. They are certainly not the kind of soldier one expects to become a genuine hero as had Sergeant Maynard Smith. Perhaps no one in the 306th Bomb Squadron was more surprised that Snuffy Smith had become a hero to the Air Force and a household name back in America, than the disheveled little man himself,” said Andy Rooney, a fellow Airman and author of the book ‘My War.’After completing four more combat missions, Smith was seen by the medical board and diagnosed with “Operational Exhaust” and was reassigned to a non-combat clerical post with reduction of rank to Private. For a Medal of Honor recipient to be demoted is still hard for many to comprehend. Smith died on May 11, 1984, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.