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50 states, 50 heroes: Snuffy

Born May 19, 1911, in Caro, Michigan, Maynard Harrison Smith was a handful as a child, often getting into trouble. His affluent father, Henry, sent him to the Howe Military Academy to straighten him out. Smith later married and got a job with the U.S. Treasury Department and the Michigan Banking Commission, but quit in 1934 when his father died and left him a sizable inheritance.

How Smith eventually joined the Army is uncertain. He was divorced by the time World War II broke out in 1941; one account states a judge gave him the choice between the Army or jail for failing to pay child support while another said he enlisted just before he received his draft notice.

Disgusted with the idea of taking orders as a private, Smith volunteered for aerial gunnery school as it was the quickest way to make sergeant. He completed training in Texas and in April 1943 was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force in Thurleigh, England, as a replacement gunner.

At 31, Smith was older than most of the enlisted men and officers in his unit. Having grown up rich, Smith was viewed as pompous and belligerent by the other men, who nicknamed him “Snuffy” in reference to the obnoxious Snuffy Smith character from the “Barney Google” comic strip. In turn, Smith later said he viewed those men as “people that I had no interest in but was forced to associate with simply because I was in the Army.”

On the morning of May 1, 1943, Sgt. Smith participated in his first mission as a B-17 Flying Fortress ball-turret gunner as 78 bombers of the 306th left England to attack German U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire, France. Heavy clouds provided the bombers with sufficient cover against enemy flak guns and fighters. Meeting little resistance on the attack, the bombers turned around and began their flight back to England.

But as the formation descended to 1,000 feet and approached what the pilots thought was Land’s End, England, they suddenly came under heavy fire from enemy flak guns. A navigational error caused by a faulty compass had caused the formation to fly over the heavily defended French City of Brest.

As German anti-aircraft batteries and artillery battered the bombers, Smith’s plane was on the edge of the formation, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Smith heard an explosion above him as tracers hit the plane, knocking out the plane’s interphone system and destroying the hydraulics line to the ball turret controls. Smith was forced to manually open the hatch and saw flames near the radio room and tail section.

After assisting one of the waist gunners in bailing out, Smith wrapped a sweater around his head to aid against the smoke and attempted to put out the fire near the radio room. He spotted tail gunner Roy Gibson, who had been hit in the back, crawling up behind him. Believing Gibson had punctured his lung, Smith turned Gibson on his side so he would not bleed into his good lung and administered morphine.

Smith then tried again to extinguish the radio room fire, but when the fumes began to choke him, he went to the tail section to fight the fire there. As he did so, German fighters attacked the crippled bomber, forcing Smith to man the waist guns and shoot back.

As the fires continued to rage, Smith began throwing burning debris and ammunition cans out of the gaping hole in the side of the plane’s fuselage. He continued to battle the fire, doing everything from dumping water bottles on the flames, urinating on them, and smacking them with a gloved hand until his clothes smoldered. By the time the plane landed at Predannack Airfield in Southwestern England, the flames were extinguished.

All seven of the crewmembers that remained aboard the plane survived.

The plane’s pilot, First Lt. Lewis Johnson, submitted an affidavit attesting to Smith’s bravery and crediting him with saving the aircraft and everyone onboard.

In July 1943, Secretary of War Henry Stimson flew to Thurleigh along with several generals and members of the press. Upon arrival, no one could find Smith; he was later found working in the mess hall kitchen as punishment for twice returning late from leave.

On July 15, Stimson presented Smith with the Medal of Honor. He was the second recipient from the European Theater and the first enlisted airman to receive the award.

Smith flew five more missions before being grounded for what is today recognized as posttraumatic stress disorder. He was assigned to office work at Thurleigh, but still received special privileges because of his medal. But he took his privileges too far and was eventually demoted from staff sergeant to private for showing “no responsibility to his duties or to his officers and fellow NCOs” and having an “insufferable” attitude. Smith called the demotion “the rotten deal that lousy outfit gave me.”

Smith returned to the United States on Feb. 2, 1945, and was given a heroes welcome in his hometown of Caro. He took a job with the Internal Revenue Service, but legal troubles plagued him. In 1946, Smith’s ex-wife obtained an extradition warrant from Michigan Gov. Harry Kelly after he fell behind on his child support payments. A Washington, D.C. judge denied the extradition when Smith promised to get up to date on his payments. In 1948, Smith got in trouble with the Food and Drug Administration for peddling “Firmo,” a drug falsely advertised to cure impotency. In 1952, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for staging an act of heroism in which he paid a woman to pretend he talked her out of jumping from a building (he was considering running for governor of Virginia and thought the stunt would get him publicity).

Smith retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died on May 11, 1984, at the age of 72. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.