Legend of Airman Snuffy: The Maynard Smith story

Maynard Smith, above, chose to be an aerial gunner because it was the quickest way to make rank. (U.S. Air Force file photo)

Maynard Smith, above, chose to be an aerial gunner because it was the quickest way to make rank. (U.S. Air Force file photo)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Editor's Note: This is part four of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force. Part five will feature Forrest L. Vosler.

The term 'Airman Snuffy' has been a part of traditional jargon used by Military Training Instructors to describe bad troops on the verge of trouble, but many people don't know that Airman Snuffy actually existed--and he was the first enlisted member to receive the Medal of Honor.

Maynard 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 of 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.

"When I went into the Army, a group of 30 of us assembled on the courthouse steps for a picture. While we were lining up, the sheriff came down the steps with Maynard Smith beside him... in handcuffs," quotes author/researcher Allen Mikaelian.

At the age of 31, Smith hated taking orders from men who were usually 10 years younger than him. 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. The radioman became excited and jumped out the window without a parachute. "

With the oxygen system and intercom shot, and crew members bailing out, Smith stayed aboard and assisted an injured tail gunner.

With a fire onboard burning violently and melting everything in sight, Smith wrapped himself in protective clothing and completely extinguished the flames by hand. Alternating between manning the available machine guns, applying first aid to his comrade and fighting the fire that had began to weaken the B-17's fuselage, Smith commenced to throw everything out of the rear of the plane that wasn't too hot, too heavy or bolted down.

Because of his heroic efforts and saving the lives of six remaining wingmen, 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 Congressional 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.

The trials and tribulations of Sgt. Maynard Smith lived decades after his death. His troublesome persona became a typical label of Airmen after him who were branded as difficult troops. With legends and myths circulating Air Force-wide, as well as throughout the entire armed forces, many never knew that Airman Snuffy was a real person, a real Airman, a Medal of Honor recipient and a national hero.

So the next time an Airman is called 'Snuffy' as a means of slander, he or she should simply smile and say, "thank you."

Content in this article was taken from the following websites: www.af.mil, www.nationalmuseum.af.mil, and www.arlingtoncemetery.com.
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