Commentary: First enlisted Airman to receive Medal of Honor

U.S. Air Force
For his actions, Staff Sgt. Maynard Smith was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson.
By HOWARD E. HALVORSEN
Air Force Sustainment Center and 72nd Air Base Wing Historian
February 16, 2017

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — Picture the scene: a group of 30 young men in the small town of Caro, Mich., getting their picture taken on the courthouse steps before leaving to serve their country. As they line up, the sheriff calls across the steps to say he had one more for the picture: Maynard Harrison Smith in handcuffs, fresh from his trial.

Maynard Harrison 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 — he had had a very brief marriage ending in divorce — caused the judge to offer Smith two options: jail or the military.

During basic training 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 8th Air Force, 423rd Squadron, 306th Bomb Group in Turleigh, England.

In the days where B-17s 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 “Flack City.” Smith’s small physique made him perfect for the position in the ball gunner turret. The target was a heavily fortified U-boat submarine base with 9m (30 ft.) thick concrete ceilings and was capable of withstanding almost any bomb used at the time. It became the base of operations for the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) after the fall of France in June 1940. The base is now used by cafes, a bar, and on the roof is an exhibition about Saint-Nazaire.

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, one of whom had severe shrapnel wounds to his chest. In the heat of combat, he also manned machine guns while 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. Smith didn’t even know if the pilot and co-pilot were still alive or whether or not they had bailed out with most of the crew, but since the plane seemed to be flying relatively steady he decided to stay. With a fire onboard burning violently and melting everything in sight, Smith, now out of any other firefighting equipment, 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 begun 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. He did this because the remaining pieces of the plane’s frame were significantly weakened and he reasoned a lighter plane would have a better chance at not breaking apart in mid-air.

Because of his heroic efforts and saving the lives of six remaining crewmen, the aircraft made it out of the “hot” zone and landed safely near the southwest tip of England called Land’s End. “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 led 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.

Sources used include: 

http://www.af.mil/

http://www.afhra.af.mil/

http://www.cmohs.org

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?GRid

=21435 &page=gr

www.nationalmuseum.af.mil