The month of March is likely best known for the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. When on the 17th, wearing green and partying are a national tradition. However, the 25th of March is a day that holds a far more solemn significance. One that many Americans are likely unaware of. On that date in 1863, six men were the first to receive our nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. The United States Congress, in 1990, set aside March 25th of each year as National Medal of Honor Day. It is the day, officially designated, when we are reminded to pay tribute to some of our greatest military heroes. Especially relevant, many of these Medal of Honor recipients made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.
Since its inception during the American Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been bestowed 3,468 times on the country’s military men and one woman. Of that number, the Medal of Honor has been accredited to 108 of those serving from the State of Michigan. As you might expect, Detroit has a large representation of the number so honored. But, towns all over the state have sent their sons to war and had a few return with exceptional distinction. One such community just an hour’s drive northeast of the greater Fenton area is Caro, Michigan. Where possibly, the unlikeliest of heroes emerged. His name is Maynard Harrison Smith and his Medal of Honor story reads like something you would see in a movie.
To say that Maynard Smith was a reluctant participant in the Second World War would be an accurate statement. Maynard’s great grandfather served as a Major in the Union Army during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Major Henry Harrison Smith died as a prisoner of war. Major Smith’s sword ultimately came into the possession of his great-grandson. Even though Maynard treasured his ancestor’s weapon of war. He personally, had no desire to acquire any such artifact to pass on to further generations.
Maynard’s father, Maynard H. Smith, Sr., was an attorney. Even through the great depression, his family maintained a comfortable lifestyle. Senior worked for Ford and General Motors. Then later in life became a circuit court judge. After his father’s death in 1934, Maynard lived a somewhat well-off “semi-retired” life on the funds he inherited. Even spending winters in Florida while returning to Caro for the remainder of the year. In 1942 the 31-year-old Maynard had a minor run-in with the law. As was often the case during the war years, the Judge gave Maynard the option of going to jail or joining the military.
Maynard Smith joined the Army on August 31, 1942, and was shipped off to basic training at Sheppard Field in northern Texas. Historical researcher and author Allen Mikaelia quoted another local Caro resident about what he remembered from that day: “When I went into the army a group of thirty of us assembled on the courthouse steps for a picture. While we were lining up the sheriff came down the steps with … Smith beside him in handcuffs.”
Smith was not well-suited to Army life. Andy Rooney, of television’s Sixty Minutes fame, was a wartime reporter for the Stars and Stripes. Rooney described Smith: “He was known to everyone as a moderately pompous little fellow with the belligerent attitude of a man trying to make up with attitude what his five-foot-four, 130-pound body left him wanting.” Thus, Maynard earned the nickname of “Snuffy Smith” no doubt inspired by the character from the popular comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.
After basic training, Smith made a decision that greatly impacted the rest of his life. He volunteered to join the Army Air Forces Aerial Gunnery School. No doubt that the move was inspired by the fact the assignment lead quickly to a promotion as gunnery sergeant. Which also provided an advancement in pay.
Aerial Gunnery School, trained in Harlingen, Texas. Which is located 600 miles south of Sheppard Field. Upon graduating, Smith was advanced from the rank of Private to Sergeant. After being sent for more training in Casper, Wyoming, Smith was promoted to Staff Sergeant and given orders to fly with the 306th Bomb Group. The group, under the command of the 8th Air Force, flew B-17 Flying Fortresses as the 423rd Squadron, from the allied airfield in Turleigh, England. The B-17 was indeed a flying fortress, manned with 10 men and 13 machine guns. With a full load of armaments, the heavy bomber could fly 2,000 miles making it ideal to strike targets far into enemy territory. However, the range meant the aircraft had to fly without fighter support. The guns, in eight positions around the aircraft, provided the only defensive support.
Once in England, Smith had to wait 6 weeks for his first aerial assignment. It’s possible his Snuffy Smith demeanor kept him from joining one of the close-knit bomber crews. But, as in any war, attrition gives way to even the inexperienced being thrust into the fight. On May 1st, 1943, Smith made his maiden flight as the turret ball gunner in the belly of the aircraft. His small stature made it easier for him to move around in the plexiglass ball than some of the larger airmen. Lieutenant Lewis P. Johnson, the pilot for the mission, was an experienced veteran.
The Nazi U-boats proved to be an effective weapon early in the war. After the fall of France, the German’s built submarine pens at ports along the French coast. These submarine pens were fortified concrete bunkers where the U-boats were built, repaired, and refitted for a return to combat. Three of the ports, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire sit on the Atlantic shores closest to the English Channel. All of them were heavily fortified during the war to provide as much protection as possible from the Flying Fortress attacks. St. Nazaire, the southernmost of the three ports earned the nickname “flak city” from the number of anti-aircraft batteries on shore. Fighter squadrons of German planes provided additional air support to the cities.
The morning of Sergeant Smith’s first flight, the early briefing announced St. Nazaire as their target for the day. The port did not receive as much attention as Brest and Lorient, it was a dangerous mission due to its location. Crews flying away from St. Nazaire had to fly past the other two ports on their way back to England. To avoid Brest and Lorient the bombers would head west into the Atlantic and circle back to Turleigh. But to save fuel the bombers heading out would cross the channel, fly over occupied France, and attack from inland.
Despite rainy weather and the loss of some of the squadron to mechanical problems after takeoff, the mission went smoothly. The bomber payloads were delivered successfully on target. The crews headed out to sea for the long ride home. Sergeant Smith’s view from the glass bubble on the bottom of the aircraft afforded a panorama to watch their retreat. Unfortunately, the view revealed German fighter planes in hot pursuit. Lieutenant Lewis Johnson, took advantage of the weather and flew into a cloud bank to avoid the approaching swarm. After dodging an aerial dogfight, fate intervened upon the men of the B-17 with the tail number 42-29649.
In the years before advanced radar and GPS, navigation of an aircraft was a work of art. Lieutenant Johnson dropped out of the cloud cover for a low-level approach to the English coast. Only to discover a navigation error had them flying low over the city of Brest. Too late to pull up, they quickly changed course to the proper heading. Flying low helped them avoid the worst of the anti-aircraft fire, but, made them easy prey to the German fighters protecting the seaport. In a battle that defined the character of Lieutenant Johnson and his crew an unlikely hero emerged.
Snuffy Smith manned the guns in his turret as the German fighters attacked. As the attack progressed, a strafing run by one of the enemy planes hit one of fuel tanks on the B-17. The resulting explosion shook the entire aircraft and the radio room exploded into flames. Radio communications from the Flying Fortress, both outbound and inside the craft ceased to operate. It did not take long for Smith to realize the gravity of the situation, he cranked his bubble up to exit the turret. Only to be confronted by a wall of flame. It appeared the aircraft was lost as three of her crewman choose to bail out of the burning airplane.
Whether it was Smith’s lack of experience or his bullheaded demeanor, he chose to stay on board and fight the flames. Wrapping sweaters around his face and hands Smith attacked the radio room fire. Only to be beaten back by exploded ammunition stored near a gun in that area. Turning back Smith noted the rear of the aircraft was also on fire. Attacking with his fire extinguisher, Smith made progress on that fire. He stumbled across the rear gunner Sergeant Roy H. Gibson crawling away from the heat. Smith grabbed the badly wounded crewman, dragged him to safety, and administered morphine to ease the pain of his injuries.
If fire-fighting and tending to a wounded crewman wasn’t enough? Regrettably, Snuffy Smith’s day was about to get worse. A German fighter pilot had focused on the smoking B-17, he was closing in to finish off the bomber and record the kill. Smith spotted the fighter, manned a waist gun on the side of the plane and returned fire. In addition, he ran to the gun on the opposite side to make sure and drive off the attacker with a volley aimed at the fighter’s tail. Returning to the radio room fire, Smith managed to drive back the flames enough to enter the room. Shocked at what he found. Smith was staring out a hole the fire had burned through the fuselage of the plane. He immediately began throwing out burning chards of metal. The remaining ammunition and other smoldering remains were also tossed overboard.
For ninety minutes Sergeant Smith fought off enemy attacks. He also battled fires throughout the interior cabin of the plane. While tending to a wounded crewman. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Johnson nursed the aircraft back towards the English coast. Finally making an emergency landing, safely back to England. While sitting on the runway, the bomber broke in half from the damage it sustained. Unfortunately, the three crewmen that bailed out were never heard from again. Due to the heroism of a contentious and unpopular Army Air Force Sergeant. The men who remained aboard the fated airplane survived because of Smith.
When asked about Smith’s actions Lieutenant Johnson was quoted as saying Smith’s “acts which, by the will of God alone, did not cost him his life, performed in complete self-sacrifice and the utmost efficiency and which were solely responsible for the return of the aircraft and the lives of everyone aboard.” Smith’s Medal of Honor recommendation was fast tracked. President Franklin Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Henry Stimson to bestow the honor upon Smith at the airfield in England. True to his nature Smith was on KP duty when Stimson arrived to make the presentation. He was quickly grabbed, cleaned up and hustled out to the parade field. Upon receiving the honor, Smith’s acceptance speech was a simple “Thank You.”
Andy Rooney’s reporting made Smith a celebrity. Despite the Medal Ceremony headline “Medal of Honor Winner Snuffy Smith Found! On KP!” Rooney’s 1995 book “My War” detailed his coverage of the war in Europe and cites much about Smith’s heroism. For a more detailed telling of the Maynard “Snuffy” Smith Medal of Honor story read the account of Jay Zeamer & Joseph Sarnoski on the website Home of Heroes. To observe a display devoted to the Medal of Honor visit the Michigan’s Military & Space Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth. The museum’s collection includes 28 Medals of Honor on display. The largest assemblage of the nation’s highest honor exhibited anywhere.
Sergeant Smith’s citation accompanying the Medal of Honor reads as follows.
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.