Maynard Harrison Smith was born on May 19, 1911 in Caro, Michigan. He didn’t have a particularly accomplished youth or early adulthood, choosing instead to live off his parents’ prosperity, particularly after his father’s passing. Smith married shortly before the United States entered World War II, but he abandoned his wife and infant child.
In 1942, the law caught up with him and he was given a choice: enlist or go to jail. He chose the former. Smith joined the United States Army Air Forces, progenitor of today’s United States Air Force. After basic training, he volunteered for aerial gunnery school, somewhat selfishly because it meant faster promotion and more money. He was disgusted, at age 31, from having to take orders from soldiers and airmen years his junior.
Reportedly, Smith was pretty much always in trouble during training. Regardless, he made it through gunnery school, got promoted to Sergeant (all aerial gunners were ranked as non-commissioned officers), and was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron of the 306th Bombardment Group at RAF Thurleigh in England.
Smith’s disciplinary problems and bad attitudes continued while overseas. He was generally disliked by his comrades, not considered to be a team player (a vital trait on board a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress as the life of each man relied on the nine others on board), and languished for weeks on ground duty as no crew wanted to fly with him. His squadron mates tagged him with the derogatory nickname, “Snuffy”.
That changed seventy years ago today on May 1, 1943. Smith was assigned to the crew of B-17F 42-29649 (interestingly, I couldn’t find a name for the plane), commanded by 1st Lieutenant Lewis P. Johnson, as the ball turret gunner covering the vulnerable rear underside of the Flying Fortress. Johnson was flying the 25th and final combat mission of his tour.
Maynard Smith’s first mission would come to be known as the “May Day Massacre”.
Their target that day was Nazi German submarine pens in the French city of St. Nazaire. The antiaircraft defenses around the submarine base and city were some of thickest in occupied Europe. American bomber crews referred to it as “Flak City”.
The 8th Air Force dispatched eighty bombers for the raid that day. A combination of weather, navigational error, and other factors resulted on only twenty-nine B-17s reaching the target. The planes were returning home over the Bay of Biscay and sighted a coastline ahead which they assumed to be Britain. They dropped down to a a mere 2,000 feet in altitude…and the group lead navigator had made a critical mistake.
The planes had turned for home too early. They weren’t crossing the British coast, but were straying back over occupied France. Worse still, they were about to fly over the city of Brest, almost as strongly defended by the Germans as St. Nazaire.
Flak burst all around the bombers. Nazi fighters pounced upon the bombers as well. Smith’s turret was knocked out by an early strike, so he climbed up into the fuselage from his turret and stepped right into hell. At this point, it’s probably best to let Maynard Smith’s citation for the Medal of Honor speak for itself.
SMITH, MAYNARD H. (Air Mission)
Rank and organization. Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 423d Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomber Group. Place and date: Over Europe, 1 May 1943. Entered service at: Cairo, Mich. Born: 1911, Cairo Mich. G.O. No.: 38, 12 July 1943. 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 airplane attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943. The airplane was hit several times by antiaircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter airplanes, 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.
The three crew members who bailed out from the plane were never recovered. Lieutenant Johnson managed to get the near-fatally damaged plane back to Britain; it broke in two on landing. All in all, seven bombers were destroyed due to the navigational error, and seventy-five men were killed or listed as missing in action.
Smith’s heroism didn’t do anything to improve how he was viewed by his comrades, in fact, it made it worse. He was soon grounded, again, because nobody wanted to fly with him. When Secretary of War Henry Stimson appeared at Smith’s base to award him his Medal, the gallant airman had to be released from punitive KP duty to receive it!
The remainder of Maynard Smith’s life following his wartime service continued in the same themes of misbehavior, and I won’t belabor them here. Whatever his failings were, we should all choose to look at the events of May 1, 1943 somewhat in a vacuum. He passed away on May 11, 1984, just eight days before his 73rd birthday, and rests in peace appropriately in Arlington National Cemetery.
The 423rd Bombardment Squadron is today inactive. The 306th Flying Training Group is the descendent of the 306th Bombardment Group and is currently attached to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.