Valor Friday

| August 9, 2019


Of all the heroes that have graced these pages, the mantle of “ordinary men doing extraordinary things” never fit better.


Everyone who’s served in the Air Force knows of the perpetual screw up “Airman Snuffy”. Snuffy is the foul up who can’t get anything right, forgets to salute officers, and is often found slacking in their duties. He’s our version of Private Pyle or Beetle Bailey I guess you could say.

So it was with some surprise that I found out there was an airman known as “Snuffy”. True to the legend that’s been passed down, he was in fact a recalcitrant screwup with a severe attitude problem. He was also the first enlisted airman to receive the Medal of Honor. Sit back for a wild ride.

Maynard Smith was 31 when in 1942 he found himself before a judge for failing to pay child support. The judge gave him the choice of jail or the Army. Smith took the Army.

Already a belligerent personality, he bristled at taking orders, particularly from those several years younger than him. This did not endear him to his fellows. Looking for a way to make some rank, to at least be given orders by fewer people younger than him, he volunteered for aerial gunner training. At that time all aerial gunners were NCOs, so finishing the training brought some stripes.

He completed training as a ball turret gunner, something that at 5’4” he was physically suited for. He went to southern England and was assigned to the 423d Bombardment Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group. It was here the stubborn, obnoxious, and difficult to get along with Smith was given the nickname “Snuffy” from a popular comic of the time Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.


The character of Snuffy Smith (in the comics) is an ornery, short, shiftless man who would prefer to shoot someone that pisses him off. The similarities to Maynard Smith were striking. Snuffy Smith (the real man) was so unliked that he didn’t get his first mission for six weeks, since nobody wanted to fly with him.

On May 1, 1943, the now Staff Sergeant Smith was aboard a B-17 flying over occupied France. At the time, B-17s had a 50% crew survival rate. This was his first mission. Their target that day was the very heavily defended U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire. Known as “flak city” by the airmen, it was a formidable target.

The mission was a success. They weren’t engaged by enemy fighters until after they’d dropped their bombs. Furthermore, they were able to evade the enemy aircraft by flying into a heavy cloud bank.


The navigator in the lead aircraft knew they were coming over the coast of England, so they began their descent. However, he had made an error. A large error, because they were coming into Brest, France. The occupied city was well defended by both anti-aircraft artillery and German fighters.

Coming out of the cloud, the bomber formation was immediately taken under enemy fire, both from the ground and the air. Smith’s plane was hit. Taking several rounds, the fuel tanks were ruptured, communications were cut, and his ball turret was disabled.

The ball turret is a sphere that hangs under the aircraft. There is only one way in and out of the ball. Since the ball swivels around, if it goes dead and that door is not aimed up, there’s no escaping it. Luckily, perhaps because they thought they were coming in to land, he was able to escape the turret.

Once out of his turret, Smith found himself in an engulfed fuselage. The fuselage integrity was challenged both by the sheer number of enemy rounds piercing the hull and also the intense heat from the fuel on fire. The situation was so dire that three crew decided to bail out, believing the plane was going to break apart at any moment. Unfortunately, they bailed over the English Channel and were never seen again.

There were two seriously injured crewmen remaining aft of the fire where Smith was. He tended to them while trying to fight the inferno threatening to split the aircraft. The heat of the fire was so intense that it began to melt the metal.

While doing this, Smith also took to the .50 cal machine guns, firing at the enemy fighters still trying to kill them. Alternating between providing care to his fellow airmen and firing the machine guns at the enemy, Smith also was trying to put out the fire. In an attempt to keep it from spreading, Smith threw burning debris and exploding ammunition out the large holes the fire had rendered in the airframe. Anything not bolted down, he tossed overboard.

For nearly 90 minutes, Smith kept up this ballet of badassery, moving between first aid, firefighter, and gunner. Finally, exhausting all the fire extinguishers, he wrapped himself in some protective clothing and fought the fire literally by hand. Smith even urinated on the fire, finally containing it.

Reaching England, the bomber landed at the first available airfield where it immediately broke in half upon touchdown. Inspections later revealed that the aircraft had received 3,500 rounds of enemy fire! Smith and the six who remained aboard the aircraft survived the ordeal, undoubtedly through Smith’s uncommonly heroic efforts.

Andy Rooney, of 60 Minutes fame much later in life, was a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes. He was on the ground at the airfield when Smith’s plane landed. He heard the tale of Snuffy Smith and immediately wrote a front page story about it.

Now one would not be remiss in thinking that someone who fights so valiantly and so selflessly would redeem themselves of their past misdeeds. That the story of Airman Snuffy would be one of a screwup who came through in the end. Indeed he did, but he still continued to screw up. In fact, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson put the Medal of Honor around Smith’s neck, Smith was assigned to KP duty for failing to show up to a meeting on time.

On that morning, with Secretary Stimson present, Army Air Force generals and dignitaries awaiting, and bombers on the flightline ready to execute a fly-by, the organizers of the Medal of Honor presentation (the first to be conducted by the Secretary of War in-theater) couldn’t find Snuffy Smith. It seems nobody had told him of his award ceremony, and he was found scraping pans in the kitchen.

It was said that if anything, Smith’s heroics (on his first mission you’ll recall) fostered only resentment among the other airmen. Smith flew four more missions before he was diagnosed with “operational exhaustion”. Not surprising for a man whose first mission required him to give the middle finger to God and say “Not today, Lord!” while fighting so hard to remain alive. This did however see Snuffy Smith reduced to the rank of Private and assigned to clerical duties away from the front.

He was a Sergeant again by the time he was sent stateside in March 1945 and was discharged two months later. He’d met an English girl at a USO show in England. After the war she immigrated to the US and the two married, having four children. Smith lived until the age of 72, passing on May 11, 1984, just eight days shy of his 73rd birthday.

Andy Rooney wrote of Smith, “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.”

Since the time of Snuffy Smith’s heroics, the legend of Airman Snuffy is not that of a true American hero, a man who literally saved lives in battle under the most arduous of circumstances. No, it’s just the parts where he was a pain in the ass and didn’t fit into the military. “Airman Snuffy” is used in a derogatory fashion, but perhaps it shouldn’t. To be likened to Snuffy Smith is, and should be, an honor.

Medal of Honor
Service: Army Air Forces
Battalion: 423d Bombardment Squadron
Division: 8th Air Force
War Department, General Orders No. 38, July 12, 1943

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Maynard Harrison Smith, Sr., United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 423d Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group (H), 8th Air Force in action on a bombing mission to Brest, France, 1 May 1943. The aircraft of which Sergeant Smith was a gunner was subjected to intense enemy anti-aircraft 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 anti-aircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter airplanes, two 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 three of the crew bailed out into the comparative safety of the sea. Sergeant 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. Sergeant 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.

Hand salute. Ready, Two!

Category: Air Force, Army, Blue Skies, Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

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Comm Center Rat

Snuffy Smith was on KP duty while the Secretary of War was waiting to present the MoH! Definitely seems like comic strip material.

I love this line from the MoH Citation: “and then by wrapping himself in protecting cloth, completely extinguished the fire by hand.” Snuffy snuffed out the fire to complement all his other aerial badassery.

Another incredible Valor posting and one I never knew about until this morning. Thanks, Mason.


One minor point: at the time of his MoH action in 1943, though an airman SSgt. Smith was a member of the US Army. The USAF didn’t exist until a few years later.

And the USAF didn’t get them all. The Army still has its share of “PVT Snuffies” even today. (smile)


The comment was directed at the “Everyone who’s served in the Air Force . . . . ” intro line in the article, AW1Ed.

The point: “Snuffy” isn’t unique to that service. (smile)

The use of the proper MoH photo is noted and appreciated.


“Smith even urinated on the fire, finally containing it.”

Well, he may have been a nonconforming fella, but improvising like that is fine with me. I knew sailors like that.

Is Snuffy exclusive to the USAAF, or is he a general character everywhere nowadays?


A literal HOT DAMN! Death had to come for Smith at the age of 72 because Smith probably would have beat Death’s ass and pissed on him if He came earlier!

3500 rounds, alternating between getting some, fighting fires, PISSING on fires, and tending wounded and he STILL managed to get the plane back onto the ground.

THAT my friends….is BRASS ONES.

5th/77th FA

Great story Mason. Thanks for the posting. A good example of the theory that there is always one more thing you can do when you improvise, adapt, and overcome.

“Let’s have a big splashy award ceremony. Make sure everybody knows except the guy getting the award.” SNAFU?




Because it extended below the fuselage, the B17 ball turret was retracted during takeoff and landing.