The halls of military history often see the blending of fact and fiction to create military lore that persists throughout the ages. Members of the nation’s youngest military branch have long heard the case plight of the infamous Airman Snuffy. Somewhat analogous to the Marine Corps’ Gomer Pyle, Airman Snuffy would be the enlisted airman who simply can’t get anything right. To be called Airman Snuffy is an insult of both character and abilities that perhaps only those in the Air Force would recognize. However, what most in the Air Force fail to realize is that unlike Gomer Pyle, Airman Snuffy is a real man. Not only is he a real man, but he is the proud recipient of the nation’s highest military honor. When his B-17 bomber came under intense enemy fire over France, Maynard “Snuffy” Smith spent over 90 minutes extinguishing fires and throwing exploding ammunition out of the window. Credited with saving the plane, Smith would go on to receive the Medal of Honor and was subsequently later demoted for insubordination. Part legend and part myth, the story of the real Airman Snuffy is one of inexplicable gallantry and fascinating contradictions.
Not Born to Fight or Lead
Most stories of gallantry highlight one’s ability to lead and act decisively under the duress. Such was not the case for Maynard Smith. Born in 1911 to a privileged family, Smith was prone to trouble and developed a reputation as an entitled brat. Lacking ambition, if Smith could have lived happily off his family’s inheritance then this would be his chosen path. However, after fathering a child and failing to pay child support, a local judge issued an order that would forever alter his life. He was given the choice in 1942 to either go to jail or go to war. In a remarkable turn for military history, Smith chose the latter.
In keeping with his character, Smith was trouble for the United States Army from the start. He didn’t like taking orders and certainly not from those younger than him. In an attempt to pick up rank in the quickest manner possible, he volunteer for aerial gunnery school. Bomber crews had a near 50% survival rate and given the demand rank was indeed easier to pick up. Arriving in England in 1943 as Sergeant, Smith’s reputation had already proceeded him. It was here that his obnoxious personality would earn him the legendary moniker of “Snuffy.” No one wanted to fly with Snuffy and for this, he spend his early months on the ground. Remarkably, it would be on his first and only mission that he would step into the halls of military history and lore.
90 Minutes into History
On May 1st, 1943, Smith finally got his orders to fly and he crawled into the B-17 to serve as its ball turret gunner. The mission itself went off without a hitch as the crew dropped their bombs on target and without so much as a scratch on the plane. However, the pilot made a navigational error on the return trip and instead of heading home they were heading straight for the heavily fortified city of Brest, France. The error would prove a costly one.
German fighters began to swarm the wandering plane and the ground exploded with anti-aircraft fire below. Enemy shells began to explode into the fuselage causing a fire to rage within the aircraft. With their communications system down, three of the crew members thought the situation so critical they opted to bail out of the plane over the English Channel. Smith wasn’t one for jumping out of a plane and so he was left to fight the fire nearly alone. In between manning the machine gun to ward off the enemy fighters and attempting to put out the fire, ammunition began to explode due to the intense heat of the fire. For 90 minutes, Smith would go back and forth between trying to extinguish the fire and hurling exploding ammo out of the plane. In a last ditch effort to extinguish the flames as the pilot tried to make it home, Smith resorted to urinating on the fire. Remarkably, Smith was success with that final act.
A Due Honor
As the plane returned home in terrible condition, word of Smith’s actions began to spread. The man with whom no wanted to fly had single handedly saved the plane. Even more remarkable, Maynard “Snuffy” Smith had been put up for the nation’s highest military honor. In fitting fashion, when the Secretary of War showed up to confer the honor, Smith was on KP duty for continued disciplinary problems and was late to his own ceremony. After receiving the Medal of Honor, Smith continued to live up the “Snuffy” legend to the point that he was actually demoted back to Private despite holding a medal of inexplicable gallantry.
After the war, the United States Air Force was formed and began to develop their own traditions and culture. Borrowed from World War 2, the legend of Airman Snuffy became Air Force history. Many an Airman has been called “Airman Snuffy” without realizing the gallantry of the man behind the name. Airman Snuffy is real and he is a real bonafide war hero, regardless of the connotations associated with the name. Maynard “Snuffy” Smith survived the war and lived until 1984 when he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Part hero, part troublemaker and part myth, the legend of Airman Snuffy persists to this day.