Hated by his peers, he managed to save their lives in an extreme situation

Maynard H. Smith: The heroic act of the ball turret gunner of a B-17 bomber

During World War II, the crews of the American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers recorded a very high number of casualties.

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Of the 10 crew members on each plane, one of those most at risk of dying in combat was the gunner of the spherical turret (also known as "ball turret"), inserted into the belly of the plane in the model B-17E and later in September 1941. Short aviators were required for this position, due to the limited space available at this defense post, equipped with two heavy machine guns Browning M-2 in .50 caliber (12.7 mm).

One of the gunners assigned to that position was Maynard Harrison "Snuffy" Smith, born May 19, 1911, in Caro, Michigan. This man had an eventful life before the war. He was a rather messy child, married and divorced twice (he had a son with his second wife), and was sentenced for not paying child support for his son. The judge gave him a choice: jail or the Army. Smith chose the Army, joining the ranks still handcuffed and led by a sheriff.

A ball turret from a B-17 bomber (source: This Day in Aviation).

Assigned to the US Army Air Forces, he volunteered for air gunnery school, which was a good form of promotion to quickly become a non-commissioned officer and get better pay. Already converted into a staff sergeant, he was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron. His new job was not going to bring him better moments than his civilian life, because due to his character and bad reputation, He got along badly with his classmates.

Smith carried out his first mission on May 1, 1943. His squadron's objective was to bomb the German submarine base in the French town of Saint-Nazaire, in the Cantabrian coast of that country, a base with formidable defenses (in fact, and as happened with other German submarine bases, it did not surrender until May 1945, when it had already been isolated from the rest of German forces and the allies already dominated all of France).

State in which the B-17F-65-BO with number 42-29649 ended up bombing, in which Smith flew on his first mission on May 1, 1943, for which he received the Medal of Honor (source: This Day in Aviation).

That mission went relatively smoothly to the target, at least by the standards of daytime bomber missions carried out by American B-17s (the British bombed at night). The problem came on the way back: due to a navigation error, the bomber formation descended to an altitude of 610 meters, believing that it was already flying over England, but it was still over French Brittany. Because of this, came under heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire and was attacked by German fighters.

The Germans hit Smith's B-17, causing a fuel leak and a fire inside the fuselage. The ball turret was disabled and Smith had to abandon it. Three other crew members managed to parachute out (they were never heard from again; they are believed to have drowned in the English Channel). Two of his companions who remained on board were badly injured and Smith knew that if he didn't do something, the plane would eventually blow up. For an hour and a half, Smith rescued the wounded, operated the side machine guns on the fuselage to deal with German fighters, and tried to put out the fire in the fuselage using fire extinguishers and even urinating on the flames.

US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson presenting the Medal of Honor to Maynard H. Smith (source: This Day in Aviation).

Miraculously, the B-17 Smith managed to reach a British airfield. The plane was literally destroyed: it had received more than 3,500 bullet hits and pieces of shrapnel from German anti-aircraft artillery. A few minutes after landing, the plane broke in half. Had it not been for Smith's efforts to put out the fire, the rest of the crew would have perished. For that act of heroism, Smith received the Medal of Honor, the highest US military award, personally presented by Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War.

Ironically, the same week he received the Medal of Honor, Smith was grounded to a kitchen service for being late for a briefing. He only flew four more missions, later being sent to administrative work. Later, he was punished for suffering from combat stress, a disease that many soldiers suffered from then but that was not as well studied as it is now. Finally, he was demoted to the status of private strong>due to the complaints of his officers for the poor performance of his work, and ended up being sent home on February 2, 1945. Despite everything, in his hometown he was received as a hero. strong>

Sergeant Maynard H. Smith giving the military salute and wearing the Medal of Honor around his neck (source: American Air Museum in Britain).

The rest of his life he did not keep very good memories of his time in the Army. he had legal problems, worked for the Treasury Department and founded the "Police Officers Journal", a magazine geared towards law enforcement officers. He was always considered a troublemaker, but that never eclipsed his act of heroism and the fact that he was the first of only five USAAF non-commissioned officers to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on May 11, 1984 at the age of 72, being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

You can see here the excellent computer recreation published by the YouTube channel Yarnhub about the story of Maynard H. Smith:


Main photo HistoryNet. Maynard H. Smith posing next to the ball turret of a B-17.

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