“Airman Snuffy” was a cartoon character used for decades by the United States Air Force, its Army Air Corps, and Army Air Forces predecessors for training purposes. Airman Snuffy’s actions often illustrate what a good airman should not do. During World War II, the real-life Airman Snuffy was an entitled trust fund brat, often berated and punished by superiors for being a jackass and having his head stuck up his rear. Then, on his first combat mission, he ended up earning a Medal of Honor.
A Trust Fund Kid in the Military
Heroes often are – but not always – nice and likable. Few illustrate the “not always” bit better than Maynard Harrison Smith, an often insufferable jerk and sometimes repellent person. Nonetheless, he deservedly earned America’s most prestigious award for valor in combat. Smith was born in 1911 in the small Michigan town of Caro. In typical hero stories, this would be a segue into how he grew up with American small-town values--community, church, Boy Scouts, discipline, responsibility, and the value of honest hard work in the family’s workshop or nearby farm. This is not that typical hero’s story.
As the son of a prosperous lawyer who then went on to become a judge, Smith grew up as a rich spoiled brat. He made himself obnoxious to the locals with exploits like riding a horse through a drugstore and crashing his father’s car into a buggy. He was basically the “Affluenza Defense” Kid. To try and straighten him out, his dad sent him to a military school. After graduation, Smith got married and worked for the US Treasury and Michigan’s Banking Commission. When his dad died in 1934 and left him a sizeable inheritance, Smith promptly quit work to live the idle trust fund kid life.
Smith was a divorced father when America joined WWII, and he had no intention to give up his life of ease, with summers spent in Michigan and winters in Florida. However, he decided to join the military. As he told a friend, he was not “particularly pugilistically inclined.” However, with the looming draft, or as some accounts have it, because a judge gave him a choice between jail for falling behind on child support or joining the Army, Smith enlisted in August 1942. He disliked being a private and taking orders from everybody, so he volunteered for aerial gunnery school because it offered the quickest route to sergeant.
Upon completion of training, he got his sergeant’s stripes and was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, where he was assigned to the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomb Group. Smith found it hard to fit in. His privileged background set him apart from men hardened by the Great Depression. He was also 31-years-old, significantly older than most of his comrades and even most of his officers. And he was a small guy with a chip on his shoulder. As described by Andy Rooney, later famous as a curmudgeonly 60 Minutes commentator but then a 24-year-old Stars and Stripes correspondent, others saw Smith as a “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.”
Since his surname was Smith and he was a small guy with a bad attitude, other airmen nicknamed him “Snuffy” after the short, ill-tempered, shiftless, and thoroughly obnoxious comic strip character Snuffy Smith. For his part, Smith, who had precious few endearing personality traits, was just as snobby as the child of privilege he seemed to many. As he put it, most of his comrades were: “people that I had no interest in but was forced to associate with simply because I was in the army.”
Rooney had a good take on people like 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.”
Snuffy Smith Becomes a Hero
Because of his attitude, few aircrews wanted Smith, and it took six weeks before he flew his first combat mission, on May 1st, 1943, as a ball turret gunner. That day, 78 B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bombers targeted German U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, in occupied France. The mission went well at first, with no German fighters encountered en route. Flak was lighter than expected above the target, and the few German fighters that took to the sky – after the bombs had already been released – were easily evaded when the B-17s flew into cloud cover. Such good fortune was too good to last, and it didn’t.
On the way back, the formation’s lead navigator mistook the southern coast of the Breton Peninsula in northwest France for the southern coast of England. Thinking they were over home territory, he brought the bombers down to 2000 feet, straight over what turned out to be German-occupied Brest, France. The formation was immediately engulfed in clouds of murderous antiaircraft fire, while dozens of Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters fell upon the B-17s and began to tear them to pieces. Snuffy’s Fortress caught the worst of it as German flak ripped its fuel tanks and ignited a massive fire in the fuselage.
Smith’s ball turret lost power, so he scrambled out. Three crewmen parachuted out of the stricken plane, never to be seen again, while Snuffy juggled fighting the flames and tending to other badly injured airmen. The heat was so bad that it threatened to melt the fuselage and break the bomber in half. Smith threw burning debris and exploding ammunition out of melted and blasted holes in the fuselage and sprayed the fire with extinguishers until they ran empty. He even urinated on the flames in a bid to put them out before he finally got it under control.
Smith already had his hands full tending to the wounded comrades while fighting off an inferno when things took yet another turn for the worse. German Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters spotted Snuffy’s stricken airplane and fell upon the bomber to finish it off. Snuffy was the only crewman physically able to man the machine guns and try to fight them off. So he alternated between firing bursts from the B-17’s left and right waist guns, fighting the flames, and comforting injured crewmen. Over the following 90 minutes, Smith put on a virtuoso multitasking performance, as he exerted himself more frantically than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.
Eventually, Smith’s bomber reached England, landed at the first available airfield, and broke in half as soon as it touched down. It had over 3500 bullet and shrapnel holes in it. The pilot wrote that Snuffy was “solely responsible for the return of the aircraft and lives of everyone aboard,” and he was recommended for a Medal of Honor. On July 15th, 1943, the Eighth Air Force arranged a ceremony covered by two radio stations for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to present Smith personally with the nation’s highest award.
Seven generals were invited, along with busloads of reporters. A USAAF band was in place, and a low-level flyover by eighteen B-17s was scheduled. There was a hiccup, however: no Snuffy. Nobody had told him, and while the bigwigs milled about waiting for the ceremony to proceed, the guest of honor was in the mess-hall on KP duty, cleaning slops as punishment for repeatedly returning to base late from leave. He was tracked down, hurriedly gussied up, and sent to the ceremony where Stimson draped a Medal of Honor around his neck.
Hero Smith's Fall from Grace
Smith flew five more combat missions, before he was grounded for “operational exhaustion” – PTSD – and assigned office work. He was not a humble hero and milked his Medal of Honor for all it was worth. He still kept apart from and refused to socialize with fellow airmen, signed autographs like a movie star, and slept in until ten while his comrades got up before dawn. While everybody else got around on foot or by bicycle, he had MPs drive him around. Such privileges rubbed those around him the wrong way.
Finally, the outfit’s operations officer recommended that Smith be demoted to private for an “insufferable” attitude and poor performance. The hero was often AWOL and displayed “no responsibility to his duties or to his officers and fellow NCOs.” It took repeated warnings and reprimands to get any work out of him. The USAAF agreed, and on December 17th, 1944, Smith was busted to private, a demotion he angrily described as “the rotten deal that lousy outfit gave me.” A medical board grounded him that same day, and he was sent back to America soon thereafter.
Back in Michigan, Smith was still a hero, and his hometown welcomed him back with a parade that featured the state’s governor and a gift of a pricey gold wristwatch. He got his discharge papers soon afterward and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked for the IRS. He was bitter about his time in uniform, which he told a friend “was just so much time of my life wasted.” When the Pentagon tried to set up some interviews, Smith made sure that they wouldn’t call again “when I [got] through putting them in their proper place.”
Negative press followed him for years. In 1946, Smith’s ex got an extradition warrant for missed child support payments from the same Michigan governor who had honored him a year earlier. A judge refused to extradite him after he promised to catch up on the payments, and the Washington Evening Star ran a story with the headline Extradition of Smith, War Hero Is Refused in Non-Support Case. A couple of years later, he was busted by the Food and Drug Administration for peddling a quack remedy to restore “lost manhood” and got a suspended sentence for false advertising. The Detroit Free Press ran a front-page story with the headline Salve Puts War Hero in Jam.
Smith made the headlines again in 1952, this time with good coverage – at first. That summer, he rescued a suicidal young woman from a sixth-floor ledge in Washington while hundreds of onlookers watched from below. As the city’s Evening Star put it in a headline, Medal-of-Honor Man Saves Young Mother From Suicide Plunge. Then it turned out that the whole thing was a stunt. Smith, who was thinking about running for Virginia governor, wanted to get his name in the press, so he paid the woman $500 to fake a suicide attempt so that he could fake rescuing her. He got ten days in jail.
He kept out of the headlines from then on and gradually grew less bitter about his wartime experience. He retired to Florida, started attending veteran reunions, and became active in his local VFW post. He also began to embellish his heroism, which needed no embellishment. In addition to having fought a fire inside his plane while firing at the German fighters outside, he falsely claimed that he had also taken over from the injured pilot and flown the plane back to base, despite never having flown before. The man was certainly not Hollywood’s idea of a hero, but still, despite all his shortcomings, he deserved his place among the ranks of America’s bravest. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
Some Sources and Further Reading
History Net – “The Checkered Life of War Hero Snuffy Smith”
Home of Heroes – “Maynard H. ‘Snuffy’ Smith: You Don’t Have to Be a Saint to Be a Hero”
Malmstrom Air Force Base – Legend of Airman Snuffy: The Maynard Smith Story
Military dot Com – “The Original ‘Airman Snuffy’ Was Real and a Total Badass”National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force – Medal of Honor, SSG Maynard ‘Snuffy’ Smith