By Norris Burkes Nov 13 2022
If you’re a military veteran, you’ve likely met an Airman Snuffy.
“Snuffy” is a condescending term that military instructors use to describe the hapless, clueless or lazy recruit who’s constantly on the verge of trouble.
The name comes from a long-running comic strip, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Snuffy is a diminutive, rough hillbilly type living in the remote countryside.
So why mention him on this Veterans Day weekend?
Well, turns out Snuffy was the nickname for a real World War 2 hero, Staff Sgt. Maynard Harrison Smith, aka “Snuffy Smith.”
Maynard Smith was a rich, 31-year-old civilian brat draining his inheritance when he was arrested for failing to pay child support.
When the presiding judge sentenced him to military service, he “volunteered” to become an aerial gunner because the dangerous job brought instant promotion with advanced pay. However, the rigors of basic training had little effect on the ne’er-do-well, and his insubordination put him constantly on report.
Nevertheless, on May 1, 1943, Smith flew his first combat mission as a gunner in a B-17 bomber over Saint-Nazaire, France. The sortie was uneventful until the lead plane got lost, accidently leading the formation over Brest, France.
Suddenly the air space lit up with fire from German Luftwaffe fighter planes and Smith’s plane took massive amounts of flak and fire.
Smith describes the moment: “At this point, I had lost my electrical controls and I knew something was wrong. I manually cranked the thing [his gun] around, opened the armored hatch and got back in the airplane when I saw it was on fire. The radioman became excited and jumped out the window without a parachute.”
Military.com writer and veteran combat photographer Blake Stilwell describes how “Nazi guns ripped through the fuel tanks and started a massive fire in the aircraft. Smith grabbed a fire extinguisher and started fighting the fire in the tail section.
“In between tending the wounded, he manned the port .50-cal and then the starboard one, keeping the fighters at bay.”
The battle lasted 90 minutes with another 80 minutes for the return flight to England, where the plane broke in half on the runway.
Seven planes failed to return to base, and 93 airmen died that day.
The pilot of Smith’s plane gave credit to Smith for being “solely responsible for the return of the aircraft and the lives of everyone aboard.”
For his actions, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor.
However, according to reports in “The Stars and Stripes,” leadership failed to inform Smith of the presentation. So with the band in place and the Secretary of War waiting at the podium, a search party was sent to find the war hero.
They located Snuffy Smith scraping leftovers from breakfast trays, forced to serve kitchen duty for disciplinary reasons.
It was obvious then, and later, that the medal wouldn’t change him much.
Snuffy was discharged with what we’d call PTSD, and he was again late with child support payments. Some years later, he was jailed for filing a phony police report after faking the rescue of a woman. Another time, the FDA raided his apartment to confiscate the potion he was selling, guaranteed to restore “lost manhood.”
As he aged, Snuffy embellished his story to claim he took over for the critically injured pilot and flew the plane back to England, even though he had never flown before.
Why close this inspiring story with such a sad ending?
Because I believe all vets proudly share some attributes of Snuffy. There were times we were hapless, unsure and confused. But when the time came to do our job, we banded together to answer the call of our country and offer up our lives.
The late Andy Rooney, fellow airman and a better columnist than I, says it best in his book, “My War.”
“He was called “Snuffy” Smith because he had an undistinguished personality, and no one thought there was anything at all heroic about Snuffy until the day he saved the lives of six of the men on board his B-17 after it was hit by German fighter planes.
“Like “Snuffy” Smith, most heroes are unlikely. They aren’t heroic on purpose.
“Perhaps,” Rooney concluded, “no one 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.”
Staff Sgt. Maynard Smith, aka “Snuffy Smith” died on May 11, 1984, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Chaplain Norris’ book “Hero’s Highway” is available at www.thechaplain.net. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.
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