For decades, Air Force military training instructors have been using the example of an “Airman Snuffy” in preparing new trainees for the active Air Force. He (or she) is your average, everyday airman, working in the Air Force.
“Airman Snuffy is working the CQ desk one night when an MTI shows up without his CAC [ID card],” the Air Force training instructor would say. “What should Airman Snuffy do when the MTI demands to be let in?”
These are the questions that make trainee airmen sweat in their sleep.
Airman Snuffy is at times an instructional figure, showing young recruits how to do things. At other times, he’s a cautionary tale, illustrating the potential dangers of making poor decisions while wearing the uniform.
The real Airman Snuffy, Maynard Smith, was both of those things and more; when Smith was notified that he was awarded the Medal of Honor, he was on KP duty as a punishment. Nothing could be more illustrative of his military career.
Smith might be the first person to earn a nickname in both real life and military lore. In the civilian world, he was a rich, entitled brat living off an inheritance during World War II. When he got busted by the courts for failure to support a child, the judge sentenced him to the Army Air Forces.
In 1942, he enlisted and volunteered to be an aerial gunner, because aerial gunners got an automatic promotion to a non-commissioned officer’s rank and the pay that comes with it. Nobody wanted to fly with Smith, not because it was one of the most dangerous jobs of World War II, but because Smith was not a great airman — yet.
He hated taking orders. He displayed a total disrespect for younger men of any rank. He was just as spoiled in the Army Air Forces as he ever was as a civilian. Now he was just getting paid for it. He was stubborn and belligerent. So it took a full six weeks before he ever flew a combat mission over occupied France.
Along the way, he earned the nickname “Snuffy,” after a character from the then-popular comic strip “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.” The comic has been around since 1919 (it’s still in syndication today), and its characters were well-known. The comic Snuffy was a shiftless and bad-tempered character that had no ambition, other than to live his lonesome life his way — just like Maynard Smith.
Smith’s first mission came on May 1, 1943. The target was the U-boat pens over Saint-Nazaire, France, a place nicknamed “Flak City” by USAAF airmen for the sheer volume of anti-aircraft fire American B-17 bombers took over the city. But their bombing run happened without incident. The Germans didn’t even really send fighters to intercept them.
About two hours after dropping their bombs on Saint-Nazaire, they were approaching what they thought was the coast of England, but were surprised to be met with heavy anti-aircraft fire. It turns out the navigator of the lead plane accidentally had led them to Brest, France, with the “help” of faulty equipment.
The skies turned into clouds of flak as the planes fought their way to safety as Luftwaffe fighters began to tear their way through the B-17 bomber formations. Smith’s bomber got the worst of the German attack. Nazi guns ripped through the fuel tanks and started a massive fire in the aircraft. Meanwhile, two other crewmen were wounded and three more bailed out. Communications inside the plane were inoperable.
Also inoperable was Snuffy Smith’s ball turret, so he got out and — cracking jokes — began tending to the wounds of his fellow crewmen. As he worked to save their lives, he realized the aircraft was still under attack, and he was the only one left to defend it.
There was also a “massive” fuel-fed fire aboard. So the next thing he did was grab a fire extinguisher and start fighting the fire in the tail section. That’s when German planes started shooting at his B-17, a stark reminder that he had a lot to do. Smith manned the port .50-cal and then the starboard one, keeping the fighters at bay.
To facilitate fighting the fire, Smith began tossing everything that was both on fire and not tied down out the side of the plane, which was much easier now that there was a giant hole in the aircraft. Between taking shots at Nazi fighter planes and checking on his crew, he used the fire extinguishers aboard to put out the fire. When that didn’t work, he used all the water.
And when that didn’t work, he peed on the fire in the middle of an intense airborne firefight for good measure.
The planes wouldn’t land in England for another 1 hour, 20 minutes after the intense contact with the enemy. Smith finally managed to smother the flames with clothing, but the plane broke in half upon touchdown. Airman Snuffy and the crew of their B-17, along with every other bomber in the formation, had fought over Brest for 90 minutes.
At least seven planes went down there, and 93 airmen died in the grim melee. Two of the planes that made it back to England never flew again, and one of those was Snuffy Smith’s. The three men who bailed out of his plane disappeared into the English Channel and never were seen again.
The pilot of that plane told all incredulous ears that Maynard “Snuffy” Smith was “solely responsible for the return of the aircraft and lives of everyone aboard.” He was the second person in Europe to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. Up to that point, he would be the only one who survived what it took to earn it.