Monday, September 25, 2017

Redemption won.....and lost

If Google is accurate, (doubtful), this is my 20th post on Air Force Medal of Honor Recipients.  Which probably means that I've discussed close to 30 of them.  Many of the Dual Recipient posts were flying bombers at their time in the sun, although a pair of them received them for ground actions in WWII.

It has struck me in doing the research, how "normal" these guys were.  As a rule, they weren't gung-ho super hero types that you might expect to see from the movies.  Rather they were normal folks trying to do their job the best they could,  finish it and return home to their lives and loved ones.

However, something occurred while they were doing their job that transcended their long term desires and reset their immediate priorities, with the concurrent cost of many of their lives.

But, normal people also have faults and flaws that they may or may not be able to control for any lengthy period of time.

One of these people appears to be Sgt Maynard Smith.

Sgt Smith was born in Michigan to an upper middle class family.  The family was comparatively wealthy and as such, Sgt Smith didn't have many responsibilities.  He married young and had a child.  Things didn't work out and the marriage ended quickly. Sgt Smith was 31.

As WWII started, Sgt Smith was working the rules trying to avoid the draft when he came in front of a Judge for failure to pay child support.  The Judge gave him the usual choice BITD.  Prison or the Army.

He chose the Army, specifically Aerial Gunnery, primarily because that was an automatic promotion to NCO with its increased pay, and it wasn't the infantry.

However, he didn't fit in very well.  Apparently, he didn't like taking orders especially when they were issued by people younger and, in his mind, less intellectual than he.

So, lets just say he didn't fit in real well.

He makes it through gunnery school and is assigned to the 432nd Bomb Squadron 306th Bomb Group, a B-17 unit in 8th Air Force as a ball turret gunner.

A lengthy video, but a lot of information I had no prior knowledge about the B-17 and its gunners.

At 5'3", he fit one of the key requirements of the position, fitting into the turret.
X marks the spot for the hatch.  For reference I wear a size 10 shoe.
So, our Hero is in theater and trained to do an extremely important, dangerous job with a command that is taking enormous casualties.  

Because of his attitude, antics and personality, no one wants to fly with him.  The B-17 crews were very tight knit and had to rely on each other implicitly.  No one has confidence that Sgt Smith will pull his weight.

However, as I said, enormous casualties brought him to his day in the crucible.  May 1st,1943, the 306th will be part of an 80 bomber attack on the submarine pens at Saint Nazarre France.  The bombers will take off and head west and come into France from the Atlantic, minimizing their time over land.  Saint Nazarre had earned the nickname "Flak City"

This will be Sgt Smith's first mission.

Takeoff is smooth, however the rendezvous does not go well and only 20 aircraft are in the formation as they approach the target area.  Sgt Smith and the rest of the crew are in their battle positions as the attack begins.

The 20 bombers reach the release point with little problem and the bombs are dropped.  The egress plan is to turn west again proceed feet wet, then turn north over the Atlantic and proceed home.

For whatever reason, the lead navigator makes a mistake and turns them back east too early.  Shortly thereafter, they see land off to the east, so they drop down to 2000 feet as they cross the coastline.

Of France.

Right over the well defended harbor of Brest.  Intense flak starts to burst around them and they are also attacked by FW-190s.  

The bomber is hit several times as they turn northward and is now on fire.

It has also experienced hydraulic failure, rendering the ball turret inoperable.  Sgt Smith manages to get it into the specific conditions where the hatch will open (which was quite often not possible thus trapping the gunner inside), exits into the fuselage.  There he notices that the aircraft is on fire, in both the radio compartment forward as well as the waist gun positions aft.

The radioman panics and bails out, as do the waist gunners.  No sign of them was ever found.  Sgt Smith begins fighting the fire with the on board fire extinguishers when he notices the tail gunner is injured and trying to make it forward through the flames.  Sgt Smith gets him to, relative, safety and administers emergency first aid for a bullet wound through the lungs.  

Sometime, during this episode, bullets start flying again as another FW-190 attacks.  Sgt Smith mans one of the waist guns and starts firing back, transferring to the other gun as the fighter passes.  At some point, during these repeated attacks the fire has gotten so bad that holes have burned through the floor and ammunition is beginning to explode.  

Sgt Smith starts jettisoning the exploding ammunition through the holes whilst alternating between firing at the persistent Focke Wulf and fighting the fire.  At some point, the Focke Wulf RTBs.

Sgt Smith returns to fighting the fires, eventually running out of fire extinguishers.  At that point, according to the official report, he wraps himself in fire retardant cloth and starts beating the fire out.  According to his side of the story, he used an unconventional internally carried personal liquid to help extinguish the fire.

In ANY case, the fire is extinguished and the Pilot, Lt Johnson, who is on his 25th and final mission (and, having reportedly said as they dropped their bombs and started heading for home "My that was easier than expected" thereby jinxing the whole operation) lands the badly crippled bomber at the first available base, which upon landing and stopping breaks into two at the point in the fuselage where the Sgt Smith had put out the fire.
The large hole is where the Radio room was.  There were over 3500 holes in the bomber all told.

All on board survived, the only fatalities were the three crewmen who had bailed out.

Lt Johnson recommended Sgt Smith for the Medal of Honor.  This was approved by FDR as it included several firsts.  It was the first Medal of Honor presented to a living airman since one was presented to General Doolittle.  It was the first Medal of Honor presented to an Airman in the ETO and it was the first Medal of Honor presented to an enlisted airman.

The ceremony was scheduled and Secretary of War Frank Stimson would be presenting the Medal to Sgt Smith.  However,  a few days before the ceremony, Sgt Smith, having reverted to his usual ways, had missed a mission briefing resulting in his having to be replaced on the plane.  He was given two weeks KP as punishment.

The ceremony is about to begin, but no recipient to be seen.  Somebody at the last minute remembers the KP and rounds him up.
Fresh off KP and receiving our nation's highest honor

Sgt Smith flies 4 more times before grounding himself for "battle fatigue".  According to the above video, this was not unusual, especially for ball turret gunners.  He is relieved from duty, reduced in rank to PFC and finishes the war behind a desk.

Post war, he relished the role of "hero", and in 1952, in a bid to win an election stages a suicide attempt rescue.  His accomplice, the ex-wife of a friend who was down on her luck and needed the $500 bucks he offered, climbs out on the 6th floor ledge of the YWCA in Washington.  

Sgt. Smith climbs out and "talks" her down.  The press immediately ramps up the "War Hero saves despondent Women" meme and his popularity is on the rise.  However, on questioning the women and asking Sgt Smith why he was in the building, the story falls apart and he is charge and convicted of filing a false report.

Sic transit gloria mundi

Sgt Smith's Citation: *
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.
The aircraft of which Sgt. Smith was a gunner was subjected to intense enemy antiaircraft fire and determined fighter airplane attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943. The airplane was hit several times by antiaircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter airplanes, 2 of the crew were seriously wounded, the aircraft's oxygen system shot out, and several vital control cables severed when intense fires were ignited simultaneously in the radio compartment and waist sections.
The situation became so acute that 3 of the crew bailed out into the comparative safety of the sea. Sgt. Smith, then on his first combat mission, elected to fight the fire by himself, administered first aid to the wounded tail gunner, manned the waist guns, and fought the intense flames alternately. The escaping oxygen fanned the fire to such intense heat that the ammunition in the radio compartment began to explode, the radio, gun mount, and camera were melted, and the compartment completely gutted.
Sgt. Smith threw the exploding ammunition overboard, fought the fire until all the firefighting aids were exhausted, manned the workable guns until the enemy fighters were driven away, further administered first aid to his wounded comrade, and then by wrapping himself in protecting cloth, completely extinguished the fire by hand.
This soldier's gallantry in action, undaunted bravery, and loyalty to his aircraft and fellow crewmembers, without regard for his own personal safety, is an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces."

*Formatting assistance courtesy  of  Mike AKA Proof



  1. Not exactly a savory character, but when the chips were down, he stepped up.

  2. Great post.

    Years and years ago I was watching some WWII film or documentary with my father, and he mentioned that his eyesight got him turned down for aircrew during the war. He paused for quite a while and then he said that due to his small size he guessed he would have been a ball turret gunner and the chances of surviving the war would have been slim.

    Your post gave me a chance to think about my father and reminisce, thank you.

    1. Thanks

      Fate is an interesting thing isn't it.

      My pleasure.

  3. One doesn't fight or win a war with angels. Of course these days it is like the powers that be want only saints and zero sinners. You're unlikely to win with that crew either.

    1. Yep. Nor is it likely that war is going to change one for the better. It could, but it's more likely to do the opposite.

  4. Puts me in mind, a bit of Randy "Duke" Cunningham. As a youth, I read his autobiography, Fox Two, multiple times (my father had a signed copy) and that book definitely influenced my nascent views on the Vietnam War and air combat in the age of guided missiles.

    That Duke would turn into a corrupt dirtbag congresscritter was tough for me to accept, even in my twenties. Rereading Fox Two a few years ago was kind of depressing.

    1. My feelings exactly about Cunningham. And I guess, it's a different form of the same letdown I felt as a kid when professional athletes fell from grace. Nowadays, that happens so often that an athlete that does the right thing makes the news. Can anyone say Alejandro Villanueva?

  5. People seem to use the phrase "ordinary men / extraordinary deeds" with the unspoken assumption that they are "good" ordinary men. But ordinary encompasses the whole, good, bad, and indifferent. Circumstances can result in any of them rising to that occasion.

    Defiant's observation also reminded me of a conversation about Snake Eaters and Agency types I had with an old SE Asian hand - "They wouldn't be successful in that line of work if they didn't have some larceny in their hearts to start with"


    1. Absolutely. I thought it interesting that I only found out about the 1952 incident when I was looking for pictures of Sgt Smith. I saw one with him and the young lady, clicked on the visit site and was taken to the hoax website. Most of the other sources omitted that from their telling the tale.

  6. Another story from my dad's group.

    I had the good fortune to meet and get to know Mr. Bob Rohde. He is pictured here with his crew--

    Bob and my dad knew each other before the war because they were dating two sisters. My dad was inducted and started basic training at Ft. Ord two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. At that time, Bob was employed by Shell Oil. He told me that at a later date, he was walking down Market Street in San Francisco and just walked into a recruiting office. Both of them wound up as pilots for the 447th.

    Bob told me that at one point while he and his crew were still stateside, his ball turret gunner had made some casual remark like "Yeah skipper, you oughta try it some time." to which Mr. Rohde replied "OK, I will.". An opportunity arose one day when Bob let his navigator get some practice at the flight controls under the supervision of his co-pilot. Bob went aft to try out the ball turret. Apparently when you get in the ball turret, your view of the rest of the ship is pretty well blocked. Bob looked at me and said "Jesus, when they closed the hatch, for a second I thought the damn thing had fallen off the plane!"

    After the war, Bob went back to work for Shell, eventually piloting Jimmy Doolittle's 'Corporate' B-25.

    1. I'm pretty sure that, even at my slimmest, I couldn't have folded myself into that thing. But, that was probably an effective leadership technique. Don't ask your folks to do something you won't do yourself. Kudos to him.

  7. Not all the MOH winners were 'perfect'... But they did what was necessary when their turn in the barrel came...

    1. Yep. One would hope they'd be the better for it, but settle for the rest of us being better for it.

  8. My Gold Star Widow neighbor introduced me to MOH Awardee, John Baca. Great man, even bigger hero, but she told me the guy is flat broke. Not because he can't manage it, it's because he's generous to a fault- giving everything to those who ask. He's taken advantage of by some folks too often. Its heroes like Sgt Smith and Baca that we have to look out for. Our heroes may not be perfect, but sometimes we need to look out for them.

    1. Yeah, I know a few folks like that. The nice thing about most of them is the only thing they see negative about giving their all is they don't want to be a burden on others either. I'm good with that.

  9. "At 5'3", he fit one of the key requirements of the position, fitting into the turret." True story: My last job was working for one of the engineers who designed gunnery turrets for the air force. He's pushing a hundred now. He's kind of a short little fellow, about 5'-5'2". He said he used his brother as a model for the turrets. Unfortunately, his brother was about the same height he was.

    1. Ugh! I'm sure there was some aerodynamics and physics involved also, but do you think he could have padded it maybe 6 inches?

    2. Yeah, in his defense, he was probably concerned about the amount of drag they produced, but yeah...imagining that someone taller than you might actually have to use that thing could have been a plus!

    3. They opened the door of the turret in the B-17 in that picture. I was terrified they'd ask me to get in. I was absolutely sure that if I made it in, they'd have to cut me out with a welder. TINY!

    4. Oh...You were right about adding spacing on the Commendation. Thanks.


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