Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fire Fight

The anti-hero is a common enough tale in fiction, but even in real life they exist. Maynard Harrison Smith was born to wealthy parents in May 1911, and after his father died he lived off his inheritance. Throughout his life he had been described as troubled and difficult. He first married in 1929 and had a child. In 1932 the couple divorced. Smith remarried in 1941. In 1942 at the age of 31, he failed to pay his child support to his first wife and was taken to court. The judge gave him an option, jail or the military. Not a clear-cut choice with a country that had just become involved in the Second World War. Smith chose the military, and when a group of thirty odd recruits assembled outside the courthouse in Caro, Smith was lead to join the group while in handcuffs.

During training Smith found it hard to accept younger men telling him what to do and had a difficult time. However, he volunteered for aerial gunnery training as he saw it as the fastest route to promotion. He carried out his specialisation training in Texas, upon completion Smith was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and then transferred to the UK. Upon arriving, around mid March 1943, he was assigned to the 306th Bomb Group flying out of Turleigh Airfield. Sgt Smith was disliked and no one wanted him on his crew. This kept him out of action for six weeks. However, on the 1st of May 1943 Sgt Smith was picked to fill in a blank spot in a bomber crew. He had to man the ball turret.

The target, the U-boat pens are the large square building, just to the right of centre. Normandy dock is the angled water feature above the centre.
The mission was to hit the U-boat pens at St Nazaire. Seventy-eight B-17's were meant to go on this mission, however bad weather caused thirty-eight to abort, and another eleven turned back with mechanical problems. The remaining twenty-nine carried onto the target. Luck was on the bombers side this time as they reached their target having encountered no enemy action. They bombed and turned out to sea then flew into dense cloud. The lead navigator made a mistake with his timings, and when they emerged from the cloud bank and saw themselves over the sea, but with a landmass to their north, the navigator declared this was England. The bomber formation began to descend.

In reality this was Brittany, and the bombers were heading towards one of the more heavily defended areas, Brest. By now the Germans had gotten organised and had managed to vector about twenty fighters onto the B-17's. Suddenly the air was filled with planes and gunfire. The fighters savaged Smiths B-17, there was a loud explosion, and the intercom went dead. The pilot of Smiths aircraft ordered his bombardier to check on the rest of the crew, while he struggled to hold the B-17 steady. The Sergeant opened the door to the radio room only to find it engulfed in flames, trapping the crew in the forward section.

In the rear of the plane Sgt Smith’s turret had lost electrical power. He hand cranked it round to allow him to escape. As he emerged the radio man raced past him with a parachute, and jumped, the two waist gunners followed suit. Smith however stood his ground. He realised that the plane was holding steady in the formation, so at least someone was at the controls. Smith started to attack the fire with a handheld fire extinguisher. Then he saw the tail gunner crawl out of his burning position. As Smith rushed to him to drag him to safety he saw that the tail gunner had been hit in the back. Smith gave first aid, before returning to firefighting.
Smith manning a waits gun in a posed photograph.
Through one of the holes torn in the fuselage he saw German fighters barrelling in for another attack. Single handily Smith drove the attacking fighter away with the .50 cal guns. As he returned to fighting the fire he saw that ammunition boxes were beginning to catch alight, so he began to throw them out the large hole torn in the fuselage. Several of these exploded seconds after they cleared the aircraft.

The reason for the fire being so bad was the oxygen system had been hit and this was powering the flames. Again, Smith attacked it with the fire extinguishers, however he saw another fighter closing and raced back to the waist gun to drive it off. By now the fire extinguishers were empty, and Smith was forced to improvise using water bottles, and some accounts even say he urinated on the fire to try and keep it under control. For the next thirty minutes Smith alternated between giving first aid, fighting off German fighters and attacking the fire with his hands trying to beat the flames out.
The Damage to Smith's plane.
Eventually the fires were out, and the German fighters stopped coming. Smith worried that the plane would be melted in half by the heat so he began to throw everything he could over the side to lighten the tail section. Eventually the plane set down at Predennack in Cornwall. Some 3500 holes were counted in the fuselage. About ten minutes after setting down the plane did break in half. The three crew who jumped were lost at sea. Smith was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his actions. A large ceremony was laid on, with the US Secretary of War presenting the medal. However, at the ceremony Smith was nowhere to be found, and everyone involved had to stand and wait while he was tracked down. Smith was on punishment duties, cleaning up in the kitchen after getting drunk and missing another mission. Smith was only to fly another four missions before being diagnosed with combat stress. He remained in England, demoted to private and doing clerical work, until 26th of May 1945. While on these duties Smith married for the third time to an English woman, and they had four children.
Smith getting his medal.
After the war Smith worked for the Department of the Treasury and died in May 1984 in Florida.

Image credits:
www.combinedops.com and thisdayinaviation.com