Thursday, June 4, 2009

Snuffy Smith

I have been listening to a wonderful history about the Eighth United States Air Force stationed in England and flying bombing missions over Germany during World War II.  I think I enjoy the book so much because of my good friend, Allen Rosza.  As a young 20-year-old he was a pilot of one of the flying fortresses making bombing runs over Germany.  Allen went on to make the Air Force his career and was a Lt. Colonel and in line to become a General when he was called to serve as a mission president and took an early retirement.  After his mission, he had served as a stake president a regional representative, and then Temple president of the Los Angeles Temple.  We became good friends because of my work with CES and because I taught his football playing triplet sons in an Institute class at Santa Ana College.
When I was in a rehabilitation hospital for six months following my injury, Allen was a frequent visitor and spent many hours at my bedside encouraging me and giving me blessings.  My son John would spend most Sundays with me so his mom could stay home with the girls and not worry about me.  Our favorite thing to do was to get Allen to tell us war stories about his experiences of flying as a very young man over Germany.  Believe me, it was exciting and John and I loved it.

The title of the book, in case you are interested, is "Masters of the Sky" by Donald L. Miller.  It is an in depth history of the Eighth Air Force and the part it played in helping to win World War II.  If you don't like history don't read this book, but if you do you will be well rewarded for the time invested. It is really a heart wrenching history of gallant young men from all walks of life who gave their lives to save the world from the maniacal dictator, Hitler.  The mortality rate in the Eighth Air Force was far higher than in any other branch of the service during the war.  One of the crew members on one of the flying Fortresses was 27 years old and was considered by his mates to be an old man.  Most of the men, including the pilots, were in their late teens or very early 20s.  Many things in this history have touched my heart, but especially the desire these young men had to help and protect, and save the lives of fellow crew members. Each bomber had a crew of 10 men and their great motivation in battle was not to bomb the Germans, or shoot down the enemy fighter planes, but to work together to save one another's lives and hopefully make it back to England in one piece.  The spirit of these bomber crews could well have been that of Alexander Dumas' Three Musketeers, "One for all and all for one." Sadly, so many never made it back to England or back to the United States either.

One incident from the book that was very inspirational to me was the story of "Snuffy Smith."  Now, those of you that are old enough to remember will know that Snuffy Smith was a hillbilly cartoon character that appeared in newspapers for decades.  The Snuffy Smith of the Eighth Air Force was actually a young man named Maynard H. Smith.  All of his fellow airmen considered him to be a real "wingnut" and always messing up everything he tried to do.

It was during his first mission, on May 1, 1943 that Staff Sergeant Smith, who was assigned to the ball gun turret, helped save the lives of six of his wounded comrades, put out a blazing fire and drove off wave after wave of German fighters. The target of the mission was the U-boat pens on the Bay of Biscay.  The submarine pens were heavily defended by antiaircraft guns and the entire area was nick-named "flak city" by the airmen. After successfully dropping their bombs on the target they turned toward home.  It was at that time that Staff Sergeant Smith's bomber was hit, rupturing the fuel tanks and igniting a massive fire in the center of the fuselage.  What "Snuffy Smith" did next earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

From the official Medal of Honor citation we read:
"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 aircraft attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943. The aircraft was hit several times by antiaircraft fire and cannon shells of the fighter aircraft, 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."  [The information above comes from the book, Masters of the Sky, and Wikipedia]

Maynard Smith was one of the fortunate few to survive the bombing raids over Germany and lived into his early 70s.

This incident is actually one of many that could be told of young men putting their lives on the line to save a comrade.  They knew they had to be a cohesive team and concerned about one another as much as they were about themselves or they had no chance of survival.

Of course the same is the case with all of us.  We simply cannot navigate this "flak field" called mortality without the support and aid of our family and friends.

"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up."  [Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10]
Casey Stengel, famous manager of the New York Yankees, modestly admitted to reporters after winning his first World Series, "I couldn't have done it without my players!"

Jo Anne, like "Snuffy Smith" has put her life on the line for me.  I modestly admit, like Casey, that I could not have done it without her and other family members and many friends.  I'm sure we all have "Snuffy Smith's" in our lives to have been able to come as far as we have.


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