How A B-17 Gunner Did The Impossible
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This is how B-17 Flying Fortress ball turret gunner Maynard H. Smith managed to do the impossible and earned him a Medal of Honor during a raid in Saint-Nazaire.
First Gunner Mission
Smith enlisted in the USAF in 1942 and joined the 423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bomb Group after finishing Aerial Gunnery School.
Flying on his first mission as a gunner, Smith and his comrades went on a mission to bomb U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire in Loire-Atlantique, France. However, Saint-Nazaire was a place that was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and was even coined as the “Flak City” by airmen.
A lot of bombers failed to hit their target, causing them to turn back. Still, the middle part of the bombing mission turned out well, with no enemy fighters engaging them after they released their bombs.
Not As Expected
However, due to issues in navigation after being in the cloud bank, the navigator on the lead plane thought they were approaching the southern coast of Britain. Little did they know at that time that they were approaching the heavily fortified German-occupied city of Brest, France.
When the pilot descended at 2,000 feet, they were immediately overtaken by German fighters and heavy anti-aircraft fire.
Massive Turkey Shoot
The situation turned out to be a massive turkey shoot and the fastest turkey at the lowest altitude was Aircraft 649 with Smith onboard.
Their bomber was hit causing fuel tanks to rapture, culminating in a massive fire on the center of the fuselage. Smith’s ball turret also lost power as he helped other crew members. Three of the crew bailed out while Smith helped his two comrades who were seriously wounded.
A Heroic Act
Apart from helping other crew members, Smith managed to man the .50 caliber machine guns. At this point, the heat inside the plane was so intense it threatened to break the entire thing in half.
For almost 90 minutes, Smith alternated between shooting and attacking enemy planes to tending to the wounded crew. To starve the fire of fuel, he threw burning debris and exploding ammunition into large holes melted in the fuselage.
Smith finally managed to land his bomber in England on the nearest available runway. However, as soon as the plane touched down, the plane broke in half. The bomber was also been hit by approximately 3,500 bullets and shrapnel.
The three crew members that bailed out were never heard from again, but Smith had managed to six other lives aboard the plane. For his undaunted bravery that day, Smith received the Medal of Honor.