Fergus man’s crew rescued POWs during WWII
By Carol Stender
Maynard Smith’s World War II Navy uniform is unique.
While it bears the traditional Navy insignias, it’s the cuff of each sleeve that tells a special story. There you’ll find a special patch sewn on the material.
The patch has a specially sewn picture of a dragon that’s often seen in Chinese folklore. It’s a reminder of his service aboard the USS Doyle C. Barnes and a mission that had the crew rescuing English and Australian soldiers from a Prisoner of War camp in China.
Maynard, now 95 and living at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Fergus Falls, was part of the 125-member crew aboard the U.S. Navy vessel. The USS Doyle C. Barnes was a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort acquired by the U.S. Navy during WWII. Its primary purpose was to escort and protect ships in convoy in addition to other tasks assigned such as patron or radar picket. A radar picket is a radar-equipped station ship or submarine used to increase radar detection range for air attacks.
He doesn’t talk much about his service. There were things he saw that “weren’t good,” he said. Even now, some 70-plus years since his military service, the memories remain of wartime.
Maynard, who was an electrician working in the engine room, served at the tail end of the war, he said. His job involved “looking at the switchboard,” he recalled. Throughout his life, Maynard turned often to his skills at wiring and building.
He wasn’t the only family member serving during WWII. His three brothers were in the Army. Because the four brothers were all in military service at the same time, the pastor would visit his parents every week praying for the brothers’ safety and supporting the family.
So why did Maynard enlist in the Navy while his older brothers were in the Army?
“I got sick of hearing about the Army,” he said.
It was quite an experience for the Minnesota farmboy.
Maynard was born in Pipestone, the second youngest child of eight. His father farmed a half section of land and raised barley, oats, and corn for crops, milked 15 plus cows and had chickens and pigs.
He remembers helping with chores and milking the cows by hand.
When he was 12, the family moved to Milaca, because his father wanted to “fish everyday,” Maynard said. He and his brothers had ample opportunity to fish, as well.
The largest fish he caught included a 23-pound Northern and a 27-pound Muskie. His brother, Ted, grabbed the fish and helped pull it into the boat, Maynard said.
Such a large catch could remain quite the fish story, but they had the physical proof and were quick to show others. They brought it to Milaca telling townspeople of this large catch and they had it mounted. The Muskie was displayed for some time at the gas station where his brother worked.
They also hunted. He remembers pheasant hunting with his older brothers. While the older ones would carry the firearms, the younger ones would walk alongside to flush out the birds.
The bounty from those hunting treks would be skilled, cut up and fried, he said. Maynard remembers many pheasant meals.
Some outdoors adventures went slightly awry, due, in part, to the adventurous nature of boys. They earned some of their spending money trapping skunks which they sold to the furrier for $5 a skunk.
One day, on their way to school, they trapped one, but they continued to their one-room schoolhouse. There they put the skunk in front of a ventilator shaft.
“It got stinky,” Maynard said.
The teacher, looking for the source of the smell, found the brothers and their “catch.”
“She said, ‘You boys get away from there,’” remembered Maynard.
School was cancelled for the day as they attempted to air the building out. The brothers not only got $5 for the skunk, they also got a day off from studies.
When their mother learned of her sons’ antics, she uttered a phrase in Dutch. It was one Maynard says she said often. The phrase was “dirty business.”
The family spoke Dutch fluently and, when he started school, Maynard learned enough English to get by, he said. He learned quickly.
Maynard seems to have an innate curiosity of how things work. His mechanical abilities prompted him to build things the family needed or items he wanted to try.
He was interested in airplanes, but was often told by his brothers that he was too young to fly. That didn’t stop Maynard. In fact, it probably prompted him to give flying a try.
Maynard scrounged his money, he said, went to the Milaca airport and paid for flying lessons. No one in the family knew about it.
“One day I came home with my certificate and said, ‘Look what I have! I can fly a plane.’”
Shame on you, was the reply from the family, although they were proud of his accomplishment.
Maynard flew a Piper Cub when he was just 18, he said. Sometimes he rented a plane and other times the airport manager would loan him one. His brothers, who once said he was too young to fly, each got airplane rides from their younger brother. Later, he would take his sons for airplane rides.
And last year, at age 94, he had an opportunity to fly again. The pilot of a small private plane turned over the controls to Maynard. Even though it had been years since he’d piloted a plane, Maynard still remembered what needed to be done, and, the pilot said, he flew it “perfectly.”
He also built his own airplane, which he calls one of his biggest accomplishments. The plane is at the Milaca airport.
Every evening after supper they would play music and they would perform once a year at their church.
As the siblings got older, however, the fun wore off.
“We didn’t want to play anymore,” he said. “But my dad, when I told him that, just said, ‘Little boy, you better play.’”
Despite his youthful angst towards it, Maynard continued to enjoy music and built a stereo as a vessel to hear his favorite pieces. The unit has a turntable and reel-to-reel tape player. His son, Mikkel, recalls hearing the symphonic music his father enjoyed while he and his brother would play around with the tape player and turn up the volume to hear their own youthful tunes.
Maynard’s building talents continued when, in 1965, he constructed a color TV. They didn’t have one and he wanted a unit. The pixels were large and the color was mostly greens and reds, but he built it.
The inventive nature rose from need, Mikkel said. If the family didn’t have something and they wanted it, they built it.
Over his lifetime, Maynard has constructed a couple of houses, plus some cars. He worked with Mikkel on one model. That love of autos is something the two continue to share as Mikkel takes Maynard to the I-94 Speedway in Fergus Falls for the summertime Friday night races.
Maynard has fond memories of Milaca, but, like many in his youth, he moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to live and work. Through his job at the Workman’s Compensation department, he traveled throughout Minnesota. His wife, Fanny, was a court reporter and worked for the head judge in the seven-county metro area. In her career, she took on a job of a lifetime - serving as the court reporter for Jimmy Hoffa Sr. and Jimmy Hoffa Jr. The Hoffas sought her out because they believed they’d have a better chance with a female court reporter, Maynard said. Despite their criminal history, Maynard recalls the Hoffas as friendly.
Maynard and Fanny had two sons and two grandsons. Fanny has passed and Maynard is the only sibling living of his family.
The couple had two sons and two grandsons. Mikkel and Janice Johnson, who have been Maynard’s caregivers, often take him for excursions in the area. And there’s always the Friday night races to enjoy.
Janice has preserved the family history by taping conversations with Maynard where he’s detailed his life’s story.
He’s more apt to talk about his life and inventions than his military service. He’s proud of his service, but the wartime memories, even after all this time, remain too fresh to share.
Maynard focuses instead on his family and joyfully describes his brothers’ antics and growing up in Milaca plus his life with Fanny and their sons.
It’s a full life and, at 95, he looks forward to more adventures.