Born on October 26, 1920, in Boise, Idaho, Maxwell joined the Army from Larimer County, Colorado. He served overseas as a technician fifth grade with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Assigned as the battalion "wire man", he carried a heavy roll of cable and was tasked with stringing phone lines to the command post. He began the war armed with a M1 Garand rifle, but was later reclassified as a non-combatant and carried only a .45 caliber pistol.
With the 7th Infantry, Maxwell took part in the North African Campaign followed by the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, marching to Palermo and on to Messina. The unit then landed at Salerno shortly after the Allied invasion of mainland Italy and fought northwards to an area near Cassino. Wounded during the early stages of the subsequent Battle of Anzio in January 1944, Maxwell spent the next few months recovering at a hospital in Naples.
He rejoined his unit in time for the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon) in August 1944 and the following advance inland. On September 7, near Besançon in eastern France, Maxwell smothered the blast of an enemy hand grenade with his body to protect those around him. He survived his wounds and seven months later, on April 6, 1945, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
From 1966 through 1986, Maxwell taught auto mechanics at Lane Community College, which named its student veterans center after Maxwell in 2012. He is also credited with helping to establish a similar program at Central Oregon Community College, and was honored in 1970 as one of 5,000 outstanding educators.
Maxwell resides in Bend, Oregon, and is the only living Medal of Honor recipient in that state.
In 2000, at the age of 79, he received his High School Diploma from Bend Senior High.
In 2012, he suffered a minor stroke, but recovered after only a few short days with only minor loss of functionality of his right hand. He continues as the director of the non-profit Bend Heroes Foundation.
Maxwell's official Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty on 7 September 1944, near Besancon, France. Technician 5th Grade Maxwell and 3 other soldiers, armed only with .45 caliber automatic pistols, defended the battalion observation post against an overwhelming onslaught by enemy infantrymen in approximately platoon strength, supported by 20mm. flak and machinegun fire, who had infiltrated through the battalion's forward companies and were attacking the observation post with machinegun, machine pistol, and grenade fire at ranges as close as 10 yards. Despite a hail of fire from automatic weapons and grenade launchers, Technician 5th Grade Maxwell aggressively fought off advancing enemy elements and, by his calmness, tenacity, and fortitude, inspired his fellows to continue the unequal struggle. When an enemy hand grenade was thrown in the midst of his squad, Technician 5th Grade Maxwell unhesitatingly hurled himself squarely upon it, using his blanket and his unprotected body to absorb the full force of the explosion. This act of instantaneous heroism permanently maimed Technician 5th Grade Maxwell, but saved the lives of his comrades in arms and facilitated maintenance of vital military communications during the temporary withdrawal of the battalion's forward headquarters.