(Information from: Air Force Enlisted Heritage Institute and military personnel records.)
Master Sgt. Henry Erwin, Medal of Honor recipient, saved the lives of his comrades during an attack on Koriyama, Japan, April 12, 1945. He was the radio operator of a B-29 Superfortress.
Medal of Honor recipient Henry E. Erwin passed away in January 2002 at age 80. But 57 years earlier, he showed dramatically how willing he was to give up his life to save the crew of his B-29 Superfortress. His heroism resulted not only in saving his crew and earning him the ultimate military honor, but also put his story on the silver screen.
Erwin was born in May 1921 in Adamsville, Ala., near Bessemer. He joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps July 27, 1942, at Birmingham, Ala. and was called to active duty as an aviation cadet Feb. 3, 1943. He was attached to the 57th Army Air Forces Training Detachment at Ocala, Fla., where he was eliminated from further pilot training due to flying deficiency.
He transferred to the 603rd Training Group in June 1943 and a month later promoted to private first class with assigment at the technical school at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. He attended the Radio Operator and Mechanic School at Souix Falls, S.D., and graduated in 1944. He attended further technical training at the school in Madison, Wis., and successfully completed the Radio Mechanic and Operator Course.
Erwin was assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Group at Dalhart, Texas, in 1944. He departed the United States with the group from California for service in the Asiatic-Pacific theater of operations in 1945. From Feb. 25 to April 1, 1945, Erwin, then a staff sergeant, participated in historical combat missions striking at the key cities in the heart of the Japanese Empire. For these missions, which were performed without fighter escort, he was awarded two Air Medals.
On April 12, 1945, he was the radio operator on a B-29 Superfortress called the “City of Los Angeles,” piloted by Capt. George Simeral. They were in formation in a low-level attack on a chemical plant at Koriyama, 120 miles north of Tokyo, on their 11th combat mission. Along with their primary jobs, the 12 B-29 crew members had additional duties to perform. Erwin’s was to drop phosphorus smoke bombs through a chute in the B-29’s floor when the lead plane reached an assembly area over enemy territory. He was given the signal to drop the bombs when the aircraft was just off the south coast of Japan and under attack by anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters.
In his shirtsleeves, Erwin, called “Red” by his crew members, pulled the pin and released a bomb into the chute. The fuse malfunctioned, igniting the phosphorus, burning at 1,100 degrees. The canister flew back up the chute and into Erwin’s face, blinding him, searing off one ear and obliterating his nose. Smoke immediately filled the aircraft, making it impossible for the pilot to see his instrument panel. Erwin was afraid the bomb would burn through the metal floor into the bomb bay. Completely blind, he picked it up and feeling his way, crawled around the gun turret and headed for the copilot’s window. His face and arms were covered with ignited phosphorous and his path was blocked by the navigator’s folding table, hinged to the wall but down and locked. The navigator had left his table to make a sighting. Erwin couldn’t release the table’s latches with one hand, so he grabbed the white-hot bomb between his bare right arm and his ribcage. In the few seconds it took to raise the table, the phosphorus burned through his flesh to the bone. His body on fire, he stumbled into the cockpit, threw the bomb out the window and collapsed between the pilot’s seats.
The smoke cleared enough for Simeral to pull the B-29 out of a dive at 300 feet above the water and turn toward Iwo Jima where Erwin could be given emergency treatment. His horrified crew members extinguished his burning clothes and administered first aid, but whenever Erwin’s burns were uncovered, phosphorus embedded in his skin would begin to smolder. Although in excruciating pain, Erwin remained conscious throughout the flight. He only spoke to inquire about the safety of the crew. Back at Iwo Jima, the medics didn’t believe he could survive.
Army Air Force officials, led by Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, approved award of the Medal of Honor in a matter of hours, so a presentation could be made while Erwin still lived. A medal was flown to Guam and presented in the hospital there.
His citation reads:…”Staff Sergeant Henry E. Erwin was the radio operator of a B-29 airplane leading a group formation to attack Koriyama, Japan, on April 12, 1945. He was charged with the additional duty of dropping phosphorous smoke bombs to aid in assembling the group when the rendezvous point was reached. Upon entering the assembly area, antiaircraft fire and enemy fighter opposition was encountered. Among the phosphorous bombs launched by Sergeant Erwin, one proved faulty, exploded in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. Sergeant Erwin realized that the aircraft and crew would be lost if the burning bomb remained in the plane. Without regard for his own safety, he picked it up and, feeling his way, instinctively crawled around the gun turret and headed for the copilot’s window. He found the navigator’s table obstructing his passage. Grasping the burning bomb between his forearm and body, he unlatched the spring lock and raised the table. Struggling through the narrow passage he stumbled forward into the smoke-filled pilot’s compartment. Groping with burning hands, he located the window and threw the bomb out. Completely aflame, he fell back upon the floor. The smoke cleared and the pilot at 300 feet pulled the airplane out of its dive. Sergeant Erwin’s gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty saved the lives of his comrades.”
However, Erwin survived. He was flown back to the United States, and after 30 months and 41 surgeries, his eyesight was restored and he regained use of one arm. He was given a disability discharge as a master sergeant in October 1947.
His other decorations include two Air Medals, Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and clasp with two loops, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars for participation in the Air Offensive Japan and Western Pacific campaigns and Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem.
For 37 years, he served as a Veterans’ Benefit Counselor at the Veterans’ Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. In 1951, Hollywood included his story as part of the movie, “The Wild Blue Yonder,” starring Forrest Tucker, Wendell Corey and Vera Ralston. Erwin was played by David Sharpe.
In 1997, the Air Force created the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. It is presented annually to an airman, noncommissioned officer and senior noncommissioned officer in the active-duty or reserve forces. It goes to members of the flight engineering, loadmaster, air surveillance and related career fields. It is only the second Air Force award named for an enlisted person.He passed away peacefully at home on Jan. 16, 2002.