AIR FORCE HISTORY: Enlisted Medal of Honor Recipient Henry E. ‘Red’ Erwin

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

The sound of breaking glass shattered the pre-dawn stillness at U.S. Army Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii. Glancing about for MPs or other officials, hands grasped the golden star and its attached blue ribbon from the display case. It was the Medal of Honor, the only one available in the Pacific Theater of Operations. An Airman stuffed the medal quickly in his pocket and ran for the airfield with the prize. Back at Guam, another Airman lay dying, unaware of the extremes to which his fellow fliers were going to ensure he received his MOH before he drew his last breath.

Gen. Curtis LeMay had been awakened at 5 a.m. to sign the Medal of Honor citation. Then, a special plane had been dispatched to obtain the only MOH in the Pacific from its display case in Honolulu. When no one could be found during the predawn hours to unlock the display, the determined fliers broke the glass and absconded with the precious medal. In the history of our nation’s highest award, the actions were unprecedented. But so too was the heroism of a dying young B-29 radioman, Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin.

Capt. Anthony Simeral set his jaw and pushed the nose of his B-29 bomber City of Los Angeles towards the target. He couldn’t completely ignore the exploding flak around his aircraft, or forget the enemy fighters that dodged in and out of his formation to shower the aircraft with machine-gun bullets. But Captain Simeral had been flying long enough to know that the best way to deal with these occupational hazards was to “grit your teeth” and fly through it, reach your target and drop your bombs, then head for home.

It was April 12, 1945, and the City of Los Angeles was the lead B-29 in the 52nd Bombardment Squadron’s low-level attack on a chemical plant in Koriyama, Japan, 120 miles north of Tokyo. The 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, was based in Guam. Like World War II Medal of Honor recipient Tech. Sgt. Forrest Lee Vosler before him, Red was a radioman. Next to the pilot in the cockpit was Lt. Roy Stables. In the rear of the aircraft, 10 men went about preparing to finish their mission. On this day - their 11th mission - there was extra work. As the lead aircraft, the City of Los Angeles would mark the target for the other bombers. “Ready?” Captain Simeral inquired into the intercom.

In the belly of the bomber, Sergeant Erwin was ready. At the appointed time, he would drop the marker, a 20-pound white phosphorus canister with a six-second fuse, through a tube near the bomb bay. The handsome 24-year-old radioman from Alabama knew his job. This was his 10th combat mission. “Now, Sergeant,” he heard the captain speak into his headphones.  Quickly, Erwin positioned the canister in its narrow chute, pulled the pin, and let it drop into the skies over Japan. Only, this time it didn’t drop.

In a blinding explosion of heat and light, Red Erwin felt his nose literally melt from his face. Something had gone wrong. Whether the flare was faulty or due to a bump in air currents, no one would ever know why, but the flare failed to clear the chute. Within six seconds, it exploded into flames, propelling itself directly into Erwin’s face and falling back into the belly of the City of Los Angeles, scant feet from three tons of incendiary bombs.  Nine crewmen stood in stunned horror, facing the knowledge that death for all of them was only seconds away.

The billowing white smoke that made the white phosphorus such an ideal marker, now filled the entire aircraft. In the cockpit, choking on smoke and unable to see, the captain could no longer control his aircraft. The City of Los Angeles lurched over and began a rapid dive towards the ground. The only question was whether the crew would die in a fiery crash or spectacular explosion.

Then, in the midst of the billowing smoke, an apparition began to arise. Unable to see after catching the full force of the white phosphorus in the face, Red Erwin found the burning canister by touch. Burning at over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, it was not hard to locate. Clutching the white hot canister to his body and holding it in place with his arm, Red Erwin struggled to ignore the pain and crawl towards the cockpit. His entire upper body was aflame, his hair completely burned away, his clothing vaporized and his face burned beyond recognition.

For the crew, it was no ray of hope... no man could endure the trek needed to eject the lethal canister from the only available opening, a cockpit window. Added to that, the path was blocked by the navigator’s table.

Somehow, Red Erwin managed to struggle on, clutching the flaming incendiary to himself. With unbelievable strength, he tucked the canister under his arm, unlocked the obstructing table, and moved it aside. Almost 10 seconds of indescribable agony had already passed and Red Erwin was only half-way to his goal. “Open the window, open the window,” Sergeant Erwin shouted to Lieutenant Stables. Somehow, the co-pilot overcame the shock at seeing the flaming Airman doing what no human being should be capable of accomplishing, and managed to open the window. “Excuse me, sir,” Red Erwin said through his pain, and then launched the flaming canister to the wind, before collapsing to the floor in flames.

Only 300 feet from the ground, Captain Simeral pulled the City of Los Angeles out of its dive to head for Iwo Jima, the nearest landing site affording medical aid. The crew turned fire extinguishers on the prostrate, burning body of Red Erwin and Lieutenant Stables administered morphine to dull the pain. Through it all, the trip back and days of surgery following, Red Erwin remained conscious.

The doctors gave it their best shot... whole blood transfusions, internal surgery, antibiotics to fight infection. For hours, they labored to remove embedded white phosphorus from his eyes. The chemical spontaneously combusts when exposed to oxygen, and as each fleck of incendiary was removed it would burst into flames, torturing the Airman once again.

Through it all, Erwin has said there was an angel by his side saying, “Go, go, go... you can make it.” Everyone expected Red Erwin to succumb to the pain, if not the wounds. That night, the officers of Erwin’s unit prepared his Medal of Honor citation. At 5 a.m. the following day, they awakened General LeMay at his headquarters in Guam. LeMay took a personal interest in Erwin, sending his recommendation to Washington, D.C., and also arranging to fly Red’s brother, who was with a Marine Corps unit in the Pacific, to his “death bed.”

Meanwhile, Red Erwin was flown from Iwo to Guam where he could receive more complete medical attention. It was there on April 19, 1945, just one week after his moment of heroism and sacrifice, that General LeMay told him, “Your effort to save the lives of your fellow Airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.”

Through his bandages, Red Erwin simply replied, “Thank you, sir.” Then, General LeMay pinned the Medal of Honor taken from a display case in Honolulu to the bandaged body of Henry “Red” Erwin.

Henry Erwin was flown back to the U.S. and over the next 30 months went through 43 operations to rebuild his face, after losing an eye, an ear and his nose, plus several fingers, before he was finally discharged from the Army in 1947. His eyesight was restored and he regained the use of one arm. He was given a disability discharge as a master sergeant in October 1947.

In addition to the Medal of Honor and two Air Medals received earlier in 1945, he was also awarded the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, three Good Conduct Medals, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars (for participation in the Air Offensive Japan and Western Pacific campaigns), and the Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem. Red Erwin went to work for 37 years for the Veterans Administration to work with burn patients in Birmingham, Ala. On Jan. 16, 2002, Henry “Red” Erwin passed away.

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 flight engineering, loadmaster, air surveillance and related career fields. It is only the second Air Force award named for an enlisted person.

Sources include: Home of Heroes.com, AFHRA.com, AF.mil, Altus Air Force Air Force Base home page, Air Force Magazine