Monday, December 21, 2015

The universe is so vast and ageless that the life of one man can only be measured by the size of his sacrifice.*



A couple of months ago, I happened to have some time to tour the parade ground at Lackland AFB and came across a monument honoring the Air Force (and its predecessor organizations) Medal of Honor recipients.  There are 60 and while I had a fair knowledge of some of them, I realized that I didn’t even recognizing recognize some of the names.  I resolved to rectify that lack of knowledge. This post will be the third in this series.



SSgt Henry E. Erwin, “Red” to his friends, was born in Alabama in 1921.  When his father suddenly passed away, he dropped out of school to work in a steel mill to feed his family.  When the war came, he went to train as a pilot, but eventually washed out.  He then was selected for Radio Operator school and did so well that he was offered a commission.  He turned that down believing that WWII would be over before he could join the fight.

Now, I realize that in this day and age of microaggressions and safe spaces, this kind of man might be threatening to some, so if anyone reading this falls into that category, please excuse yourself and leave. As I finished reading this section of his bio, I respected him already.  

He made it to the war, flying missions as a radio operator on B-29s.  The Air Force at this point was flying fire bombing missions over Japan.  



This required the B-29s to fly at relatively low level where AAA and enemy fighters would be most effective. 



 On April 12th 1945,  SSgt Erwin’s crew were in the lead bomber.  That bomber, and its Radio Operator, had an additional duty.  They were to drop phosphorus grenades to signal attacking aircraft when the lead plane was in a designated assembly area. 

From SSgt Erwin’s Citation.


"He was the radio operator of a B-29 airplane leading a group formation to attack Koriyama, Japan. He was charged with the additional duty of dropping phosphoresce smoke bombs to aid in assembling the group when the launching point was reached. Upon entering the assembly area, aircraft fire and enemy fighter opposition was encountered. Among the phosphoresce bombs launched by S/Sgt. Erwin, 1 proved faulty, exploding in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. The burning phosphoresce obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. S/Sgt. 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 unleashed the spring lock and raised the table. Struggling through the narrow passage he stumbled forward into the smoke-filled pilot's compartment. Groping with his burning hands, he located the window and threw the bomb out. Completely aflame, he fell back upon the floor. The smoke cleared, the pilot, at 300 feet, pulled the plane out of its dive. S/Sgt. Erwin's gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty saved the lives of his comrades."
OK, He’s in his compartment which apparently is 2 compartments back from the cockpit.  He’s got a burning incendiary device, which burns between 1000 and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, on the floor of his compartment.  

He’s blinded by the explosion and smoke is so thick that the pilot, two compartments forward, can’t see the instrument panel to fly the airplane.  He picks up the device and carries it into the Navigator compartment, but can’t get through, so puts the burning device under his arm and clears the obstruction.  Once cleared, he continues forward into the cockpit and feels his way to the window, opens it and throws the device out.  The pilot is then able to recover the aircraft from the dive at 300’ ASL, so all this was done while the aircraft was out of control.

Because Phosphorus burns when in contact with Oxygen, SSgt Erwin is still on fire when he collapses in the cockpit.  Other crewmembers put the fire out by wrapping him in clothing, but anytime SSgt Erwin became uncovered, the fire restarted. 



The Aircraft diverted to an emergency field on Iwo Jima which had been taken by the Marines only a couple of weeks prior.  SSgt Erwin is conscious for the entire flight.  Once on the ground, medics begin to treat him but believe his injuries are too severe to survive. 

Believing the SSgt is not long for this mortal coil, General LeMay approves the Medal of Honor.  According to this source, the only actual Medal of Honor, in the Pacific was on display at Hickam AB Hawaii.  Lemay dispatches an aircraft to retrieve it.  However, the display is locked and no one can be found to unlock it.  Aircrew being Aircrew, and LeMay being LeMay, the Aircrew breaks into the display, grabs the Medal and returns to Guam.



SSgt Erwin is presented the Medal on the 19th of April, finally passing away on January 16th 2002 at age 80. “Never give up, Never surrender”, although spoken in a comedy, has been something I’ve always strived for.  Pretty sure SSgt Erwin is a proponent of that philosophy.  

It took 30 months and 41 surgeries for him to recover enough to be discharged from the Hospital and the Army.  Upon return to civilian life, he worked for the VA as a benefits counselor for burn patients.  Below is a MSgt Erwin telling his story for a History Channel episode.
 Warrior!

* The quotation is from a letter written by Flying Officer V. A. Rosewarne to his mother to be delivered in the event of his death.  Flying Officer Rosewarne was co-pilot on a Wellington Bomber shot down over Dunkirk while on a mission to support the evacuation.  All 6 members of the crew were killed.  The letter was eventually published and made into a short film which was released to try and raise spirits at a dark time in WWII.  Below is a version of the letter read by John Gielgud  



18 comments:

  1. "I don't call myself a hero..."

    Well, everyone else with a grasp of the language does. What an amazing display of fortitude and courage. Thank you for sharing his story. I'll never forget it.

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    1. That humility seems to be a common attribute among Medal of Honor recipients. "I was just doing my job" and "I'm wearing this for all those who didn't come back" appear in most stories I've read about them.

      Thanks.

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  2. Man, it got pretty dusty in here all of a sudden...

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  3. Wow!! Well deserved MOH for this guy. BTW: We almost lost a carrier due a similar mishap (Parachute flare vice grenade)with phosphorus.

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    1. Yeah, I've read a lot of MOH citations. Without demeaning any of them, MSgt Erwin's is certainly among the most deserved. I wish I'd have had a chance to meet him.

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    1. Well said. On the Home of Heroes site, there's a link to a page written by his youngest daughter. It seems the rest of his life was conducted in a similar manner. Selfless humility and honor, leading by example. A Man indeed!

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  5. My God. I can remember getting an orientation in the Army on WP - "Willie Pete" and everything I heard sounded like it was a most horrible way to die. And he charged into it.

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    1. Not just charged into it, picked it up, stuck it underneath his arm like a football and charged off with it. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that method would not be in my top ten ways to die.

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  6. I've read a lot of MoH citations, but this one really staggers the mind. How he had the presence of mind to eject that burning phosphorus from a smoke filled plane, with his arms on fire is frankly astounding.

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    1. Agreed. The pain level must have been off the charts both during and after. Mental discipline? All I can say is I pray I'm never presented with the opportunity to find out and if I am, I hope I do as well.

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  7. Simply amazing... And his survival is even more amazing!

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    1. Yeah. I liked, and was comforted, by his story of the Angel telling him to keep going.

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