The bomb had exploded in the plane, directly in the face of Master Sgt. Henry E. Erwin. Phosphorous gas marched through the cockpit. Deformed and blinded, Erwin couldn’t see, but knew there were literally seconds before the bomb melted a hole in the floor or the noxious fumes choked the crew or both.
It was what the military would call a “gut-check” moment, more commonly referred to as a life or death situation. Yet for Erwin, there was only one option: save the crew. And the only way do that? Carry the burning bomb and throw it out a window.
Erwin was the embodiment of his time and place. Born on May 8, 1921 in Adamsville, Alabama, he was raised in a home of poverty and faith. Even after his father passed away when Erwin was young, “Red” never doubted his belief saying later in life, “I called on the Lord to help, and he has never let me down.”
On July 7, 1942, Erwin joined the Army Reserve in the nearby city of Bessemer. Less than a year later, he was called to active duty as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Force. However, due to “flying deficiencies,” Erwin was released as a pilot from Oscala, Florida and transferred to technical school at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
Private-first class Erwin sky-rocketed up the ranks to staff sergeant, as he completed further radio operator and radio mechanic training in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Madison, Wisconsin.
Upon graduation, Erwin, now a certified a B-29 crew member, was assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group in Dalhart, Texas. The unit would be shipped out a couple months later in 1945 to Guam in the Asia-Pacific Theater.
From February 25 to April 1 of that year, the unit participated in 10 unescorted bombing missions over several cities throughout Japan. The missions required Erwin drop phosphorous smoke bombs through a chute in the B-29’s floor.
The date was April 12. Erwin, serving as a radio operator, along with the crew boarded a B-29 Superfortress known as the City of Los Angeles. The plane was in a low-level formation set to attack a chemical plant in Koriyama. A crew member signaled Erwin to drop the phosphorous bomb and he pulled the pin.
However, the fuse malfunctioned, igniting the phosphorous prematurely. The canister, burning at an estimated 1,100 degrees, flew upward into Erwin’s face. His nose was decimated, an ear had seared off and both eyes were blinded.
Phosphorous gas and smoke plumed throughout the aircraft. The crew choked for oxygen. The pilots struggled to see. Erwin picked up the burning bomb and walked toward the co-pilot’s window. Yet his path was blocked by a navigator’s folding table. Erwin chose to place the white-hot bomb between his bare right arm and rib cage, push up the table and toss the bomb out the window.
The smoke would clear. The pilots could see. However, the phosphorous burned Erwin’s flesh to the bone. He collapsed between the two pilot’s chairs. And that’s where he remained until the pilots and crew landed safely in Iwo Jima.
The valor and bravery Erwin displayed on that day were recognized a few hours later, as Maj. General Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad immediately approved him for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
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