War is always a dangerous business and many nasty things happen, but there aren’t many more horrific than phosphorus, whether it comes in the form of a grenade, a bomb, or a signal canister.
Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin, a young man from Alabama with auburn hair, grew up in poverty. His father had died when he was young, and “Gene” (as his family called him) experienced the hardships of the Great Depression first hand. Gene dropped out of high school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. Later he found employment at a steel mill. He joined the Army Reserve in 1942, and was called up to active duty in February 1943 as an aviation cadet. However, when he washed out of flight school, the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) sent him to radio operator and radio mechanic school, which he completed in 1944. Erwin was then assigned to the 52d Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, Twentieth Air Force, based at a training field southwest of Dalhart, Texas, which flew brand-new B-29 Superfortresses. Aircrews trained together, built a comradery, and went to war together. Erwin’s crewmates called him “Red”. In December, Red married his sweetheart shortly before overseas deployment, a common occurrence in those war years. The 29th Bombardment Group, and Erwin, relocated to the Pacific Theater in early 1945.
On April 12, 1945, the nation mourned the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president of the United States. In the Pacific, Staff Sergeant Erwin went on his 11th combat mission. He’d already proven his mettle in the brief two months he’d been in the fight, and had been awarded two air medals for his actions in battle. Today he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As radio operator, Erwin sat in the main cabin of the Superfortress. The bombardier’s station was in the glass nose of the aircraft, directly in front of the pilot and co-pilot. Behind the pilots sat the navigator and flight engineer. Erwin sat behind them, at the very back of the main cabin, just in front of the bomb bay compartment holding three tons of incendiary bombs. Their B-29 was lead bomber of the Group, and they were approaching their target, a chemical plant outside of Koriyama, Japan. Under the radio operator’s seat was a chute, or tube, used to drop a signal canister of phosphorus out the bottom of the airplane. The purpose of this signal flare was to alert the pilots and bombardiers of the other B-29s in the formation that they had reached the assembly point. They were close to the target now and the action was about to start. It was Erwin’s job to pull the pin on the signal canister and insert it into the chute to release it. The phosphorus flare burned very bright and very hot, at 1300°F. It was more like a bomb than a flare, really.
The crew was expecting anti-aircraft fire, but it didn’t come. Just before it was time for Erwin to drop the flare, the formation was attacked by fighters. Chatter between the gunners filled the intercom, while Erwin waited for the pilot to give the order to drop the phosphorus. The order came. Erwin pulled the pin and slid it into the tube. Before it could drop out the chute, the time-delayed fuse malfunctioned and exploded, causing the flare to shoot up into Erwin’s face. His nose and an ear were burned off, and burning phosphorus lodged in his eyes. He fell backwards, clothes on fire, still conscious. Instantly he knew more than his life was at stake; the phosphorus would quickly set the entire plane on fire and the nearby incendiary bombs, too. His crew would all be obliterated if he didn’t act fast.
The cabin filled with white smoke, causing choking and vomiting. The B-29 was now diving, the pilots unaware and unable to see their instruments or even the windows, let alone the horizon outside the cockpit. Erwin, blind, felt around for the burning flare. Picking it up in his hands he carried it forward to where a window could be opened next to the co-pilot. He had to feel his way forward, all the while on fire, holding an un-extinguishable flame. The navigator’s desk was in the horizontal position, blocking the aisle. Erwin was unable to manipulate the latch to fold the table up with one hand, so he pinned the burning bomb under his arm and against his ribs to have both hands free. What seemed like hours to him was only the 22 seconds that it took to carry the flare to the front. He called out to the co-pilot, who opened the window. Erwin threw it out, and collapsed on the flight deck.
The blast of air coming through the open window cleared out the smoke just in time for the pilots to see and react to the dive with only 300 feet to spare. Turning toward the nearest airbase, they feared Red would not survive the hours it would take to get him back to a hospital. Once there, doctors did their best to remove pieces of phosphorus from Erwin’s body, especially his face and eyes. It was dangerous work. Each piece of phosphorus would ignite when it came into contact with oxygen. It would take months to get it all out. They doubted he’d even survive the coming hours.
News of Erwin’s heroic action set the USAAF into action. A recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor was created, literally overnight so that General Curtis LeMay could sign the paperwork and get it approved by the Pentagon first thing in the morning. LeMay was determined that Erwin should receive the Medal of Honor before he died. A search for an actual Medal of Honor in the Pacific Theater that could be given to Erwin on his death bed was launched. They found one in a display case at a base in Hawaii. When the key to the case could not be found, officers broke the glass and airlifted the medal across the Pacific. General LeMay himself presented the medal and citation to Erwin, with his crewmates by his side while he lay in his hospital bed, bandaged completely from head to toe, with openings only for his eyes and mouth. LeMay also saw to it that Gene’s brother, a Marine serving in theater, could be by his side until the end. The end, however, was not near. He endured thirty-some reconstruction surgeries over the next two and a half years, regaining sight in one eye, and use of one arm. Erwin survived, lived to have kids and grandkids, and to serve other veterans after the war as a counselor at the VA hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the only B-29 crewmember ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and this is the fastest, shortest, turn-around time ever for the medal to be approved and awarded.
MEDAL OF HONOR 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 phosphorus 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 phosphorus bombs launched by S/Sgt. Erwin, one proved faulty, exploding in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. The burning phosphorus 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.
Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin
(May 8, 1921 – January 16, 2002, aged 80)
In 1997, the Air Force created the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year award, which is presented to three deserving airmen every year. It’s only the second Air Force award named in honor of an enlisted person.Defense.gov
Question Of The Night: What night sounds do you like to go to sleep to? (Crickets, chirping toads, owls, traffic, radio, television, are a few examples that people often hear as they fall asleep, depending on where they live.)