In coming up with a suitable blog post for Memorial Day, I had scoured my aviation library for a historical event- given that I've long been interested in military aviation history, there's no shortage of material in that department, believe me. However, I'm currently reading Barrett Tillman's outstanding book Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942-1945 and came across the story of a red-headed Alabaman, Master Sgt. Henry "Red" Erwin. In April 1945, the massive arsenal of democracy that was American industry had already started the systematic destruction of the Japanese war machine the previous month as Boeing B-29 Superfortresses of the XXI Bomber Command based in the Marianas Islands under the command of General Curtis LeMay began to deliver destruction to the cities of Japan. The first fire-bombing raids had already visited untold disaster on Tokyo and other urban areas of the Home Islands. Superfortress attacks on the kamikaze bases on Kyushu had helped ensure victory on Okinawa. And by this month, the XXI Bomber Command finally had enough Superfortresses to wage a round-the-clock strategic bombing campaign on the Japanese homeland. On 12 April 1945 news reached the bases in the Marianas about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt- for many of the fighting men in the Pacific, Roosevelt was the only leader they had known. But there was war to fight, and every bomb dropped meant getting home sooner.
|Erwin is 2nd from the right, front row, with his B-29 crewmates
On that day, 250 Superfortresses set out in three airborne task forces to attack industrial centers near Tokyo. Half of the force belonged to the 29th Bomb Group and were tasked to hit the Koriyama chemical complex north of Tokyo. Off the coast of Japan, the lead pilot of the Koriyama-bound force was Captain George Simeral flying The City of Los Angeles. His crew excelled at their jobs and earned The City of Los Angeles the lead position of the task force. His crew had been together since June 1944 and had already flown ten missions over Japan. As Simeral neared the coast. he ordered his radioman, Master Sgt. Red Erwin, to drop a phosphorous flare to mark the assembly point for his own squadron. Erwin left his station in the forward compartment, picked up the large flare canister and pulled the arming pin before dropping it as was the standard procedure- only this time the flare prematurely fired and a 1,300-degree Fahrenheit blast hit him in the face, blinding him and instantly burning off his nose and one ear. The forward compartment of the B-29 filled with white smoke and Simeral and his co-pilot quickly lost view of their instruments and the outside world.
Erwin realized that the hot burning flare could burn through the compartment like a big blowtorch into the bomb bay and set off the bomb load. Griping around the compartment, he somehow managed to find the flare and pick it up. He stumbled his way forward, planning to throw it out the co-pilot's window but found his way obstructed by the navigator's table- the navigator at the time was in the astrodome taking a sighting when the flare fired. As the table could be unlocked and hinged downward, Erwin tucked the hot flare between one arm and his side and managed to fold the table so he could continue his way forward through the compartment. Though blinded, he somehow managed to get to the co-pilot's window, open it, and throw the burning flare overboard. He immediately collapsed on the bomber's throttle console.
In the short time it took for Red Erwin to throw the flare overboard, the crew had lost control of the B-29 and Simeral managed to regain control with the bomber only 300 feet above the sea as the crew opened every hatch and window possible to vent the forward compartment. Everyone else did what they could to easy Erwin's suffering and Captain Simeral set course for Iwo Jima. The doctors there could do little for him and he was flown to Guam where a fleet hospital was located. General LeMay had been informed of the situation and when doctors advised him that Erwin would likely die from his burns, LeMay was determined to get him the Medal of Honor irrespective of the regulations.
To understand what happened next, you have to realize that LeMay was already well-known in the USAAF as being very results-oriented. When he was tapped by the head of the USAAF, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, to head the XXI Bomber Command, the B-29 was not performing well as a combat machine, being constantly plagued by rushed training and poor maintenance practices. Arnold wanted results as he was one of the most staunch defenders of the B-29 program and the massive funding it required- not to mention a successful air campaign over Japan strengthened his case for an independent United States Air Force. LeMay was given his orders- and unusually for a combat command, the XXI Bomber Command was run right out of Arnold's office at the Pentagon so theater commanders couldn't appropriate the prized Superfortress for tactical missions. It was LeMay who had to deliver and the way Arnold entrusted LeMay, so did LeMay entrust his subordinates- "Get me the results I want and I won't ask questions." As a result, his subordinates became well-known in the Pacific Theater for circumventing rules and red tape to get their boss results.
It usually took several months to get a Medal of Honor awarded as it passed via several levels of review. That didn't suit LeMay. His first act was to order an aircraft and its crew to Hawaii to get a Medal of Honor that could be presented to Erwin before he died. The crew took this task to heart and having found one in a display case, were unable to locate who had the keys to open the case. So they broke into the case and returned to Guam with the medal in hand. With the medal secured, LeMay then cabled General Arnold at the Pentagon and insisted that Erwin's award be approved immediately as he was on his deathbed. Luckily for LeMay, Arnold agreed with him and quickly got the orders and citation approved and the papers were on President Harry S Truman's desk in just days. In fact, one of Truman's first acts as President after FDR died was to sign the papers for the awarding of the Medal of Honor to Red Erwin!
|Red Erwin's widow with the painting of him at Maxwell AFB
At a hastily arranged ceremony at Erwin's bedside at the fleet hospital in Guam, LeMay presented him with the Medal of Honor six days after the mission took place. The general order that announced the award took three months to be processed and formally announced! But the tough Alabaman surprised everyone by surviving his wounds. Over the next two and a half years he underwent over 40 reconstructive surgeries and managed to regain his vision. Discharged from the now-independent United States Air Force in 1947, he went to work for the Veterans' Administration hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, working closely with burn patients for the next forty years. Master Sgt. Henry "Red" Erwin passed away in 2002 at the age of eighty.
After his death, the U.S. Air Force established the Red Erwin award for the outstanding enlisted airman of the year in the Air National Guard and Reserves. More recently, the library at the Air University at Maxwell AFB in Alabama was named the Red Erwin Library in his honor with a specially-commissioned painting of him and the B-29 Superfortress. Always the modest man, Erwin told everyone that he didn't wear the Medal of Honor for what he did on that fateful mission in 1945- he wore the medal for everyone who served.
Source: Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tillman. Simon and Schuster, 2010, p164-167. Photos: United States Air Force.