A Brave Man at the Right Time

June 1, 2007

Henry Eugene Erwin learned responsibility at an early age. He was born in Docena, Ala., in 1921, the oldest child in a large family. He was 10 years old when his father, a coal miner, died. Gene, as the family called him, took a part-time job stocking shelves in the coal company commissary. “It helped us get along,” he said.

The country was in the grip of the Depression, and times were hard. Erwin dropped out of high school after two years and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he was put in charge of 220 other young men planting kudzu in north Alabama to stop soil erosion. He was 17 years old.

After the CCC, Erwin went to work at a steel mill in Birmingham. For the next several years, he was the chief breadwinner for the family.

He joined the Army in January 1943. Despite his limited formal education, he scored very high on the entrance examination and qualified for the Air Corps and technical training. During an advanced radio course at Truax Field, Wis., he was approached about going to Yale University for further study and the possibility of becoming a communications officer.

Erwin turned down the offer. “Being a kid then,” he explained later, he thought the war might end before he got into it. He wanted to go on to aircrew duty when he finished radio training. After a short time on B-17s, he became a B-29 radio operator.

He came home to Alabama on furlough to get married in December 1944. In January 1945, he was sent to Guam, assigned to the 52nd Bomb Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, of Twentieth Air Force’s XXI Bomber Command. His fellow crew members on the B-29 City of Los Angeles called him “Red” because of his auburn red hair. The new nickname would stay with him for the rest of his life.

The B-29 Superfortress was the biggest and newest US bomber. It had been first used in combat from bases in India and China in late 1944. When operating from bases in the Marianas—Saipan, Tinian, and Guam—B-29s could reach almost any target in the Japanese home islands.

Daylight bombing of Japan from high altitudes was not effective. Cloud cover frequently obscured the targets. More important, the B-29s flying above 25,000 feet encountered the jet stream. Its fierce tailwinds added as much as 250 mph to the aircraft’s speed relative to the ground, pushing it over the target too fast for the Norden bombsight to compensate. (Flying against the jet stream, the speed relative to the ground was so slow that the airplane was a sitting duck for fighters and anti-aircraft guns.) Crosswinds also carried the bombs off course. XXI Bomber Command switched to low-level area bombardment with incendiary and high-explosive munitions from altitudes of 5,000 to 9,000 feet.

The B-29 standard crew had 11 members. Of these, five crewmen—four gunners and a radar observer—were in the back, aft of the bomb bays. The other six were in the forward section of the Superfort. The pilot, copilot, and bombardier (who also served as nose gunner) were up front on the flight deck. The flight engineer’s position was just back of the copilot, beside the nose wheel door.

Mission to Koriyama

At that point, the two forward gun turrets extended into the aircraft and made it a tight squeeze. The navigator sat, facing forward, in the space between the upper turret and the left side of the aircraft, his work table latched to the turret. The radio operator’s position was at the very back of the front section, behind the turret and separated from the bomb bay by a bulkhead. To get in or out, he had to go through the navigator’s station.

On April 12, 1945, City of Los Angeles was the lead bomber of a B-29 group sent on a mission against the Japanese chemical plant at Koriyama, 125 miles north of Tokyo. The airplane commander was Capt. George A. “Tony” Simeral. (See “Valor: Missions Accomplished,” January 1994, p. 73.)

B-29s flew in formation against specific targets such as the plant at Koriyama. That concentrated the bombardment and provided better defense against fighter attack. However, formation flying took additional fuel, and so, because there was no fighter threat en route to the target, the bombers flew individually to a predetermined point near Japan, where they then formed up.

The B-29s took off from Guam’s North Field about 2 a.m. and reached the rendezvous point at Aoga Shima, a small volcanic island 175 miles off the coast of Japan, about 9:30 that morning. The other aircraft in the squadron would form up on Simeral’s aircraft before proceeding to the target.

Eighteenth Mission

That day, Lt. Col. Eugene Strouse, the 52nd Bomb Squadron commander, was flying in the copilot’s seat of City of Los Angeles. The radio operator was Erwin, then a 23-year-old staff sergeant flying his 18th combat mission. One of Erwin’s duties was to launch signal flares and smoke bombs so the other B-29s could assemble and form on the lead aircraft.

At Aoga Shima, Simeral told Erwin to launch white phosphorous smoke bombs. Erwin was bareheaded and had his shirt sleeves rolled up. He was wearing his Mae West life jacket, as he always did on a mission over water, because he couldn’t swim.

Erwin pulled a pin to arm a smoke bomb and dropped it through a chute in the floor of the aircraft near the radio operator’s station. He was on his knees. After the pin was pulled, there was an eight-second delay before the bomb ignited. Normally, that was plenty of time for the bomb to fall through the chute and out of the aircraft.

It is uncertain what went wrong. The flap valve at the bottom of the ejection chute may have jammed. Perhaps, Erwin said later, the aircraft hit some turbulence or there was a malfunction in the bomb. In any case, he said, “I knew that sucker was coming back.”

The bomb exploded in the chute and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, hitting Erwin in the face. The phosphorous was burning at 1,300 degrees. (As a point of comparison, the heating element of an electric range is at 1,100 degrees when it is glowing red.) Thick white smoke filled the forward section of the airplane.

Erwin had phosphorous all over him, blinding him and burning off his hair, most of his right ear, part of his nose, and large patches of his skin. His clothing was on fire. “I was completely aflame,” he said.

The entire crew was in mortal danger. The phosphorous was burning with intensity and eating its way through the metal of the bulkhead. With smoke filling the airplane, the pilots could not see. Except for the incredible courage of Red Erwin, the only question would have been whether the B-29 would crash into the ocean before the fire reached the munitions in the bomb bay.

Erwin was alone. The navigator, whose station was closest to his, had gone aft to the celestial navigation dome to take a star shot. Even worse, he had left his folding table down and latched. The smoking bomb lay at Erwin’s feet.

“I reached down, I grabbed it with my right hand, I began to crawl,” Erwin said. “I remember opening the navigator’s table, crawled by the engineer—the flight engineer was on the right—went up between the pilot and the copilot.”

His path forward was blocked by the navigator’s table. “Erwin couldn’t release the table’s latch with one hand, so he grabbed the white-hot bomb between his bare right arm and his rib cage,” an Air Force report said. “In the few seconds it took to raise the table, the phosphorous burned through his flesh to the bone.”

Erwin “stumbled into the cockpit, threw the bomb out the window, and collapsed between the pilots’ seats,” the report said. He had to move 13 feet through the aircraft to toss the bomb out the window, but “it seemed like miles when you are burning,” he said. “When you are on fire, you cannot see, and you are crawling by instinct.”

“My flight suit was gone,” Erwin said, but he had the Mae West. “That’s the only thing that saved my chest. Otherwise, I was burned all over.” (See “Valor: Red Erwin’s Personal Purgatory,” October 1989, p. 91.)

“I’m Fine”

“You could see nothing, absolutely nothing,” Simeral said. “Not even your hand before your face. So it obscured all the instruments. Fortunately, we were on autopilot except for the elevators and that saved us. But what I was fearful of was stalling out if I put any back pressure on the elevators.”

To be sure of staying above stall speed, Simeral said he “probably put more pressure on the downside,” easing the flight controls forward. That lowered the nose of the airplane but it also reduced the altitude. “But after Red threw that bomb out the copilot’s window, … the smoke cleared out, and I could see the instruments and at that point we were at 300 feet,” Simeral recalled. “If he hadn’t gotten it out of there, well then, why, we probably would have gone on in.”

Until the smoke thinned out, the rest of the crew did not know what Erwin had done. When they saw him, they were aghast. Erwin recalled it later as a strange moment when somebody asked, “Red, are you all right?” and he replied, “I’m fine.”

Sgt. Vern Schiller, the flight engineer, had turned a fire extinguisher on Erwin. That put out the fire in his clothing, but the phosphorous embedded in his body continued to burn.

Simeral aborted the mission and headed for Iwo Jima, halfway between Japan and Guam, and the closest US medical facility. He climbed to cruising altitude, jettisoned his bombs, and broke radio silence to tell the alternate leader to take over the formation.

Erwin’s colleagues did what they could for him, but that was complicated by the fact that Erwin himself was the crew’s first aid man. The bombardier, 1st Lt. William Loesch, injected morphine and tried to inject plasma, but Erwin’s arms were so badly burned he couldn’t find a blood vessel. “We didn’t discover until after, much later, that, after we landed and talked to people, you could do it through any vein, … ankle, or some place else,” Simeral said.

Erwin never lost consciousness. He was in terrible agony but remained alert and warned the others not to give him too much morphine. As they gathered around him, he asked, “Is everybody else all right?”

“Fortunately, Iwo Jima was wide open, and we made a straight in approach and parked on the runway until the medics got Red out of the aircraft,” Simeral said. The hospital at Iwo Jima was underground. Erwin said, “I remember going to this cave, and this doctor was working on my eyes [and saying], ‘We’ve got to get this phosphorous out of his eyes. Otherwise, he’s going to be blind.’?”

The crew visited him briefly in the hospital and then flew City of Los Angeles back to their base on Guam. Lt. Col. Corey Ford and Maj. Alastair MacBain were there when Simeral landed. They talked to the crew that night and went aboard the airplane the next day. They helped write the recommendation for the Medal of Honor. They also described the damaged forward compartment in an article for the Aug. 4, 1945 issue of Collier’s.

Blocked by the navigator’s table, Ford and MacBain said, Erwin had “fumbled with the spring latch until it opened. The loose skin came off his hand onto the table as he lifted it. We looked over the plane [the] next day. You could see the imprint of his whole hand seared on the table.”

The assumption was that Erwin would die. When he was still alive three days later, he was airlifted to the Navy hospital on Guam.

Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of XXI Bomber Command, used the full force of his personality to get the Medal of Honor recommendation rushed through channels. Approval was obtained from Washington in record time so the medal could be presented while Erwin was still alive.

A Medal of Honor was taken from a display case at Army headquarters in Hawaii and flown to Guam, where it was awarded to Erwin on April 19, 1945—a week after the mission—by Maj. Gen. Willis H. Hale, commander of Army Air Forces Pacific Area. Simeral’s crew and Strouse were there to see it.

On May 7, LeMay asked Erwin if there was anything more he could do for him. Erwin asked for his brother, Howard, who was on Saipan with the 7th Marine division. He had not seen him for three years. Howard Erwin was flown to Guam by movie star Tyrone Power, who was a Marine Corps pilot. Power’s usual duty was flying supplies into Iwo Jima and wounded troops out.

“And so my brother was there the next morning,” Erwin said. “He stayed with me for 24 hours. I couldn’t see him but I knew he was there and that was a great comfort.”

His condition was grave. “I was losing weight all the time,” he said. “In fact, I got down to 87 pounds, skin and bones, because I couldn’t open my mouth to eat. I didn’t give up. … They kept me soaked in saline solution so what little flesh I had wouldn’t come off.”

Erwin was airlifted back to the United States. “They were scraping phosphorous out of my eyes,” he said. “I was still smoldering 30 days later when I got to Sacramento. … When the oxygen hits it [the phosphorous], it begins to smolder again. They would scrape and scrape.”

After 30 months and 41 surgeries, most of his eyesight was restored and he regained the use of one arm. “Both eyes were sewn up over a year,” Erwin said. “Then postage skin grafts were put under them to keep down the tension. … When I got out in October 1947, they still wanted to do more surgery, but at that time I had had it. I was married. I wanted to go home and go to work.”

Erwin in October 1947 was separated from the Army as a master sergeant, receiving a disability discharge. “I love the military,” he said. “Even though I was severely burned, if they had retained me, I would have stayed in.”

In an Air Force oral history interview in 1986, Erwin reflected on World War II. “We had the leaders, we had the logistics, and we had the brave men at the right place at the right time,” he said.

“Outstanding” Rating

“I went to work for the Veterans Administration in January 1948 when I got out,” Erwin said in the 1986 interview. “Harry Truman had issued an executive order that any Medal of Honor recipient, otherwise qualified, was eligible for a veterans’ benefits job. I knew that the TCI Company would never give me my job back at the plant due to the loss of my arm. I went to work for the Veterans Administration as a veterans’ benefits counselor. I did that for 37 years, so I retired two years ago with 43-and-a-half years of federal service.” He got an “outstanding” performance rating from VA every year.

Hollywood took notice, but just barely, of the events of the Medal of Honor mission. David Sharpe played Red Erwin in “Wild Blue Yonder” (Republic Pictures, 1951), but the scene lasted only a few moments. The rest of the movie was a fictionalized account of B-29s against Japan and the pursuit by Forrest Tucker and Wendell Corey of Army nurse Vera Ralston.

Erwin stayed in touch with the members of the City of Los Angeles crew, all of whom survived the war. In 1989, he and Simeral—who retired as a colonel—were interviewed together for a videotape, “Prepared to Die,” produced by the Air Force Sergeants Association’s Airmen Memorial Museum.

He is well remembered at the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute at Maxwell AFB, Ala. In 1997, the Air Force introduced the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year award.

Back in Alabama, Red and Betty Erwin raised one son and three daughters, and in time, there were seven grandchildren. “Dad had limitations after the war,” said Henry E. Erwin Jr., who is in his second term as an Alabama state senator. He could not use his right arm. It was locked in a 90-degree angle. He could move his fingers but could not touch his head. “Dad’s hair came back a darker red than before. It was also much straighter than the wavy appearance of World War II.”

The younger Erwin went on, “He loved sports, especially baseball. He directed a local Little League for several years. [He] used his good arm to hit flies and skinners to the outfield and would even umpire a game when necessary. He loved Alabama Crimson Tide football and listened to the games on radio for years.” Despite his limited eyesight, Erwin was a “news junkie” who devoured the daily newspaper from the first page to the last.

“Dad was a man of manners,” Senator Erwin said. “He was always polite and courteous. He rarely got angry, but when he did, he meant business. He never yelled and screamed, but he had a firmness to his voice when he was angry. … He embodied all the ideals of the Medal of Honor. He wore them like a well pressed suit. He was honest, thrifty, and patriotic. … He never owed a debt, never got a ticket, never was sued. He obeyed the law, attended church, and treated everyone with courtesy and respect.”

Henry E. “Red” Erwin died Jan. 16, 2002, at age 80, more than half a century after the expectation in the underground hospital on Iwo Jima that he would not live out the week.

Another Challenge for a Fighting Aircrew

A new radio operator had taken Red Erwin’s place, but the rest of the City of Los Angeles crew was the same for a June 5, 1945 mission against the city of Kobe, Japan. It was again the lead aircraft in the bombing formation, and Tony Simeral, recently promoted to major, was still the aircraft commander.

The B-29s had just begun their 12-minute bomb run when the ground defenses opened up on them. The Superfort designated as the alternate formation leader was shot down, and flak ripped a three-foot hole in the wing of City of Los Angeles. Two minutes from target, the wing and one engine were burning briskly.

The other aircraft in the formation were keying on City of Los Angeles and lead bombardier, 1st Lt. William Loesch. It was too late for another bombardier to take the lead.

“On this type of mission, only the bombardier in the lead plane used his bomb sight on the bomb run,” said Gordon Bennett Robertson Jr., in Bringing the Thunder (Stackpole, 2006). Robertson flew a B-29 on both the April 12 mission to Koriyama and the June 5 mission to Kobe. “All the other bombardiers kept their eyes glued to the lead plane and when they saw the bomb come out of its bomb bay, they released theirs. Thus, if the lead bombardier was properly on the mark, the whole formation’s bomb load hit at the same time and place, obliterating the target.”

If Simeral dropped out of the formation to attend to the fire, the mission would fail. He kept power on the burning engine and held course to the drop point.

Loesch released his bombs on target, and the Superforts coming behind timed their release on his. Simeral was then free to leave the formation, but when he did, two waves of Japanese fighters attacked. The crew, aided by one other B-29, fought them off and shot down several of them.

Simeral landed at Iwo Jima with one engine dead, two gun turrets empty of ammunition, a damaged wing and flaps, and fuel gauges near zero. Another B-29 had crashed on the main runway, so City of Los Angeles had to use a short fighter strip to set down. Simeral was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The In-Country War,” appeared in the April 2007 issue.