“Ready?” Captain Simeral inquires into the intercom.
I am perched on my knees overlooking the flare release chute. Located next to the radioman’s station just inside the front bulkhead separating the flight cabin from the forward bomb bay, this chute allows me to project objects out from the pressurized cabin into the surrounding sky. As the radio operator, it’s also my duty to signal the other planes in the formation when it’s time to come together before the bombing run.
One green flare rests comfortably in my right hand; one 20-pound phosphorous smoke bomb canister is perched against my left foot. With my shirt sleeves rolled up to my Mae West life jacket, my right arm is outstretched, at the ready over the chute. My eyes are locked onto the arm of Captain Simeral, awaiting the signal to release the flare.
After 17 missions, 10 in combat, I shouldn’t still have nerves when releasing flares.
“Ready,” I reply.
Simeral, not one to rush anything, sits at the controls on the left side of the cockpit, waiting for the exact moment to give that signal.
Formation flying takes far more precision and fuel than individually heading toward the target. As we approach the target, though, it makes more sense to create a tight box so our bombs are more concentrated on the target area and our machine guns can be mutually supportive against enemy aircraft.
Just over Aoga Shima, a small volcanic island about 175 miles, or 45 minutes, out of Koriyama, Simeral’s right arm rises.
Without looking or thinking, I release the green flare down the chute.
“Away,” I report.
Immediately, I bend down to pick up the phosphorous canister waiting next to my left foot.
Simeral will signal for the release of this one at any moment.
My eyes lock with his right arm again. I stand ready to do my job.
It’s the eternity in between action I love, not the action itself. Anticipation for action; this is where the life of a moment resides.
Simeral’s arm rises once more. “Now, Sergeant,” he calls out.
Again, without thinking, I pull the pin on the phosphorous smoke bomb canister, starting its six-second fuse, before releasing it down the narrow chute.
Wha. . .
An overwhelming and all-encompassing whiteness instantly replaces everything. Pain projects across my face toward my right ear. Every exposed surface of my skin is burning.
I CANNOT SEE!
WHAT’S GOING ON?
An unfamiliar high-pitched hiss is burning at my feet.
THE PHOSPHOROUS CANISTER MUST HAVE COME BACK INTO THE PLANE, BUT I CAN’T SEE IT.
I can hear it though.
If it burns through the bulkhead, we’ll depressurize.
EVEN WORSE, IT WILL IGNITE THE INCENDIARY BOMBS, WE’LL EXPLODE!
Without thinking, I reach down toward the hissing.
I’VE GOT TO GET IT OUT OF HERE!
Thrusting my right hand out toward the hissing sound, I can feel the canister, so I grab its blazing hot surface.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, OPEN THE WINDOW!” I yell as I turn to crawl toward where I know the cockpit is.
Getting out the cockpit window is the only option.
As I turn, I bump into the assembly for the retracted gun turret. A smell of burning phosphorous, cloth, and flesh mixes in the air as I trace the outer edge of the gun assembly.
I HAVE TO GET THIS OUT THE COCKPIT WINDOW!
“OPEN THE WINDOW, OPEN THE WINDOW!” I yell again.
Finally, around the gun assembly, my right hand, burning to the bone holding the phosphorous canister, I slam into the navigators table.
DARN IT, WHY IS THIS DOWN!
I HAVE TO GET THIS CANISTER OUT THE COCKPIT WINDOW OR WE WILL DIE!
I try shoving at the table with my right shoulder, but it won’t budge.
I HAVE TO UNLOCK IT.
Moving the flaming phosphorous canister so that it rests between my right arm and my torso, I use both hands to find the latch that locks the table in place.
WHERE IS THIS LATCH? IT HAS TO BE HERE, PLEASE LET ME FIND THE LATCH!
Rubbing my hands up the leg of the table, I’m finally able to find the latch. It won’t budge.
PLEASE LET ME OPEN THIS. I HAVE TO GET THIS CANISTER OUT OF THE PLANE!
My fingers catch the latch just right, releasing it as the smell of rubber now mixes with phosphorous, cloth and flesh.
Slamming up the table, I crawl past it at top speed toward the cockpit while replacing the canister in my right hand.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, OPEN THE WINDOW!” I scream at the top of my lungs as I pass the flight engineer, ascending the couple of steps up to the flight deck.
“IT’S OPEN, IT’S OPEN!” someone yells.
“EXCUSE ME SIR!” I yell out to Lieut. Colonel Strouse, the copilot, as I make my way over the copilot’s seat toward the window.
Feeling for the window, I can sense the rush of air passing by. Without pause, I drop the canister out the window and collapse between Captain Simeral and Lieut. Colonel Strouse.
A projection of something starts smothering my body.
“Get him everywhere!” I hear someone say.
They must be spraying me with flame retardant.
“Red, are you all right?” someone asks.
Me ok, how’s the plane? Is anyone hurt?
“I’m fine. Is everybody else all right?” I reply, still lying on the deck.
“Yeah, we’re all right.” Vern, the engineer, replies. “Thanks to you!”
On April 12, 1945, the 314th Wing of the U.S. 20th Air Force was sent to attack a chemical plant at Koriyama, Japan. The lead plane in the formation, a B-29 Super fortress named the City of Los Angeles, was in the process of signaling to the rest of the formation to gather together in order to begin the bomb run toward the target.
As the radio operator, Staff Sergeant Henry Eugene Red Erwin, released one of the flares something went wrong. Instead of falling from the aircraft, the flare canister shot back into the plane, filling the entire aircraft with white phosphorous smoke almost instantly. Knowing that the canister, burning at more than 1300 degrees Fahrenheit would quickly burn through the metal between the cabin and the incendiary bombs in the bomb bay, Sgt. Erwin acted fast. Despite losing his vision, nose, and right ear when the canister shot back into the cabin, he quickly picked up the still burning flare with his right hand and started making his way toward the cockpit to throw it out of the aircraft. Even though he knew the 13-foot distance he had to travel by heart, the journey was one that lasted the equivalent of a lifetime for Sgt. Erwin. Carrying a flaming canister in his hand, he was blocked by a retracted gun, a locked table, and other obstacles. He worked through each of these in turn, eventually throwing the burning canister out of the plane. In the process he received 3rd degree burns across all of his face, arms, hands, shoulders, and legs.
Once the smoke cleared from the cabin, the pilots realized that the plane, which had started at over 15,000 feet, was now at 300 feet. They pulled up quickly, saving the aircraft and its crew from crashing into the ocean. Sgt. Erwin remained conscious as the plane pulled out of the mission to head for Iwo Jima where urgent medical care could be provided. Over the next week, his prognosis was not good. Undergoing many operations to clear his eyes of phosphorus, which ignited each time it was exposed to oxygen, eventually Sgt. Erwin regained his eyesight.
Doctors thought he would die within the week, yet his act of bravery was so profound that the general in charge of the U.S. bombers in the Pacific used all of his pull to put through an immediate Medal of Honor recommendation. The fastest-reviewed and approved Medal of Honor in the history of this distinguished recognition was bestowed upon Sgt. Erwin as he convalesced on Guam, awaiting his transfer back to the United States. It was so fast, in fact, that no Medal of Honor was available, except one in a display case at Army Headquarters in Pearl Harbor. The case was broken, the medal flown to Guam, and placed upon Sgt. Erwin by Maj. Gen. Willis Hale within one week of the mission.
Instead of dying, Sgt. Erwin went on to live a full life, devoting his career to working for the Veterans Administration, where he helped wounded warriors receive the care they required. He saved the lives of 10 other men through a selfless act, and then spent the rest of his life doing all he could to help those who served their country.
In 1997, the Air Force created the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. It is presented annually to an airman, noncommissioned officer, and senior noncommissioned officer in the flight engineering, loadmaster, air surveillance, and related career fields. It is only the second Air Force award named for an enlisted person.
Henry E. Red Erwin died Jan. 16, 2002, at age 80. Not bad for a man who more than a half a century early was diagnosed from an underground hospital on Iwo Jima that he would not live out the week.
Medal of Honor citation
Erwin’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:
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.