Henry “Red” Erwin was a radio operator on B-29s during WWII. One of his tasks on April 12th, 1945 was to arm and drop phosphorus flares through a tube in the aircraft floor as the planes arrived in an assembly area. A fuse malfunctioned. The flare lit in the tube, blew back up into the plane, hit Red Erwin in the face, blowing off his nose and blinding him. The flare then fell to the deck of the plane, burning at 1300 degrees, filling the plane with toxic smoke and threatening to burn through into the bomb bay.
Completely blind, Red Erwin found the flare by the heat, picked it up in his hands and headed forward toward a window. His progress was stopped by the navigator’s table. He switched the burning flare to one arm, cradling it against his ribs and raised the table. The flare burned his arm and ribs to open bone.
His body and clothes on fire, he made it to the cockpit and dumped the flare out the open window, then collapsed to the deck where other crewmen put him out with fire extinguishers. The pilot had been unable to see for the smoke, but as it cleared, he regained control at 300 feet and made an emergency divert to Iwo Jima.
Bits of phosphorus continued to burn as they tried to tend to Red and it seemed clear he was a dying man. Still alive and conscious, he asked, “Is everyone else alright?” He was still alive when they landed and then the crew told the story.
Major General Curtis LeMay, then commander of the XXI Bomber Command demanded an immediate approval for the Medal of Honor so it could be presented before Red Erwin died. There was no Medal of Honor available in the Pacific and the crew of the plane sent back to Pearl Harbor to get one was ordered not to return without one. They got it by breaking a display case at Army Headquarters and taking it. Red Erwin was awarded the Medal of Honor by General LeMay on April 19, 1945 on the Island of Guam, the only time the Medal of Honor was ever awarded in so short a time.
Red Erwin then surprised everyone by not dying. He shrunk down to 87 pounds, his eyes stayed sewn shut for over a year, he underwent the first of many surgeries, and was finally sent home, still wrapped in bandages to cover the open wounds of his burns. When he got back to America, Betty Erwin, the girl he had married a few months before while home on furlough, the girl that had been his sweetheart in Sunday School, turned out to be tough enough to be a hero in her own right. She walked in, looked him over, kissed him and said, “Welcome home.” In the end, he endured 41 surgeries and in 1947 he was medically discharged. He had regained some of his sight and the use of one arm. He worked 37 years as a counselor for the Veteran’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. He and Betty had four children and lived a full life. Red passed away in 2002. There was a full crew on that bomber, and every one of those men came home, too. Here’s Red’s Medal of Honor citation. Here’s an article from Air Force Magazine in 2007 that has a lot of pictures and details. He would always say, when asked about it, that he felt he wore the Medal for everyone who had served.
Your effort to save the lives of your fellow airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.
–Gen Curtis LeMay, speaking to Red Erwin, April 19th, 1945