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Men of Honor, Part 2: Wings of Fire

When you think of wings of fire, what comes to mind? Maybe speed, flight, or fierceness? This week is the story of another man of honor.

photo by the author

Last week, I told the story of Charles H. Coolidge (Mountains of Type). He was honored for his work on the front lines of the European theater. While Coolidge was never injured, this week's soldier was not as lucky.

Henry Eugene Erwin was born in Adamsville, Alabama on 8 May 1921. His parents were Walter and Pearl Erwin. Some people called him Eugene or Gene, but most called him Red because of his auburn hair.

"The eldest child in a large family, he was raised in impoverished circumstances. His father . . . was a coal miner who died when Erwin was age 10. He then took a job in the local coal mine commissary to help his mother . . . support the large family. Erwin later attended high school for two years but dropped out, joining the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps program that was instituted during the Great Depression to put young men like Erwin to work. He led a team of many other young men in similar circumstances who were planting kudzu to stop soil erosion in north Alabama. He later worked in a Birmingham steel factory." (1)

When World War Two broke out Red dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot and shooting down the enemy and winning the Medal of Honor. (2) He joined the army reserves, scoring high enough on the entrance exam to join the air corps. On 3 February 1943, Red was called to active service as an aviation cadet. Yet in flight school he could never seem to land the plane right. "In June 1943, Red enthusiastically accepted a reassignment for training as a radio operator and technician and what he hoped would be a faster path to combat." (3)

During the summer of 1943, Red met his sweetheart, Martha Elizabeth Starnes - though everyone called her Betty. They met one Sunday after church. Betty was a daughter of a miner from the same town and they were both devout Christians.

In late in 1943, Red and Betty went on their first date. Pretty soon Red was coming home on weekend leaves as often as possible to see Betty. "As they courted through 1943 and 1944, Red poured out his heart to Betty in letters from training bases and aviation complexes in Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico, Florida, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas, and Kansas, while he was training to become a radio operator on the army's B-17 Flying Fortess bomber." (4) In December 1944, Red came home on furlough to marry his bride.

"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." (5)

On the 12th of April 1945, Red and his crew of the B-29 City of Las Angeles were on their 11th mission. They were the lead aircraft for the mission. Red's role on this mission was dropping "a 20 pound phosphorus bomb". (6) He had dropped several before (on other missions and in training), but this one rebounded into Red's face catching him on fire and filling the cabin with smoke. After saying a quick prayer, Red grabbed the bomb like a football and ran towards the cockpit. Once there he asked the co-pilot to open the window. Through the open window, Red threw the bomb and collapsed on the floor in a heap of flames. The pilot pulling the plane out of the downward spiral it was in (at 300 feet) turned and flew as fast as possible to Iwo Jima to get Red to medical help.

That evening the others of his crew along with General Curtis Emerson LeMay (who was awakened at 5am with the message) worked on a citation for the Medal of Honor for Red. Because of his sever burns they were not sure how long he would live and so sent the citation with a note that the airman was likely on his death bed. President Harry S. Truman approved the citation. Yet there was one problem no medals would be ready in time...

"The sound of breaking glass shattered the pre-dawn stillness at U.S. Army Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii. Glancing about for MPs or other officials, hands grasped the golden star and its attached blue ribbon from the display case. It was the Medal of Honor, the only one available in the Pacific Theater of Operations. An Airman stuffed the medal quickly in his pocket and ran for the airfield with the prize. Back at Guam, another Airman lay dying, unaware of the extremes to which his fellow fliers were going to ensure he received his MOH before he drew his last breath.

Gen. Curtis LeMay had been awakened at 5 a.m. to sign the Medal of Honor citation. Then, a special plane had been dispatched to obtain the only MOH in the Pacific from its display case in Honolulu. When no one could be found during the predawn hours to unlock the display, the determined fliers broke the glass and absconded with the precious medal. In the history of our nation’s highest award, the actions were unprecedented. But so too was the heroism of a dying young B-29 radioman, Henry Eugene 'Red' Erwin." (7)

One week after his accident, on 19 April 1945, Red was presented with that medal of honor by General LeMay.

"Henry Erwin was flown back to the U.S. and over the next 30 months went through 43 operations to rebuild his face, after losing an eye, an ear and his nose, plus several fingers, before he was finally discharged from the Army in 1947. His eyesight was restored and he regained the use of one arm." (7)

Through all the surgeries his beloved Betty was by his side. They together had one son and three daughters.

"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." (5)

Red passed away on 16 January 2002, and his beloved Betty followed him in death on 7 January 2018.

Check back next week for another instalment in this series!


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Red Erwin:

Martha Erwin:

Pearl Erwin (his mother):


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