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Of hope and perseverance

Submitted by Casscounty1 on Thu, 07/28/2016 - 9:11am

Being a journalist has afforded me the chance to meet a great deal of people from all walks of life.
They range from the famous and the infamous. Among the most memorable was a breakfast interview with NFL Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton.

But no encounter has had more of an impact on me personally than meeting Henry “Red” Erwin almost two decades ago.
Often when I’m asked to speak to a civic organization, Erwin has been the topic. After meeting him for the first time, I knew I would share his story whenever I’m given the chance.

When I first meet him in his living room in Leeds, Ala., I wasn’t totally prepared for what I saw. Despite numerous surgeries, Erwin’s face still carried the scars of the signature event that shaped his life.

On April 12, 1945, Erwin was a radio operator on a B-29 Superfortress named the City of Los Angeles. The lead B-29 was part of  the 52d Bombardment Squadron 29th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force, in Dalhart, Texas, assigned for an attack on Koriyama, Japan.  

As they neared the target area, one of Erwin’s duties was to drop a marker, a 20-pound white phosphorus canister with a six-second fuse through a tube near the bomb bay.  On cue, he positioned the canister in its narrow chute, pulled the pin, and let it drop into the skies over Japan.  

Only it didn’t clear the chute.

The burning canister exploded in Erwin’s face and  landed inside the plane.

An excerpt from his Medal of Honor citation tells what happened next:
“The burning phosphorescence obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. Staff 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. Staff Sgt. Erwin’s gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty saved the lives of his comrades.”

The pilot immediately aborted the mission and flew to the nearest landing strip on Iwo Jima to seek medical attention for Erwin. He was later transported to Guam, where everyone expected the horribly injured Erwin to succumb to his wounds.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was stationed on Guam, took a special interest in soldier’s heroic actions and quickly petitioned Congress to approve Erwin for the military’s highest honor. In unprecedented swiftness, Congress approved LeMay’s request.

LeMay wanted to pin the Medal of Honor to Erwin before the young airman died, but the only medal in the Pacific Theater was in a military museum in Hawaii. LeMay dispatched two airman to retrieve the medal.

In the pre-dawn hours, the airmen arrived in Honolulu to find no one to let them into the facility. They broke in the building, shattered the glass display holding the medal. One of the airman stuffed the prize into his pocket. They then ran for the airfield to their awaiting aircraft and were back into the air within minutes of landing.

LeMay presented the Medal of Honor to Erwin less than a week after he was injured. Erwin was transported back to the United States and endured more than 40 surgeries. He married and raised a family. For more than 30 years, Erwin worked for the Veterans Administration, helping others wounded in service receive their benefits.
After I wrote my article about Erwin, which included the stories of two other Medal of Honor recipients from Leeds, an Alabama senator read it. He sponsored a bill to designated a section of Alabama Highway 119, the “Medal of Honor Highway.”

Erwin lived long enough to attend the official dedication of the road. At the dedication, he said he wanted to give me something. I said, “you don’t owe me anything.”

Erwin insisted I come by his house. I did, and he shocked me by giving me a small picture of another Medal of Honor recipient, that of Audie Murphy. During my original interview with Erwin, I had mentioned that I greatly admired the soft-spoken Texan.

It was my last conversation with Erwin, He died in 2002, and sadly, I had moved away and wasn’t able to attend his funeral to pay my respects.

Still, I carry his memory with me, and his inspiration has helped me through several patches in my life.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. At one low point, I thought dying had to be better than the pain.
Then I remembered something Erwin said: “Sometimes it takes far more courage to live, than to give up and die.” I realized that my battle paled in comparison to what Erwin went through.

I have given some thought to writing a book about Erwin. I even started one. Maybe someday soon, I will complete it.

Until then, I will carry on his message of hope and perseverance.

Randy Grider is publisher of the Citizens Journal.