one man's job
If not you, who?
Duty to your crew.
The nature of a man is often revealed in crisis when he has to run on instinct.
Meet then Staff Sergeant Henry R. Erwin, USAAC, just a good 'ole boy from Alabama.
On April 12, 1945, Erwin's B-29, called the "City of Los Angeles," was the lead bomber in a group attack on a chemical plant in Koriyama, about 125 miles north of Tokyo. Aside from operating the radio, Erwin was also in charge of launching phosphorescent smoke bombs to help assemble the bombers before they proceeded to their target.
Erwin was positioned behind the forward gun turret toward the front of the plane. Once he got the order to light the bombs, he dropped them down a chute that launched them out of the aircraft before they exploded.
But something went wrong with one of them. It didn't leave the chute, instead bouncing back into the aircraft, striking a kneeling Erwin in the face. The intensely burning bomb obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. To make matters worse, smoke quickly filled the front part of the plane, obscuring the pilot’s vision.
Despite his wounds, Erwin knew the plane and crew would not survive if he didn't get the bomb outside. So, despite the fact that he was physically on fire and his skin was burning off, he picked up the incendiary at his feet and, feeling his way instinctively through the plane, crawled toward the cockpit.
His path was blocked by the navigator's table, which he had to unlock and raise to get around. To do that, he had to clench the burning bomb against his body. Erwin then struggled through the narrow passage and stumbled forward into the pilot’s den. He groped around until he found a window and threw the bomb out.
Completely on fire, Erwin collapsed between the pilots. He had journeyed only 13 feet, but later he said it "seemed like miles when you are burning."
The plane had been on autopilot during the crisis, but to keep it from stalling out, the pilot had to drop altitude. When the smoke finally cleared, he realized they were only 300 feet from hitting water. The pilot managed to pull the plane out of its dive, abort the mission and head for Iwo Jima, the closest place for medical aid.
During that time, the crew sprayed Erwin with a fire extinguisher to put the flames out, and they gave him morphine for the pain. Somehow, Erwin stayed conscious during the flight and even asked about the crew's safety.
Once at Iwo Jima, doctors labored for hours to remove the white phosphorus that had embedded in his eyes. Since it combusts when it's exposed to oxygen, each fleck that was removed burst into flames – small bits of torture for the already struggling airman.
No one thought Irwin would survive, but his entire crew knew he deserved the Medal of Honor for his actions. So, while he was getting treatment the night of their botched mission, the officers in his unit were preparing a Medal of Honor citation. The next morning, they presented it to Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the 21st Bomber Command, so he could sign it. LeMay managed to get it approved in an unprecedented amount of time. They were all hoping to give it to Erwin before he died.
Three days after the incident, a still-living Erwin was flown to a Navy hospital on Guam. For days afterward, doctors performed blood transfusions, did surgery and gave him antibiotics to fight infection.
On April 19, 1945 — one week after the incident — officials pinned the Medal of Honor on a heavily bandaged Erwin as he lay in a hospital bed. The medal itself was from a display case at U.S. Army Headquarters in Honolulu. It was the only available one in the entire Pacific Theater.
Henry lived a full life of 80 years.