“My parents raised me to help others as they did. They never really told me to, they did it by example. Daddy didn't have to think about picking up the phosphorous bomb and throwing it out of the airplane. He knew that if he didn't get this dangerous thing out of the airplane they all would die. It is hard to think of being so unselfish, but those who had been raised like my parents to help others don't think. They don't think - they do what they can to help even if it means losing their own lives in the process.” Bette Cobb, daughter of Henry Erwin.
Henry Erwin lived heroically his whole life, up to and beyond the incredible act of heroism for which he received the Medal of Honor. He was the oldest of seven children and his father died when he was just ten. Reflecting on that period, Erwin said, “I asked the Lord to help me, and he did. And he has never, never let me down.”
Instead of finishing high school, he went to work in a steel mill to feed his family. Young Henry worked very hard and earned enough to get his family into a new home. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army. He actually had hopes of one day receiving the Medal of Honor. Little did he know what it would cost him.
In 1945, on a B-29 bombing mission to Japan, Sergeant Erwin was the radio man. One of his other jobs on the flight was to drop large phosphorescent flares down a chute in the bottom of the aircraft. But something went tragically wrong that day. Erwin said, “We hit an air pocket and that thing came plowing back up into the plane. It exploded and hit me in the face. Blinded me. Took my ear off. Took all my red hair.”
A flare like that puts out lots of smoke very fast. “It filled the plane with smoke so dense, we could not see any of the instruments. It was burning our throats, our noses, our eyes. That phosphorous smoke is terrible,” said Captain William Loesch, the bombardier.
Henry Erwin was blind. One of his ears had been burned off. The B-29 was diving toward the ocean. It’s astonishing that anyone in those circumstances could have the presence of mind to understand what needed to be done. Sergeant Erwin not only understood. With God’s help, he did what had to be done. “I couldn’t see, but I knew I had to get the thing out, or we were all going to die. I kept trying to find it, and I couldn’t find it. And I said Lord, you’re going to have to help me.”
Henry found the flare, which was burning at over a thousand degrees. One of the first things we learn as children, and one of the most important things we ever learn, is to avoid touching hot objects. It’s utterly unnatural to pick up a hot object. But Henry knew what he had to do. He picked the flare up with his bare hand. “I was determined I was going to get that thing out.”
Hugging the flare, he crawled to the front of the rapidly descending plane. When he got to the cockpit, he told the officers there to open the window. Then he threw the flare out. “I was fortunate to get it out, with the help of the good Lord.”
“I don’t know how the hell he did it,” said Captain Loesch. At three hundred feet above sea level the pilots regained control of the plane and leveled it out. Henry Erwin wasn’t merely badly burned. The man was smoldering! His crewmates, a dozen men whose lives he had saved, put him out with fire extinguishers. The B-29 was over five hours out from the nearest airbase at Iwo Jima! Sergeant Erwin never lost consciousness. “Maybe it was a good thing,” he later said. “For I was the first-aid man on the ship, and I told the gunner just how to give me plasma.”
He made it back to Iwo Jima. It normally takes Congress months, or years, to pass an act awarding the Medal of Honor. In Sergeant Erwin’s case, it only took Congress a day. They hurried it along because nobody expected Henry to live very long and they wanted him to get the medal before he died. A week after his act of heroism, Sergeant Erwin received the Medal of Honor, on his deathbed. Or so people thought. But he was as determined to live as he was determined to get the flare out of the plane.
When he came home to the states, he was still in terrible shape and was wrapped up like a mummy. One of the big questions on his mind had to be how his wife would take it. He had married Betty, his Sunday school sweetheart, just six months earlier. But he was no longer the handsome, healthy young man she had known. Would she faint? Would she cry? Would she leave and never come back? Evidently, she was made of the same stuff he was. She kissed him and said, “Welcome home.”
Henry had regained some of his vision by that time. “I thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Made tears come in my eyes. I knew then that I had nothing to worry about. I just thanked the good Lord that I was home.”
When the moment of truth came in his life, Henry Erwin stepped forward and did what needed to be done, with the help of the good Lord, as he would say. He lived through the most painful type of injury a human being can suffer. Nothing compares to being severely burned, and anyone who knows about burns knows that the face and hands are the worst parts of the body to burn. He went through over forty painful reconstructive surgeries. After all that, he went on to work for the Veterans Administration, helping burn victims. He and Mrs. Erwin raised four children. One of them became a minister. Henry Erwin lived an inspiring life and passed away on January 16th, 2002.
"The biggest thing I got from him was a life of integrity. His whole life revolved around integrity. He kept his nose clean and honored the Lord." Rev. H.E. Erwin, Jr.
I found material for this article in several places. They’re listed below, along with a few other websites related to the Medal of Honor where you can read about more real heroes. Most of the quotes attributed to Henry Erwin are his very words from a video titled Medal of Honor: Real Heroes of a Grateful Nation. The video, produced by GRB Entertainment, included the stories of other MOH recipients like James Stockdale.
A story about Henry Erwin from The Tuscaloosa News by Ben Windham.
A fuller account of what happened, from Home of Heroes.
A tribute to Henry Erwin by his daughter, Bette Cobb.
A Brief History - The Medal of Honor
Congressional Medal of Honor Society
Medal of Honor Citations