Opinion Columns & Blogs

Heroism, for real

The noise and anger, the division and disrespect, all so prevalent in a seemingly endless political campaign, now continue past the campaign’s end. My head hurts. So as an antidote to the poison being infused into our society, I have made a special effort to shift my thoughts to some people in our past who sacrificed beyond measure so this nation could continue free, their sacrifices not dependent upon how they voted or their personal beliefs. One such person I first read about when I was a teenager, and the story was so impressive, and so gruesome, that it has stuck in my mind for all these years.

It was the night of April 12, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress bomber was one of a formation flying out of Guam to make a bombing raid on Japan, and as the pathfinder aircraft, would be dropping a white phosphorus smoke bomb to assemble the formation as it approached the target. The radio operator, Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin, a soft-spoken, red-haired young man from Adamsville, Alabama, would drop the incendiary down a tube at a signal from the pilot, Captain George Simeral. But on this night, there was a malfunction. The phosphorus bomb exploded in the tube, blowing back into “Red” Erwin’s face, blinding him, burning off one ear and much of his nose, and dropping to the floor. Burning phosphorus eats through almost anything and will continue to burn until it consumes itself or is starved of oxygen, and the floor of the aircraft could not prevent its burning through and falling into stored incendiaries below. The airplane and its twelve crew members were in mortal danger.

Erwin picked up the burning bomb in his bare hands, crawled and stumbled blindly forward toward the cockpit, feeling his way past obstructions while the incendiary burned the flesh from his ribs, burned his clothes, burned his hair, burned every part of his body it could reach. By feel, he unlatched and lifted the navigator’s table out of his way, leaving the skin of his entire hand seared onto the table top. Smoke had already obscured the instrument panel and was rapidly filling the aircraft, and Captain Simeral opened the window beside him to draw some of it out, but he still could not see the figure appearing at his elbow. Then he heard the polite, quiet voice of “Red” Erwin. “Pardon me, sir,” Erwin said, reaching past the captain to toss the bomb out the window. Then he collapsed, afire, between the pilots’ seats.

Captain Simeral, trying to regain control of the smoke-filled bomber less than 300 feet off the water, aborted the mission, jettisoned his bombs, and headed back on a 3-hour flight to a field hospital on Iwo Jima. Other crew members hosed Erwin with fire extinguishers, smeared grease on him, trying everything they could do to stop the burning phosphorus and save their crewmate. Simeral, choking back tears later, reported that the only words Erwin spoke on the flight back were to ask him, “Is everybody else all right, sir?”

On Guam, senior officers hurriedly typed out a brief, matter-of-fact recommendation for award of the Medal of Honor. Major General Curtis LeMay was awakened and signed it. It was transmitted to Washington and the approval flashed back immediately; everybody determined that this hero receive the award before he died.

But there was no such medal on Guam. A B-29 was sent to Hawaii to get one and rush it back. The only one on Oahu was displayed in a locked case in the Army commander’s office. The glass was smashed and the medal sent on its way back across the Pacific. General LeMay flew from Guam to Iwo Jima and presented the medal to Erwin in a hospital bedside ceremony. Somehow, he was still surviving, even managing a soft, “Thank you, sir.”

The horribly mutilated patient hung on for a long flight back to the States. He then endured forty-one surgeries over thirty months, during which he regained his sight and use of one arm. He later married, had a family, and was a productive citizen for many years thereafter. His son, Henry Erwin Jr., was an Alabama state senator for eight years.

I’m not familiar with, nor am I interested in, Senator Erwin’s record in Alabama politics. But I am certain of one thing: He sure did come from good stock.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”