b. 08/05/1921 Adamsville, Alabama. d. 16/01/2002 Birmingham, Alabama.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 12/04/1945 Koriyama, Japan.
Erwin was born on May 8, 1921, in Adamsville, Alabama. Like many of his generation he grew up in poverty and lost his father at an early age. However he had very strong religious faith which he discussed on a History Channel documentary on Medal of Honor winners in 1999. Erwin said "I called on the Lord to help me and he has never let me down". Erwin joined the Army Reserve from nearby Bessemer on July 27, 1942. Called to active duty as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Forces on February 3, 1943, he trained as a pilot in Ocala, Florida, but washed out due to "flying deficiency". He was instead transferred to technical school at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, as a private first class in July of that year. He completed further radio operator and radio mechanic training in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Madison, Wisconsin, until his graduation in 1944.
Assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force, in Dalhart, Texas, Erwin and his unit left for the Asia-Pacific theater in early 1945. From February 25 to April 1 of that year, they participated in a series of un-escorted bombing strikes against cities in the heart of Japan. For these missions, Erwin, by then a staff sergeant, received two Air Medals.
He was the radio operator of a B-29 airplane leading a group formation to attack Koriyama, Japan. He was charged with the additional duty of dropping phosphoresce smoke bombs to aid in assembling the group when the launching point was reached. Upon entering the assembly area, aircraft fire and enemy fighter opposition was encountered. Among the phosphoresce bombs launched by S/Sgt. Erwin, 1 proved faulty, exploding in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. The burning phosphoresce obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. S/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.
However, Erwin survived his burns. He was flown back to the United States, and after 30 months and 41 surgeries, his eyesight was restored and he regained use of one arm. He was given a disability discharge as a master sergeant in October 1947. In addition to the Medal of Honor and two Air Medals received earlier in 1945, he was also awarded the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, three Good Conduct Medals, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars (for participation in the Air Offensive Japan and Western Pacific campaigns), and the Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem.
For 37 years, Erwin served as a benefits counselor at the veterans' hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1951, his story was included in the movie The Wild Blue Yonder; Erwin was portrayed by Dave Sharpe.
In 1997, the Air Force created the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. It is presented annually to an airman, noncommissioned officer and senior noncommissioned officer in the flight engineering, loadmaster, air surveillance and related career fields. It is only the second Air Force award named for an enlisted person.
BURIAL LOCATION: ELMWOOD CEMETERY, BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA.
Block 22, Lot E1/2 379