Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Revisiting B-29s and Red Erwin

"Nor law nor duty bade me fight/Nor public men nor cheering crowds..."

— William Butler Yeats

I've known about radio operator Staff Sergeant Henry "Red" Erwin's bravery under fire for almost as long as I've been alive. I did not, however, know Erwin until long after I first wrote about him. To save his B-29 Superfortress crew in embattled skies over Japan—The Empire,

American bomber crews called it—Erwin grabbed a loose phosphorous bomb burning at 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, held it in his grasp, and threw it from the bomber. The B-29 was named CITY OF LOS ANGELES and was piloted by Captain George A. "Tony" Simeral.

Sustaining burns over his entire body that should have been fatal, Erwin proved all of the important truths about those who fly and fight. Initiative, boldness and courage matter. Aviation, lest anyone think otherwise, is not solely about pilots. Erwin's deed rises to the standard for the Medal of Honor: "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty..."

I first wrote about Erwin while living in San Diego, submitted the story to STAG magazine on April 3, 1962, and got a rejection slip. I submitted it to CLIMAX magazine on April 15, 1962. Editor-in-chief Al Silverman wrote back on May 8, 1962 ("you did a good job") and
offered $150. The story appeared in the October 1962 issue of CLIMAX under the title "Handful of Hell at 20,000 feet."

I did not get to know Erwin, however, until I wrote a book titled "B-29 Superfortress Units of World War II" (London: Osprey Publishing, 1992). All those years later, I had a brief acquaintance with the airman I was writing about. Suddenly, Red Erwin (1921-2002) was briefly a friend at the other end of the telephone. He could not have been more gracious.  I dedicated that book to Marc Reid (1951-2001), a dear friend who struggled with lifelong health issues without once losing his fanaticism for aviation.

Together with co-author Fred L. Borch, an expert on awards and decorations, I wrote about Erwin again in the July 7, 2008 Air Force Times newspaper. By then, Erwin was no longer around to assist. Despite the severe burns he'd suffered he lived a full life and died at age 80.

I wrote about Erwin a fourth time in a book titled "Mission to Tokyo"
(Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2013). The book covered the air campaign against Japan but focused on the March 10, 1945 firebomb assault on the Japanese capital, which was the most destructive bombing event  in history. Simeral's crew, with Erwin aboard flew that mission, ordered by Major General Curtis E. LeMay and witnessed on the ground by Yoko Ono. "Mission to Tokyo" is a current book and can be gotten from me, or ordered here.

On May 13, 2015, I flew abord the world's only airworthy B-29, named FIFI and operated by the Commemorative Air Force. I sat in the radio operator's position next to a plaque honoring Erwin.

It was not easy waging war in the skies of The Empire. In the fraternity of those who fly and fight, there was no braver man. There was no better man. Henry "Red" Erwin—all honor to his name.

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