Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Born in Alabama in 1921, Henry Erwin enlisted in the Army Reserve in his early twenties. Erwin was assigned to a bombardment squadron and deployed to the Pacific in World War II. During one harrowing bombing run, Erwin suffered severe injuries while saving his aircraft and all those aboard. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, but left him with grave injuries that required multiple surgeries.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Master Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin Sr. was born on May 8th, 1921, in Adamsville, Alabama.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Reserve and began active duty as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Forces the next year. However, Erwin washed out of pilot training and was given the rank of Private First Class, and reassigned as a radio operator and mechanic. He was then assigned to the 52d Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group.
In 1945, Erwin was deployed to the Pacific to fight in World War Two, taking part in bombing runs over Japanese cities from February to April. In addition to being a radio operator, he also served as a gunner on the B-29 Superfortress bomber.
On April 12th, 1945, Erwin was on a bombing run, in charge of releasing phosphorus smoke bombs, intended to signal to other bombers that they had reached the launch point for the attack.
As they reached the launch point, enemy fighters attacked the American bombers and the phosphorus bomb exploded in the launch chute. Erwin was burned and blinded by the chemicals, but knew that if the bomb remained on board, smoke would fill the cabin and the rest of the crew would die. He picked up the bomb, even though it severely burned his hands, and felt his way to the nose of the plane before throwing it out of the pilot’s window. As the smoke dissipated, the pilots pulled the plane up, only 300 feet from the water. Erwin’s crewmates extinguished the flames, but Erwin himself suffered extreme burns from the phosphorus.
The bomber returned to Iwo Jima, where Erwin received medical attention. It was believed that he would soon die from his burns. Army Air Force officers ensured he was quickly approved for the Medal of Honor, so he could receive the award before he died. On April 19th, Erwin was awarded the Medal of Honor in a military hospital on Guam.
After 41 surgeries over two-and-a-half years, Erwin recovered, regaining his eyesight and the use of one arm. In October 1947, Erwin was medically discharged. His other awards included the Purple Heart and two Air Medals.
After his discharge, Erwin worked at a veterans’ hospital for 37 years and passed away in 2002. The Air Force made the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award in his honor.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our producer and engineer, León Pescador is our associate producer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.