There are plenty of medal of honor recipients out there, but this guy received it in the fastest way possible! Hurrah! The latter days of World War II saw U.S. Army Air Force bombers dropping smoke bombs that were made of phosphorus over a large area. On April 25, 1945, Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin was one of the lead bombers making the low-altitude run on a chemical plant in Koriyanna, and he was tasked with dropping the phosphorus bombs.
Erwin had only been in the war for a little over a year at that point; he had originally been in aviation school before dropping out to become a gunner, mechanic, and radio operator. His routine was to light the phosphorus bombs, dropping them from the plane before they could explode. Erwin was an extremely competent airman; he already boasted two Air Medals during his short time in service.
The B-29 bomber was called “The City of Los Angeles” and as you can see, Army Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin is second from the right in the front row. Erwin was a Medal of Honor recipient after he saved his crew after he threw a flaming smoke bomb out of the window of his plane.
However, it was on this mission where something went terribly awry. Erwin pulled the pin out of the bomb and he proceeded to release it into the chute to go into the outside air. Unfortunately, the fuse had lit the phosphorus too fast and it overheated. Additionally, the bomb jumped back into the plane, hitting Erwin in the face.
The smoke from the bomb began to fill up the cabin of the plane and no one – even the pilot – could see. Erwin not only could not see, but the phosphorus bomb had burned off his ear and nose. Despite his wounds and the fact that he was on fire, he still had the presence of mind to realize that the bomb was going to burn the whole entire plane.
Even though he was completely blind from the bomb, he persistently felt around the cabin for the bomb. He had to work around a number of obstacles. After he finally found the bomb, he had to find his way around the plane to even get the bomb out of the plane. This would ultimately severely burn him.
Erwin would eventually make it back to the co-pilot’s window in the cockpit and that is when he tossed the bomb out the side of the window. However, he collapsed in the cabin, totally blinded, with his skin burnt to the bone and his clothes completely on fire. Erwin had walked 13 feet in just over 20 seconds, but it “felt like miles” to him.
As the pilot was trying to fly the smoke-filled aircraft, it was going in a dive. By the time he dispersed the bomb and he had cleared out the smoke, the plane had righted itself at just 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Erwin remained alive even though he was burning, but at that point his only concern was his crew mates. Regardless, surgeons worked on him after he finally landed at Iwo Jima.
Surgeons worked through the night, but they didn’t hold out much hope that Erwin would survive. However, not only did he survive, but he was awarded the Medal of Honor the morning after the incident. To this day, that remains the fastest turnaround for a Medal of Honor recipient.
He was eventually sent to Guam for further care and he actually received his Medal of Honor as a special order from Honolulu. Erwin would ultimately live to age 80, passing away in 2002.