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Honoring WWII Hero Who Carried Flaming Bomb From Plane

Red Erwin, Hero

It was April 12, 1945 - the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. As a fleet of eighty-five American B-29 bombers flew a mission over the Japanese coast, disaster struck: a phosphorous bomb flare detonated before leaving the plane, ricocheted back up the bomb chute, and exploded in a fireball which engulfed Staff Sergeant "Red" Erwin with burning phosphorous (1300 degrees F). “It took the hair off my head, it took my right ear off, it blinded me. Phosphorus was all over me, burning,” Red remembers chillingly. As smoke filled the plane, the pilot couldn’t see the controls and the plane started to plummet toward the ocean… 700 feet, 600, feet, 500 feet and falling. By now a human torch, Red managed to feel around for the bomb, clutched it to his chest, and ran up to the cockpit to throw the still-flaming killer out the cockpit window. He then collapsed from the third-degree burns over much of his body. The plane, badly damaged, gained control at just 300 feet above the ocean’s surface, aborted its mission, and raced against time to land at newly-captured Iwo Jima in a desperate bid to save Erwin’s life. Stunned by his heroic actions, Erwin’s superiors approached the newly-sworn-in President Truman to award the Medal of Honor to Erwin before he died. Erwin, however, miraculously survived his burns, and the recipient of the nation’s highest military honor would spend the rest of his life as a loving husband, dedicated to serving America’s veterans, and driven by his strong Christian faith.

Just three months earlier, Red had married eighteen-year-old Martha Elizabeth “Betty” Starnes, the love of his life. After the horrific accident, he feared that like some military wives of seriously wounded men, she might reject him. Quite to the contrary, Betty welcomed her wounded husband home, and stayed by his side for fifty-seven years, through Erwin’s pain and despair, his reentry into civilian life and the start of his career at the Veterans Administration, where he dedicated himself to helping veterans for the next thirty-seven years. Despite his broken body, including a largely unusable right arm fused into a constant right angle, Erwin learned how to write left-handed and dress and drive one-handed, regained his sight (his eyes had been periodically sewn shut for 12 months after the accident to save his sight), survived forty surgeries, and lived the rest of his life to the fullest. He thrived personally and professionally, raised four children, cherished representing the Medal of Honor, and remained strong in his faith.     

Listen For Your Legacy

Jon will never forget his beloved grandfather’s funeral on a miserable, cold, rainy January day in 2002. Red was 80 years old; Jon just 19. The weather kept some folks away, but not the United States military. “To my surprise there was a small army of generals, officers, and enlisted men and women in dress uniforms to pay their respects and honor our family,” he vividly recalls. There was a twenty-one-gun salute, a squadron of aircraft flew over, each tipping its wing in honor of Red Erwin, and, of course, “Taps” rang out from a soaked, but proud bugler. Jon struggled with regret that day, also. “I loved him, not as a hero or a historical figure, but as my granddad. The trouble is, I had every opportunity to know him as a hero, but I was never listening as I should have.” Three years hence, he and his older brother, Andy, began researching every detail of their grandfather’s life in order to “steward his story,” as Jon puts it, and to write a book that would encourage others to do the same. He says we all need to listen attentively to our parents, grandparents, and others to glean what they’ve learned in life and appreciate each one’s unique story. “We need to understand the legacy they leave, as well as our history,” he believes. Jon clearly remembers the time, when he was seven years old, that his grandfather showed him his Medal of Honor in its old case. (Of the 40 million men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces since Civil War days in 1862, only 3506 have received one.) Red bent over his young grandson and said, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” a phrase inscribed on the wall of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and on the hearts of every member of the military, and their families. Jon says he felt bad for not asking more about what the medal stood for and how his grandfather’s selfless act saved not only the 12-man crew aboard Red’s B-29, “The City of Los Angeles,” but also countless other men. If the bomb had reached the remaining eight tons of incendiary and demolition bombs just a few feet away in the bomb bay, the explosion would have engulfed other planes in the fleet as well.  

It’s important to learn one’s personal as well as national history, Jon believes, and how God has worked in both for his good purposes. “As a nation, we have many common beliefs, and faith,” he says, “and we need to not lose sight of the ties that bind us.” He wants people to come away from the book not simply entertained, but with a deep and lasting appreciation for history and more so, for the Godly character that made Red’s life, and all believers’ lives, meaningful. “Going above and beyond” he says, “is not merely an American virtue, it is a Christian virtue.”  

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