On the 12th of April, 1945, 75 B-29 bombers were approaching Japan. Their target: Korijama, 120 miles north of Tokyo.
A formation of B-29s over the Pacific
They’d taken off from the northern airfield of Guam and had flown 1600 miles to the Japanese mainland. Still over the Pacific Ocean, they had descended to 5000 feet – the altitude for their bombing run.
In the lead airship, The City of Los Angeles, radioman Henry “Red” Erwin sat at his station. In addition to being responsible for communications, he had a collateral duty to launch 20 lb incendiary bombs with a 6 second delay fuse through a shoot that was underneath his stool. Those would indicate the way for the 75 plane formation.
Master Sgt. Henry “Red” Erwin
As the formation approached the mainland the pilot gave the word. “Hey Red, it’s time.” Red Erwin removed his headset. He moved the stool away. He grabbed the first of the incendiaries and he dropped it through the shoot. He took the second one and he dropped it through the shoot. He took the third one and he pushed it down through the shoot. But it didn’t go through the shoot. It ignited and got blown back into the airplane.
The blast took off Erwin’s nose off and blinded him in both eyes, and the bomb was now burning at 2000 degrees and sitting inside the B-29. It was a phosphorous incendiary so the plane instantly filled with smoke. The pilot could not see out, could not see the controls, and the plane began to descend.
Red Erwin reached around on the deck, blinded; he reached for the bomb and picked it up, with his bare hands. He was in short sleeves but at this point all of his clothes had been burned off. He started making his way forward because his objective was to get the bomb to the copilot’s window and throw it out of the aircraft.
As he came forward he reached the navigator’s station where a temporary table had been propped up. The table was blocking his way.
Worried about putting the bomb down because the airplane’s jostling might make the bomb roll to a different part of the airplane where he couldn’t recover it, he tucked the burning bomb between his elbow and his body. Now the whole left side of his body was enflamed. He knocked the navigator’s table out of the way and proceeded forward.
Red Erwin entered the cockpit and told the copilot to open the window and he threw the bomb out.
At this point Erwin was totally engulfed in flames but the smoke cleared in the cockpit and the crew doused his flames.
The pilot grabbed the controls and was able to steady the aircraft 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
Red Erwin was awarded the Medal of Honor and everyone expected him to die. Fortunately he did not, although he suffered 40 surgeries and facial reconstructions over the next several years.
Red Erwin was severely burned and not expected to live.