By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
In 1945, Hank “Red” Erwin, Sr. became a Medal of Honor recipient, and to this day has the record of being the person to be given the award the soonest after an incident. Why? Because no one thought he would live, and his grateful B-29 crew wanted him to know that everyone from Harry Truman on down was deeply thankful for his sacrifice. The short version of the story is that Erwin was back in the bomb bay of the plane known as The Spirit Of Los Angeles setting off a phosphorous bomb, and it ignited prematurely, coming back up into the plane.
Rather than allowing his crew die and over several thousand pounds of explosives go up in an epic “cook off,” Erwin, who had been blinded, felt around for the bomb which was burning at over 1,000 ͦF, picked it up like a football, ran to the front of the plane, and pitched it out of the window. He then collapsed. The entire incident took 22 seconds!
Red’s commander did the unthinkable and turned the plane around to go back to Guam. Upon landing, President Harry Truman was contacted, and the medal was flown from Hawaii to Guam, placed around the neck of Red who was wrapped up like a mummy, and his crew waited, determined to be there when he passed. They ended up having to wait until 2002, and Jefferson County born-and-bred Hank Erwin, Sr. spent the rest of his life working for the VA and getting veterans the help that they needed. That is Beyond Valor in a nutshell.
But the story does not stop there. Red Erwin was the father of Alabama State Senator Henry (Hank) Erwin, Jr. and the grandfather of Jon and Andy Erwin, the Erwin Brothers who brought you such films as I Can Only Imagine; Moms’ Night Out; and Woodlawn and American Underdog, the stories of NFL greats Tony Nathan and Kurt Warner.
The book is moving beyond description as it is read by Jon Irwin, who has had to grapple with the fact that he had no idea who his grandfather really was until after he had passed. Sure, he sat in his grandfather’s basement and actually got to touch the medal after having eaten his grandmother’s freshly baked cookies. Jon loved his grandfather, knew him the best he could from the perspective of a kid, but his grandfather, like the vast majority of those of The Greatest Generation did not toot their own horn. They just did what they did, and that was to give everything to keep us free.
Here is an example of Red Erwin’s humility:
To the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, and to those who dedicate their lives to our country knowing they may give the same sacrifice.
I am not a hero. The real heroes are the ones who have given the ultimate sacrifice for this country, those who have given their lives. They’re the ones who deserve the medals. I am only a survivor. I don’t wear the Medal of Honor for what I did. I wear it for everyone who served.
The book is hailed by actor Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan of Forrest Gump) and the Erwin Brothers have chosen to use their grandfather’s B-29 as the logo of their film company. Flying into danger for a cause greater than one’s own, Red Erwin’s life is still affecting us today, and I would encourage you to learn about him in detail.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner