Valor Friday

| August 21, 2020

Today I’ll be discussing two men whose heroism was performed in the face of fire, quite literally.

Word comes to us this week that the heroism and sacrifice of our first subject is coming to the movie screen. Military.com reports that Red Erwin’s grandsons are bringing the story to life.

Henry Erwin

Henry “Red” Erwin was just 21 in 1942 when he enlisted with the Army Reserve. Called to active duty a few months later, he went to Ocala, Florida from his native north-central Alabama for aviation cadet training. Unable to make the grade as a pilot he was instead trained to be a radio operator and radio mechanic. This lengthy training kept him from shipping overseas until early 1945, when he headed for the Pacific Theater as a B-29 radio operator.

From February 25 until April 1st, Erwin’s 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, Twentieth Air Force, conducted un-escorted missions Flying from Guam, they initially conducted high altitude daytime strategic bombing of the Japanese mainland. They switched in March to nighttime incendiary bombing.

On April 12th, now-Staff Sergeant Red Erwin and his B-29 crew were on one such mission. It was the crew’s 11th combat mission. They were flying a B-29 named “City of Los Angeles” over Koriyama, Japan, targeting a chemical plant.

Despite a B-29 having a crew of twelve, everyone had multiple roles to fill. One of those was to pull the pin on the white phosphorus (WP or “Willy Peter”) flare and drop it through a chute in the aircraft’s hull. That was Red’s duty.

While flying to the Japanese mainland, the planes would fly apart and form up into a tighter formation before making their bomb runs. The WP flares were to signal other aircraft in the flight a rally point so they could form up and proceed to their targets. Just as the Superfortress came under anti-aircraft fire and became the target for enemy fighters, the signal came and Erwin pulled the pin and dropped the charge.

What should have been a routine moment in the mission went wrong almost immediately. Either the charge jammed in the chute or it detonated prematurely. Regardless of what caused it, the now burning flare popped back into the aircraft, right into Erwin’s face.

There’s three things that white phosphorus does. It burns hot, very hot, 2,372°F to be exact. That’s a concern for our airman because the aluminum his aircraft is made out of has a melting point of 1,225°F.

Second, it’s bright. A single charge can turn a square mile of pitch black night into daylight. So in the cramped confines of the interior of a bomber, it is akin to staring at the sun through binoculars.

Third, it smokes like crazy. It’s used to create massive smokescreens that can hide battleships. Again, not good for a cramped space. During the Vietnam war, these WP traits would be used against the Vietcong tunnels since it burned up all the available oxygen in the space and suffocated the occupants.

Erwin was immediately injured by the WP munition. It burned off his nose, took off an ear, and left him totally blinded. The billowing smoke near instantly filled the cockpit to the point the pilot couldn’t see the instrument panel at arm’s length in front of him.

Red was concerned that the burning flare was going to melt through the bulkhead and into the fully loaded bomb bay of the aircraft. He wasn’t about to let that happen, so he picked the 20 pound burning munition up with his bare hands. This thing burns at a temperature well above that which is used to cremate human remains.

Erwin, burning phosphorus in hand, made his way to a window next to the co-pilot to toss the fire out. Blind and with his arms literally afire he made his way forward. Along the way was the navigator’s station. The navigator had left his post to make an observation and he’d left his desk down and locked into position. This desk was now blocking Erwin.

Trying to unlock and stow the table, he wasn’t able to. He needed a free hand and couldn’t set the burning bomb down, so he tucked it inside his right arm and his ribcage, cradling the white hot fire like a football. He now had a free hand to move the desk out of his way. In the short time that took, the WP burned through all his flesh right down to the bones.

He now stumbled into the cockpit, reached the window, tossed out the burning round, and finally collapsed between the two pilots’ seats.

The smoke cleared enough that the pilot pulled the plane out of a steep dive it had fallen into during the ordeal. They were only 300ft off the surface of the ocean. The pilot immediately turned to plane to Iwo Jima to get Erwin immediate medical attention.

The crew tended to Erwin’s many and considerable wounds as best they could. WP is a very, very nasty thing to be burned with. The WP powder that gets on and into wounds is pyrophoric. Extinguishing the flames is only temporary. The moment any more is exposed to atmosphere it starts to burn all over again, complicating efforts to help the patient. It’s also quite toxic, to both patient and care provider.

Despite his grievous wounds, Erwin remained conscious through the rest of the flight. He spoke only to inquire about the safety of the rest of the crew. In agonizing pain, he repeatedly asked, “Is everybody else all right?” Arriving at Iwo Jima, the experienced medical personnel saw the extent of his injuries and knew immediately he was going to die.

Major General Curtis LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber Command (part of the Twentieth Air Force) and Brigadier General Lauris Norstad (Chief of Staff, Twentieth Air Force), heard of S/Sgt Erwin’s actions and his injuries. They were determined to get him a Medal of Honor. “I want to pin the Medal of Honor on that kid’s neck before he dies,” LeMay is said to have remarked.

What happened next is an incredible streamlining of the awards and decorations process. The award of a Medal of Honor today is something that takes years, even decades (the current record for longest time to award is 150 years). During WWII, it was a quicker process but still not something done with swiftness. The generals however shorted something that took at the minimum months into a matter of hours. They had a medal flown in from Hawaii so it could be presented to Erwin as he clung to life. They received verbal authorization from newly sworn in President Truman to present the award while the paperwork went through the bureaucracy. Truman had been sworn into office on the same day Red Erwin performed his heroics. This is likely Truman’s first MoH award.

Lying in hospital, completely covered in bandages from head to toe, Erwin was presented his medal by Maj. Gen. Willis H. Hale, commander of Army Air Forces Pacific Area. LeMay later told Erwin, “Your effort to save the lives of your fellow Airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.” He was presented the medal on April 19th, only a week after his actions. His official award citation is dated June 6th, less than two months after his actions.

A few weeks later in May, as Erwin struggled with his horrendous injuries, LeMay asked his hero sergeant if there was anything else he could do for the young man. Erwin said he wanted to see his brother Howard, with the 7th Marine Division on Saipan. Movie star and Marine pilot Tyrone Power flew the Marine to his brother’s bedside the next day.

After being personally awarded the medal in hospital, Red Erwin defied all medical experts and survived. Not for a short while either. He was returned to the States and over the course of the next 30 months he underwent 41 surgeries. His eyesight was restored and he’d regained the use of one arm.

He was medically discharged as a master sergeant in 1947. In addition to the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart he earned on April 12th, 1945 he had previously been awarded two Air Medals, the Good Conduct Medal, and a Presidential Unit Citation.

Erwin went on to have a long, 37-year career as a benefits counselor with the Veteran’s hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. He had four children, several grandchildren, and passed away in 2002 at the age of 80.

Erwin’s grandson Jon said that when he was a boy of about six, his grandfather took him into the basement to show him something. Taking the medal from its display case, he let the boy hold it while explaining to him what it was, what it meant, and why it was important. Too young to really grasp the gravity of what he was being told he remembers his grandpa leaning over his shoulder and simply saying, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Jon is now, along with his brother Andrew, bringing the story of their grandfather’s bravery under actual fire to the big screen. Jon recently wrote a book with William Doyle, which was published this week. The book covers Red’s hardships, sacrifice, his life after the war, and his faith that got him through his trying times. The book is called “Beyond Valor: A World War II Story of Extraordinary Heroism, Sacrificial Love, and a Race against Time.”

For good reason, Red Erwin’s tale is well known in the Air Force, as is the similar story of our next subject, John Levitow.

A1C John Levitow

Levitow was also 21 when he enlisted. He’d initially planned to join the Navy, but someone steered him right and he came into the Air Force in 1966, 20 days before he was to be drafted in the Army. He was initially trained as an electrical specialist in the civil engineers, but cross-trained into the loadmaster career field after an experience of electricity being on when he thought it wasn’t.

In Vietnam on February 24, 1969, then-Airman First Class Levitow was asked to take the place of a flight’s regular loadmaster. Departing on an AC-47 Spooky gunship callsign “Spooky 71” (pronounced “Spooky seven-one”), as loadmaster, one of Levitow’s jobs was to set the ejection and ignition timers on 27-pound, three foot long magnesium flares before handing them to the gunner to toss out the door.

Magnesium as a metal is pyrophoric, and like WP it burns hot and bright. In this case, even hotter than WP at 5,610°F. This quality is exploited as it burns with a very bright (two million candlepower) light. Like a WP flare, it’s enough to turn a large area into near-daylight for a few minutes until it exhausts itself.

Patrolling near Long Binh, the aircraft came under small arms fire. The pilot put the aircraft into a banked turn to conduct the gunship’s signature circle strafing of the ground targets.

The pilot gave the command and Levitow and the gunner began to send out flares. Levitow would arm the timer, hand it off to the gunner, who would stand at the open cargo door, holding it with a finger on the ring of the safety cord.

After the munition had been activated, but before it could be tossed out, a North Vietnamese Army 82-mm shell struck the aircraft in the right wing. The force of the blast, which happened after the round embedded itself in the wing structure, caused the plane to violently shudder and lurch while raking the fuselage with shrapnel.

All the airmen in the back of Spooky 71 were wounded, including A1C Levitow. Levitow described the concussion of the blast as feeling “like being hit by a two-by-four.” Levitow had more than 40 wounds to his back and extremities.

Levitow immediately came to the aid of a fellow airman and was moving the wounded man forward, away from the open door, when he noticed something else jarred in the blast; the live magnesium flare. Levitow saw the flare rolling near the ammunition storage. He could see the fuse burning. When it went off, it’d cook off the 19,000 rounds of live ammunition and easily burn through the aircraft’s hull and control cables.

Having difficulty walking due to his serious injuries and, despite the impending ignition of the 5,000 degree flare and the 30° bank of the wounded aircraft, he crawled forward.

His wounds and the rough ride the plane was giving them kept him from being able to grab it, so Levitow threw himself on top of the flare, using his body to control the ticking bomb and shield the ammunition from the coming inferno. He then started crawling towards the open cargo door, carrying the flare under his body. He got to the door and pushed out the flare just as it ignited, saving the plane and its crew.

Spooky 71 Damage

Upon return to base, the aircraft’s damage was discovered to be severe. It had 3,500 holes in the hull and wings, including one more than three feet wide. It’s a testament to the design and ruggedness of the C-47, which entered service in World War II with models still flying in the 21st Century.

Interior of Spooky 71

For his heroism, Levitow received the Medal of Honor in 1970 from President Nixon. He was also a recipient of the Purple Heart, eight Air Medals, and a Presidential Unit Citation.

Levitow was the lowest ranked airman to receive the Medal of Honor, and retains that distinction. He is one of only three USAF enlisted personnel to have received the medal for Vietnam, and one of only four USAF enlisted men to have ever received the honor.

His Medal of Honor-earning mission was his 181st combat sortie. After healing up, he returned to his unit and completed another 20 combat missions before returning to the states to finish out his enlistment.

He left the service in 1970, but Levitow maintained a close relationship with the military. He was a frequent speaker at USAF Airman Leadership School graduations (the top graduate in the class is given the John L Levitow Award). He was a proponent on veterans issues and worked in Connecticut developing and designing veterans programs.

Levitow died of cancer on November 8, 2000 at age 55. One thing Levitow had lobbied for, as I noted in my article several weeks back about Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger, was an upgrade of Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. Pitsenbarger’s award was upgraded, but Levitow missed the ceremony by a month to the day. He and Pits are in Valhalla discussing that I’m sure.

More detailed articles I can’t recommend enough from Air Force Magazine on Erwin can be found here and on Levitow here.

Category: Air Force, Hollywood, Vietnam, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (10)

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  1. ninja says:

    A solemn SALUTE to both HEROES.

    Looking forward in watching the movie about Red.

    Red son, Henry, Jr. served as a Senator in Alabama.

    His two sons, Red’s grandsons, also directed the Christian-based movie “Woodlawn” based on a true story.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodlawn_(film)

    Thank You, Mason, for sharing his story as well as the story on John Levitow.

    Rest In Peace to both gentlemen.

  2. Just Lurkin says:

    The story of “Red” Erwin is my go to story for a “you would not believe it, but it’s true” when the discussion turns to amazing acts of heroism. I think it might be the greatest MOH story of them all.

    The 150 years between the action and the award in this piece refers to CPT Alonzo “Lon” Cushing USA who was eventually awarded the MOH for his actions on July 3, 1863-the last day at Gettysburg. I recommend his story to any interested reader, it should be noted that he came from an exceptional military family and probably wasn’t even the most heroic of his brothers.

  3. FuzeVT says:

    Amazing displays of heroism and care for your fellow servicemen.

  4. Roh-Dog says:

    Thank you, so very much Gentlemen.

  5. USAFRetired says:

    I thank you for this article. But I take exception to part of it. I can think of the names of at least five enlisted airman who received the Medal of Honor.

    In addition to these fine young men, William Pitsenbarger, Richard Etchberger from the Vietnam War and John Chapman from Afghanistan. Of note all three were upgrades from previously awarded Air Force Cross.

    The Henry ‘Red’ Erwin award is given annually to the outstanding enlisted air crew member in the USAF in the categories of Airman, NCO, and Senior NCO.

    Jon Levitow award is given to top performers at USAF enlisted PME

  6. 5th/77th FA says:

    They discussed the actions of these Gentlemen/Heros when I was in AIT as we were training on the WP Rounds. BZ Gentlemen and continue to RIP.

    If more people with records/experiences like these were working at the VA maybe it would help get the deserving Vets the help they need and could help head off the posing phonies.

    Thanks Mason!