After World War I ended, war weary Americans decided that we needed to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world to a degree, in order to protect ourselves. Of course, that didn’t stop people from other countries from wanting to immigrate to the United States. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act reflected that desire. Americans wanted to push back and distance ourselves from Europe amid growing fears of the spread of communist ideas. The new law seemed the best way to accomplish that. Unfortunately, the law also reflected the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in American society at the time. As more and more largely unskilled and uneducated immigrants tried to come into America, many Americans saw the enormous influx of immigrants during the early 1900s as causing unfair competition for jobs and land.

Under the new law, immigration was to remain open to those with a “college education and/or special skills, but entry was denied disproportionately to Eastern and Southern Europeans and Japanese.” At the same time, the legislation allowed for more immigration from Northern European nations such as Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavian countries. The law also set a quota that limited immigration to two percent of any given nation’s residents already in the US as of 1890, a provision designed to maintain America’s largely Northern European racial composition. In 1927, the “two percent rule” was eliminated and a cap of 150,000 total immigrants annually was established. While this was more fair all around, it particularly angered Japan. In 1907, Japan and US President Theodore Roosevelt had created a “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which included more liberal immigration quotas for Japan. Of course, that was unfair to other nations looking to send immigrants to the United States. Strong US agricultural and labor interests, particularly from California, had already pushed through a form of exclusionary laws against Japanese immigrants by 1924, so they favored the more restrictive legislation signed by Coolidge.

Of course, the Japanese government felt that the American law as an insult and protested by declaring May 26 a “National Day of Humiliation” in Japan. With that, Japan experienced a wave of anti-American sentiment, inspiring a Japanese citizen to commit suicide outside the American embassy in Tokyo in protest. That created more anti-American sentiment, but in the end, it made no difference. On May 26, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 into law. It was the most stringent and possibly the most controversial US immigration policy in the nation’s history up to that time. Despite becoming known for such isolationist legislation, Coolidge also established the Statue of Liberty as a national monument in 1924.

Serious accidents happen, and they are almost always due to negligence on the side of one party or the other, but when two automobiles, planes, ships, or trains hit each other head-on, someone was seriously in the wrong place and going the wrong way. On May 14, 1991, two diesel trains carrying commuters crashed head-on, near Shigaraki, Japan, killing 42 people and injuring over 600 others. This was the worst rail disaster in Japan since a November 1963 Yokohama crash, which killed 160 people.

Shigaraki, a town near Kyoto, is famous for its ceramics. On that May 14th, the World Ceramics Festival was being held in the town. That put many more people in town than normal. It also filled the passenger trains with people on their way to the event. At just after 10am, passengers filled a train in Kikukawa, which was to run along a 9.1-mile single-track rail line away from Shigaraki. When the train was loaded, the However, workers on the Shigaraki Kogen Railways (SKR) line prepared to depart, but they could not get a green signal indicating that the track was clear so they could depart from the station. The system showed that a train was approaching. The workers believed the signal was malfunctioning, and so they overrode the system and sent the train out, 11 minutes late.

Sadly, they were to find out too late that the system had been correct and a JR West commuter train carrying passengers toward Shigaraki for the festival was speeding toward them. The only mechanical failure that day was when a faulty-departure detector failed to work correctly, sending the JR West commuter train out on a collision course with the SKR train. The resulting crash derailed both trains and cost 42 people their lives. Very seldom does the fault in an accident lie with just one person. A subsequent investigation faulted the SKR workers for allowing the train to depart without a green signal, an action found to be dangerous and illegal. A signal engineer was also blamed for the defective wiring that led to the failure of the faulty-departure detector that should have prevented the collision. A 1999 civil trial resulted in a 500-million-yen (3,196,500 US dollars) award to the victims against SKR and JR West jointly. JR West pledged safety improvements (after the Shigaraki accident), but it again had an accident in Amagasaki. The Amagasaki rail crash was a fatal railway accident that occurred on April 25, 2005, at 9:19am local time. Of the roughly 700 passengers (initial estimate was 580 passengers) on board at the time of the crash, 106 passengers, in addition to the driver, were killed and 562 others injured. Each year, since the disaster, the victims of the Shigaraki Head-On collision are remembered in a ceremony in Shigaraki.

On December 10, 1968, the 300-million-yen robbery, also known as the 300-million-yen affair or incident, took place in Tokyo, Japan, when a man posing as a police officer on a motorcycle performed a “traffic stop” of some bank employees transferring money and stole about 294 million yen. This as half-century old unsolved heist remains the single largest heist in Japanese history. On that fateful day, four Kokubunji branch employees of the Nihon Shintaku Ginko (Nippon Trust Bank) were transporting 294,307,500 yen (about US$817,520 at 1968 exchange rates) in the trunk of a Nissan Cedric company car. It seems like a rather odd and very unsecure way to transfer such a large sum of money, but apparently, they saw no danger…a mistake they would most certainly regret. The money, contained in metal boxes was to be for bonuses for the employees of Toshiba’s Fuchu factory.

As the car proceeded along its route to the home of the bank manager for delivery to the factory, a young man in the uniform of a motorcycle police officer blocked the path of the car. Like most of us would do, when faced with an authority figure telling us to stop, the men in the car obeyed the “officer” and a mere 200 meters from its destination, on a street next to Tokyo Fuchu Prison they stopped. The impersonator informed the bank employees that their bank branch manager’s house had been destroyed by an explosion, and a warning had been received that a bomb had also been planted in the car. The four employees quickly exited the vehicle, while the police officer crawled under the car. Moments later, the “officer” he rolled out, shouting that the car was about to explode and telling the employees to run. Smoke and flames appeared underneath the car. The employees quickly retreated, and “police officer” got into it and drove away. I’m sure it took several moments for the employees to figure out that there was no bomb, and the “officer” wasn’t a selfless hero trying to get the car away from any innocent bystanders…especially when there was no explosion, and the “officer” didn’t come back. They were now faced with a new and unpleasant dilemma…telling their boss they had been duped.

The “police officer” had worked out his story well, telling the bank employees he knew about the bomb because threatening letters had been sent to the bank manager beforehand. He was also prepared with a warning flare to create the smoke and flames he had ignited while under the car. At some point, the thief abandoned the bank’s car and transferred the metal boxes to another car, which he had stolen beforehand. Then, he also abandoned that car and transferred the boxes into to another previously stolen vehicle. He had laid out his plan very well, but there were, nevertheless, 120 pieces of evidence left at the scene of the crime, including the “police” motorcycle, which had been painted white. Unfortunately, the evidence was mostly common everyday items. It is believed that he scattered them around on purpose to confuse the police investigation…a planned which seems to have worked quite well too.

One suspect was the 19-year-old son of a police officer. That young man died of potassium cyanide poisoning on December 15, 1968. He had no alibi, which may not have meant anything, since the money was not found at the time of his death. His death was deemed a suicide, and he was considered not guilty, according to official record. There was simply no evidence to tie him to the crime. Another, arrest made on December 12, 1969, of a 26-year-old man, who was suspected by the Mainichi Shimbun, proved to be a dead end too, when his alibi checked out. The arrest was initially made on an unrelated charge, but on the day of the robbery, he was taking a proctored examination. The only resulting charge from that arrest was that of “abuse of power” as the arrest was made based on false pretenses.

The police launched a massive investigation, posting 780,000 composite pictures throughout Japan. Amazingly, the list of suspects (or as it really must have been, persons of interest) included 110,000 names. These had to have been people the police thought might possibly be able to carry off such a heist, because it would really be impossible to have that many real suspects. Approximately 170,000 policemen participated in the investigation, which was the largest investigation in Japanese history…or so the story goes. They gathered and examined fingerprints from the scene and comparison of them to those on file. In the end, six million fingerprints on file were compared individually, however not a single match was found.

On November 15, 1975, just before the statute of limitations for that crime was over, a friend of the 19-year-old suspect was arrested on an unrelated charge. He had a large amount of money and was suspected of the robbery. He was 18 years old when the robbery occurred. The police asked him for an explanation for the large amount of money, but he refused to speak, and they were not able to prove that his money had come from the robbery. In December 1975, after a seven-year investigation, police announced that the statute of limitations on the crime had passed, and that the investigation was at an end. In a further slap to justice, as of 1988, the thief has also been relieved of any civil liabilities, which means that he can tell his story without fear of legal repercussions. Still, no one has ever stepped forward to “tell said story” either, which tends to further exasperate the authorities, because it is the unsolved crimes that torment a police officer the most.

Japan entered World War I as a member of the Allies on August 23, 1914. Assisting the Allies with the war effort was not their reason for doing so, however. Once in, Japan seized the opportunity of Imperial Germany’s distraction with the European War to expand its sphere of influence in China and the Pacific. Because Japan already had a military alliance with Britain, there was minimal fighting as they pushed through to make their territorial gains. Japan was not pressured to enter the war. The Allies had things well in hand, so their motive was obvious. As they swept through, they quickly acquired Germany’s scattered small holdings in the Pacific and on the coast of China. While those holdings were relatively easy to overtake, not all of Germany’s holdings were so easy.

In fact, the other Allies quickly started to realize that Japan’s motives weren’t exactly in everyone’s best interests, and they began to push back hard against Japan’s efforts to dominate China through the Twenty-One Demands of 1915. Japan’s occupation of Siberia against the Bolsheviks failed, as its wartime diplomacy and limited military action produced few results. Then, by the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Japan was largely frustrated in its ambitions. Nevertheless, Japan had snapped up Germany’s Asian colonies with ease, and even the African colony of Togoland (now Togo and parts of Ghana) fell in less than three weeks. The first real sign of resistance was when German Kamerun (Cameroon) was invaded and lightly contested until 1916. Still, it fell in the end. It seemed that Japan was undefeatable.

Nevertheless, with all the victories, the German colonies in East Africa led by the formidable and undefeated Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck proved to be the exception to the rule. The situation facing von Lettow-Vorbeck and his colonial forces was formidable. Still, von Lettow-Vorbeck knew how to fight, and he refused to back down. When the Japanese came up against von Lettow-Vorbeck, they found themselves heavily outnumbered, and they found themselves with no prospect of reinforcements or much in the way of material support arriving anytime soon.

The fact was that von Lettow-Vorbeck was seeking to tie up British military resources in Africa to relieve some pressure on the European theater. He drew upon his many years of service in Africa to wage a highly effective guerilla war against a much larger enemy. Von Lettow-Vorbeck was probably one of the greatest guerilla warfare strategists of all time…maybe the greatest. Von Lettow-Vorbeck even gained the loyalty of his African soldiers. In those days, it was highly unusual for a commanding officer or any white soldier for that matter, to show any level of respect to the African soldiers. Von Lettow-Vorbeck did, by appointing Black officers and speaking Swahili. The German troops had learned to live off the land and make the most of very little supplies, due to hard lessons drawn from years of colonial warfare in Africa. Those years were filled with atrocities, but they had persevered.

This one small German colonial army tied up the British forces for the duration of the conflict. The British had been plundering food supplies that devastated the local population. Finally, the German army surrendered on November 25, 1918, in Zambia, two weeks after the November 11, 1918 armistice ended hostilities. Of course, Hitler knew a great officer when he saw one, and so after the war, Hitler immediately offered von Lettow-Vorbek a prestigious position in the Third Reich. In what most would consider a complete shock, von Lettow-Vorbeck bluntly refused the offer, using some very “colorful” language, which shall not be repeated here. It was a courageous, but not very wise move, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, his boldness, as well as his loyalty to the German people, paid off. Von Lettow-Vorbeck was simply too popular with the German people to be eliminated by the regime. He lived to be 94.

In 1945, a Japanese scientist named Shiro Ishii devised a plan of attack on civilians in the United States called Operation PX, also known as Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night. The plan was intended to wage biological warfare upon civilian population centers in the continental United States during the final months of World War II. The plan was devious, and heinous. Ishii planned to spread plague-infected fleas over Southern California using airplanes. The original operation was abandoned shortly after its planning on March 26, 1945. Then, with modifications, it was finalized and placed back of the table to be carried out. The plan was to be carried out on September 22nd, 1945. Unfortunately for Japan, their formal surrender date was August 15th, 1945, and the war was over.

Originally, the Japanese Naval General Staff, led by Vice-Admiral Jisaburi Ozawa proposed Operation PX in December 1944. The code name for the operation came from the Japanese use of the code name PX for Pestis bacillus-infected fleas. The navy partnered with Lieutenant-General Shiro Ishii of Unit 731. Ishii possessed extensive experience on weaponizing pathogenic bacteria and human vulnerability to biological and chemical warfare, and he was an extremely evil man, willing to use his knowledge for the murders of millions of people, especially if he thought it would bring him more power.

In Ishii’s plan, they would use Seiran aircraft launched by submarine aircraft carriers upon the West Coast of the United States, targeting specifically, the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The attack was to be utilizing weaponized bubonic plague, cholera, typhus, dengue fever, and other pathogens in a biological terror attack upon the population of the United States. The original plan was to have the submarine crews infect themselves and run ashore in a suicide mission. When the operation was shelved in March of 1945, it was because Umezu could see the future ramifications, and conveyed as much, when he said, “If bacteriological warfare is conducted, it will grow from the dimension of war between Japan and America to an endless battle of humanity against bacteria. Japan will earn the derision of the world.”

The idea of suicide attacks was tabled, due to opposition from Yoshijiro Umezu and Torashiro Kawabe, who did not want Ishii to die in a suicide attack and asked him to instead “wait for [the] next opportunity calmly”. It was then that Ishii devised a final plan using of the biological weapons and fleas…an attack that never took place either. The world never knew of the planned attack until long after the war, when Operation PX was first discussed in an interview by former captain Eno Yoshio, who was heavily involved with planning for the attack. He first spoke of it in an interview with Sankei on August 14, 1977. According to Yoshio, “This is the first time I have said anything about Operation PX, because it involved the rules of war and international law. The plan was not put into actual operation, but I felt that just the fact that it was formulated would cause international misunderstanding. I never even leaked anything to the staff of the war history archives at the Japanese Defense Agency, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it even now. But at the time, Japan was losing badly, and any means to win would have been all right.” That interview goes to show how horrible some regimes can be.

It’s a difficult thing to discover that, as a nation, with a naval fleet, what you thought was strong, is simply not enough. This was the position that Russia found themselves during the Russo-Japanese War, when the Russian Baltic Fleet is nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The defeat was devastatingly decisive. Only 10 of the 45 Russian warships were able to escape to safety. The Russian leaders had to face the fact that further resistance against Japan’s imperial designs for East Asia was hopeless. They could not do it alone.

The Japanese wanted to divide Manchuria and Korea into spheres of influence, but the plan was rejected by the Russians on February 8, 1904, following the Russian rejection of a Japanese plan to Japan launched a surprise naval attack against Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in China. With that attack, the war was on. The Battle of Port Arthur on February 8 and 9, 1904 marked the commencement of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, in true Japanese style attacked when all the ships were still in port, but I guess that is how war is. It reminds me of Pearl Harbor, of course. The attack was a surprise night attack by a squadron of Japanese destroyers on the neutral Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, Manchuria. They continued with another attack the following morning. The fighting would continue until May 1904. While the attack on Port Arthur ended inconclusively, the war was without a doubt, a Japanese victory. The Battle of Port Arthur was the first major battle of the 20th century, and the Russian fleet was decimated. During the war that began then, Japan won a series of decisive victories over the Russians, who underestimated the military potential of its non-Western opponent. In January 1905, the continued attacks resulted in the fall of Port Arthur to Japanese naval and ground forces under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and by March Russian troops were defeated at Shenyang, China, by Japanese Field Marshal Iwao Oyama. Then came the Battle of Tsushima Strait, fought on May 27 and 28, 1905 (May 14 and 15 in the Julian calendar that Russia used at that time) in the Tsushima Strait located between Korea and southern Japan.

While hope seemed lost, Russian Czar Nicholas II still hoped that the Russian Baltic fleet under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky would be able to challenge Admiral Togo’s supremacy at sea. Unfortunately, during the two-day Battle of Tsushima Strait, more than 30 Russian ships were sunk or captured by the superior Japanese warships. Japanese superiority was made abundantly clear. By August, with a stunning string of Japanese victories, Russia became convinced that they would have to accept the peace treaty mediated by US President Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, New Hampshire…a treaty that won Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement. In the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia recognized Japan as the dominant power in Korea and gave up Port Arthur, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan.

Japan emerged from the conflict as the first modern non-Western world power and set its sights on greater imperial expansion. Japan would have to be dealt with another day, and by another power. As for Russia, the military’s disastrous performance in the war sparked the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Near what is now known to be the end of World War II, a plan was devised to invade the Japanese home islands. In the end, Operation Downfall was not carried out, because Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet declaration of war, and the invasion of Manchuria. Nevertheless, in the days and months leading up to the planned attack, with its two parts…Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet, the United States Armed Forces ordered 1 million Purple Heart medals, in anticipation of a bloody battle. Operation Olympic was set to begin in November 1945, and was intended to capture the southern third of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu, with the recently captured island of Okinawa to be used as a staging area. The second attack was planned for early 1946. Operation Coronet was supposed to be the invasion of the Kanto Plain, near Tokyo, on the main Japanese island of Honshu. Important airbases on Kyushu that would be captured in Operation Olympic would allow land-based air support for Operation Coronet. If Downfall had taken place, it would have been the largest amphibious operation in history…even surpassing D-Day.

This planned set of attacks was no mystery to Japan either, because their geography made this invasion plan quite obvious. The Japanese were able to accurately predict the Allied invasion plans, and they adjusted their defensive plan, known as Operation Ketsugo, accordingly. The Japanese planned an all-out defense of Kyushu, with little left in reserve for any subsequent defense operations. Casualty predictions varied widely, but they were expected to be extremely high. Depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians would have resisted the invasion, estimates ran up into the millions for Allied casualties. No wonder the United States expected to need 1 million Purple Heart medals. Thankfully, those millions of Allied casualties never materialized, because when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war ended. The United States was left with 1 million Purple Heart medals, which they are still using today. I think that while having 1 million Purple Heart medals isn’t the worst thing ever, just the fact that we still have some of those 1 million Purple Heart medals means that, in some way, we have kept some of our soldiers safe over the years. I don’t know how many are left, but it doesn’t matter, because at this point, 78 years later…there are some left.

What would make a tiny nation try to invade a nation that is more that 25 times larger, with a population that is at least 8 times larger? It makes no sense, and yet on February 15, 1937, Japan attempted to invade China. Japan, with a total of 60,000 soldiers enter Northern China using planes and tanks. The invasion was something they had studied so they would have a plan before they attempted such an outlandish scheme. The type of conquest they were trying to mimic was that of Kubia Kahn, the Mongol emperor, who in 1271, established the Yuan dynasty and formally claimed orthodox succession from prior Chinese dynasties. The Yuan dynasty came to rule over most of present-day China, Mongolia, Korea, southern Siberia, and other adjacent areas. Kahn also amassed influence in the Middle East and Europe as khagan. By 1279, the Yuan conquest of the Song dynasty was completed, and Kahn became the first non-Han emperor to rule all of China proper.

So, with dreams of power and world domination, among other things, including a need for the resources Japan lacked and China had, the Japanese army under Emperor Hirohito made the decision to attack the much larger and more populated China. They threatened to bottle up 400,000 Chinese people on China’s central front. The attack area was approximately 20 miles, from the Yellow River to the Henan Capital provincial (Kaifeng). The Japanese Army displayed far superior air power and many more combat troops during the Japanese onslaught. In fact, their might could easily be called terrifying. China was helpless at stopping the Japanese forces from occupying Shanghai, and they were barely able prevent the invasion of Japan on the capital. The Chinese desperately tried to fight back with small caliber weapons against the heavy artillery fire power, air and naval might, and armored defenses of Japan. While they were severely outgunned, the bravery, stubbornness and determination of the Chinese made it possible for the country to withstand three months of defending Shanghai. Nevertheless, in the end, Shanghai fell, and Japan gained control over the city. The best of China’s troops were defeated. Still, the Japanese were surprised at the length of time that the Chinese troops were able to make a stand for their capital city. Because of their military superiority, the Japanese fully expected a short battle and a swift victory. They were not prepared for the one variable…the determination of the Chinese people. Morale plummeted over the heavy losses incurred, but not for long.

I sometimes wonder if these heads of governments really think that they can somehow control the world, or even, if they really think they can control the country they have invaded. The main reasons that nations and borders change as often as they do, is that people will only live under oppression for so long. Then, they will fight back. As to the heads of nations and ruling the world. While they might be the “head” of their nation, in a situation of world domination, I seriously doubt if any of these national leaders would be the one in control.

I would never have considered that an earthquake in Chili could affect Hawaii, which is 6,593 miles away, but on May 23, 1960, that seemingly huge distance suddenly became very small. When a 9.5 magnitude earthquake hit Chili on May 22, 1960, thousands of people lost their lives, and a giant tsunami was triggered. By the next day, that tsunami had traveled across the Pacific Ocean and killed an additional 61 people in Hilo, Hawaii. That distance and the amount of devastation seems incredible to me.

The earthquake, which involved a severe plate shift, caused a large displacement of water just off the coast of southern Chile at 3:11pm. The resulting wave, traveling at speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour, moved west and north. The damage to the west coast of the United States was estimated at $1 million, but there were no deaths there.

In 1948, the Pacific Tsunami Warning System was established in response to another deadly tsunami. It worked properly and warnings were issued to Hawaiians six hours before the deadly wave was expected to arrive. Unfortunately, some people ignored the warnings, as always seems to happen. Some other people actually headed to the coast in order to view the wave…like the warning was actually an announcement of a coming attraction. The tsunami arrived only a minute after it was predicted, and it absolutely destroyed Hilo Bay on the island of Hawaii.

People really don’t fully understand just how much destructive power water has, until they see it in action. When the waves hit Hilo Bay, they were thirty-five-feet high. They were so strong that they bent parking meters to the ground and wiped away most of the buildings. When the wave hit a 10-ton tractor, it was swept out to sea like it was made of Styrofoam. you would think that boulders would be sturdy enough to hold back the waves, but the 20-ton boulders that made up the seawall were easily moved 500 feet. The 61 people who lost their lives were in Hilo…the hardest hit area of the island chain.

With all of that destruction, you might be inclined to think that the waves would have lost power, and to a degree, I suppose they did. Nevertheless, the tsunami continued to race further west across the Pacific. Even given a ten-thousand-mile distance from the earthquake’s epicenter, Japan still wasn’t able to provide enough warning time to get the people out of harm’s way. The wave hit Japan at about 6:00pm, more than a full day after the earthquake. The tsunami struck the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. The wave’s power was still enough to crushing 180 people, and to leave 50,000 more homeless. In Japan, it caused $400 million in damages. With everything destroyed by this one earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, you would think that people would finally learn to stay away from the shore during a tsunami warning, but every year people lose their lives because they decided to cross paths with waves…be it from tsunamis, hurricanes, and other floods. Water is a force to be reckoned with. It should be considered very dangerous.

World War II was coming to a close and everyone was just doing whatever they could to stay alive. Staff Sergeant Henry E “Red” Erwin Sr was the radio operator on a B-29 Superfortress bomber, piloted by Captain George A “Tony” Simeral. Formed at Dalhart, Texas, in June 1944, and deployed overseas in January 1945, this was a seasoned crew. Erwin’s unit was the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Wing, and Erwin’s B-29 was one of the few planes in Major General Curtis E LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command to have two names. The B-29, serial number 42-65302, was called Snatch Blatch and The City of Los Angeles. On April 12, 1945, the crew was on a bombing mission over Japan. They were part of a campaign to bomb Tokyo and other major Japanese cities.

Each of the 12 crew members on the B-29 had additional duties to perform, along with their primary jobs. Erwin’s was to drop phosphorus smoke bombs through a chute in the aircraft’s floor when the lead plane reached a designated assembly area. During the campaign, Erwin pulled the pin and released a bomb into the chute, but the fuse malfunctioned and ignited the phosphorus prematurely, burning at 1,100 degrees. The canister flew back up the chute and into Erwin’s face, blinding him, searing off one ear and obliterating his nose. Phosphorus pentoxide smoke immediately filled the aircraft. It was impossible for the pilot to see his instrument panel. At such a high heat, Erwin was afraid the bomb would burn through the metal floor into the bomb bay. Nevertheless, Erwin had a quick, fleeting chance to save the lives of his fellow crewmembers by risking severe, probably fatal, burns to his own body, and he knew he had to act. He was completely blind, and yet he picked up the flare and feeling his way, crawled around the gun turret and headed for the copilot’s window. His face and arms were covered with ignited phosphorus and his path was blocked by the navigator’s folding table, hinged to the wall but down and locked. By now the navigator was setting up to make a sighting. The table’s latches could not be released with one hand, so Erwin held the white-hot bomb between his bare right arm and his ribcage. It only took a few seconds to raise the table, but by then, the phosphorus had burned through his flesh to the bone. His body on fire, he stumbled into the cockpit, threw the bomb out the window and collapsed between the pilot’s seats, and with that heroic act, the rest of the crew was saved.

It was the moment of truth for Erwin, who was a modest, humble kind of guy. His thoughts on his heroic actions would have been something along the lines of, “I just did what any soldier would have done…it’s nothing special,” but the truth is, it was something very special and very heroic. Red Erwin came to the war zone as one of thousands of B-29 crewmembers placed in the North Pacific, on the Marianas islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian for the purpose of attacking Japan. The American taxpayer had equipped them with the largest and costliest aircraft of the war, the first large combat plane to be pressurized, enabling the crew to dispense with heated clothing and oxygen masks and to work in shirtsleeves, a fact that also put Erwin in an even more vulnerable position, because his skin was less protected than it would have been in a coat.

Erwin survived his burns. He was flown back to the United States, and after 30 months and 41 surgeries, his eyesight was restored, and he regained use of one arm. He received a disability discharge as a master sergeant in October 1947. In addition to the Medal of Honor and two Air Medals received earlier in 1945, he was also awarded the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, three Good Conduct Medals, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars (for participation in the Air Offensive Japan and Western Pacific campaigns), and the Distinguished Unit Citation Emblem. He was a remarkable soldier.

For 37 years, Erwin served as a benefits counselor at the veterans’ hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1997, the Air Force created the Henry E Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. It is presented annually to an airman, noncommissioned officer and senior noncommissioned officer in the flight engineering, loadmaster, air surveillance and related career fields. It is only the second Air Force award named for an enlisted person. Henry Erwin, despite his scars and wounds, went on to lead a typical life… marrying, raising children, and becoming a grandfather. But there was nothing “typical” about Red Erwin. “Red” Erwin died at his home on January 16, 2002, and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama. His son, Hank Erwin, became an Alabama state senator.

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