Tag Archives: Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor, Major Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force

Lieutenant Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.

Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.

Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.

Medal of HonorCitation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MiGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Leo K. Thorsness and Captain Harold E. Johnson with their Republic F-105F Thunderchief, Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

AIR FORCE CROSS

CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON

Air Force Cross
Air Force Cross

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Captain Harold Eugene Johnson (AFSN: 0-3116556/42372A), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, engaged in a pre-strike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense anti-aircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MiG-17 while attacking a superior MiG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MiGs, and damaged one in the encounter. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Johnson has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-363 (April 19, 1967)

Action Date: 19-Apr-67

Service: Air Force

Rank: Captain

Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron

Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing

Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam

Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson flew this Republic F-105F-1-RE Thunderchief, 63-8301, on 19 April 1967. It was one of 61 F-105Fs that were upgraded to the F-105G Wild Weasel III configuration beginning in late 1967. It survived the Vietnam War, but was destroyed 20 December 1974 when, assigned to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, it crashed at the Cuddeback Lake Gunnery Range after an engine failure. (U.S. Air Force)

A description of the air battle follows:

The first MiG kill of the day was recorded by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, pilot, and Capt. Harold E. Johnson, Electronic Warfare officer (EWO), flying an F-105F. Thorsness’ flight consisted of four F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft, each plane being manned by a pilot and EWO and being specially equipped to locate and attack SAM sites. The flight was ahead of the main strike force and was committed to suppress SAM activity in the target area. About 8 to 10 MiG-17s attacked as the flight prepared to strike a SAM radar site with Shrike air-to-ground missiles. The Thorsness flight split up into three parts: the third and fourth aircraft entered into separate MiG engagements while Thorsness and his wingman continued the attack against the radar. The time was then about 4:55 p.m. Johnson provides an account of the encounter:

We found and delivered our ordnance on an occupied SAM site. As we pulled off the site heading west, Kingfish 02 ¹ called that he had an overheat light. He also headed west, and the crew, Majors Thomas M. Madison, pilot, and Thomas J. Sterling, EWO, had to eject from their aircraft. We headed toward them by following the UHF-DF steer we received from their electronic beepers and saw them in the chutes. . .

As we circled the descending crew, we were on a southerly heading when I spotted a MiG-17 heading east, low at out 9 o’clock position. I called him to the attention of Major Thorsness. . . .

Thorsness continued the story:

The MiG was heading east and was approximately 2,500 feet mean sea level. We were heading southeast and at 8,000 feet MSL. I began “S” turning to get behind the MiG. After one and a half “S” turns the MiG had progressed from the foothills over the delta southwest of Hanoi. The MiG turned to a northerly heading, maintaining approximately the same altitude and airspeed. Captain Johnson continued to give me SAM bearings, SAM-PRF [pulse recurrence frequency] status and launch indications as I continued to maneuver to attain a 6 o’clock position on the MiG.

The first burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm was fired from an estimated 2,000–1,500 feet in a right hand shallow pursuit curve, firing with a cased sight reticle. No impacts were observed on the MiG. Within a few seconds we were in the 6 o’clock position with approximately 75 to 100 knots overtake speed. I fired another burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm. I pulled up to avoid both the debris and the MiG. While pulling up I rolled slightly to the right, then left. The MiG was approximately 100 feet low and to our left, rolling to the right. The two red stars were clearly discernible, one on top of each wing, and several rips were noted on the battered left wing. We continued to turn to the left and after turning approximately 130° again sighted the MiG, still in a right descending spiral. Just prior to the MiG’s impacting the ground, Captain Johnson sighted a MiG-17 at our 6:30 position approximately 2,000 feet back. I pulled into a tighter left turn, selected afterburner, and lowered the nose. I again looked at the crippled MiG, saw it impact the ground in what appeared to be a rice field. After confirming the MiG had in fact impacted the ground I made a hard reversal and descended very near the ground, heading generally westerly into the foothills.

Thorsness then left the battle area, but returned after refueling to provide rescue combat air patrol during the search for his wingman’s aircrew. Thorsness and Johnson attacked another MiG and scored some damaging hits before they were themselves attacked by other MiG-17s. Although it is highly probable that Thorsness and Johnson destroyed a second MiG, this kill was not confirmed.

— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 46 and 47.

Eleven days later, 30 April 1967, Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down by an AA-2A Atoll heat-seeking missile fired by a MiG-21 fighter piloted by Vũ Ngọc Đỉnh, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. They ejected but were captured. Both men were held as Prisoners of War until 4 March 1973.

Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.

¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

18 April 1942

A North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber revs its engines, awaiting teh signal to launch from the flight deck officer. (U.S. Air Force)
A North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber revs its engines, awaiting the signal to launch from the flight deck officer. (U.S. Navy)
With flight deck personnel dropping to the deck to avoid its turning propellers, A north American B-25B Mitchell medium bomber starts its takeoff roll aboard USS Hornet (CV-8), 18 April 1942. (U.S. Navy)
With flight deck personnel dropping to the deck to avoid its turning propellers, a North American B-25B Mitchell medium bomber starts its takeoff roll aboard USS Hornet (CV-8), 18 April 1942. (U.S. Navy) 
Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, United States Navy
Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, United States Navy

18 April 1942: Task Force 16, under the command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., U.S. Navy, approached the Japanese islands on a daring top secret joint Army-Navy attack.

Planning for the attack began in January 1942 under orders from Admiral Earnest J. King, Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet. Captain Donald B. Duncan, U.S. Navy, was responsible for the plan.

The operation was carried out by Task Force 16 under the command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., United States Navy. Task Force 16 consisted of two aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8), four cruisers, eight destroyers and two oilers. There were two air groups, consisting of eight squadrons of 54 fighters, 72 dive bombers, 36 torpedo bombers, and one squadron of of 16 medium bombers. Lieutenant Colonel James Harold (“Jimmy”) Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, commanded the Strike Group of North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell bombers aboard Hornet.

With the land-based Army bombers secured to Hornet‘s flight deck, her own fighters had been struck below. The air group from Enterprise provided Combat Air Patrol for the task force. The plan was to bring the B-25s within 400 miles (645 kilometers) of Japan, have them take off and carry out the attack, then fly on to airfields in Chinese territory.

A U.S. Army Air Corps B-25B Mitchell medium bomber is launched from USS Hornet (CV-8), 18 April 1942. (U.S. Navy)
Lieutenant Colonel James H. ("Jimmy") Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, flies a North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber off the deck of USS Hornet (CV-8), 18 April 1942. (U.S. Navy)
Lieutenant Colonel James H. (“Jimmy”) Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, flies a North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber off the deck of USS Hornet (CV-8), 18 April 1942. His was the first bomber to takeoff. (U.S. Navy)

At 0500 hours, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat while still over 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) away from Tokyo. At 0644 another vessel was spotted by the task force. Fearing that surprise had been lost, Admiral Halsey ordered the bombers launched while still 623 miles (1,003 kilometers) from land.

Admiral William H. Halsey watches a North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber take off from USS Hornet (CV-8). The airplanes nose wheel has cleared the flight deck while the ship's bow pitches down in heavy seas. (U.S. Navy)
A North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bomber takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8). The airplane’s nose wheel has lifted clear of the flight deck while the ship’s bow pitches down in heavy seas. (U.S. Navy)
Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, USAAF, aboard USS Hornet, April 1942. (U. S Air Force)
Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, USAAC, aboard USS Hornet, April 1942. (U. S. Air Force)

The sixteen B-25s were successfully launched from Hornet and headed for their assigned targets. The lead airplane, B-25B serial number 40-2344, was flown by Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle.

Single B-25s attacked targets in the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.The first bombs were dropped on Tokyo at 1215 local time. This was the first offensive operation carried out by the United States of American against the Empire of Japan during World War II.

The actual destructive effect of the attack was minimal. It had been hoped that there would be psychological effects on the citizenry, however the arrival of the American bombers coincided with an ongoing air raid drill, and many thought it was all part of the drill.

Militarily, however, the attack was a stunning success. Four Japanese fighter groups, needed elsewhere, were pinned down at home, waiting for the next attack.

A B-25 is airborne over the bow of USS Hornet (CV-8). (U.S. Navy)
A B-25 is airborne over the bow of USS Hornet (CV-8). (U.S. Navy)

Not a single B-25 was lost over Japan. One landed in Vladivostok where the crew and airplane were interred by the “neutral” Soviets, but they eventually were able to get home. The rest continued on toward China, though without enough fuel to reach their planned destinations. Four B-25s made crash landings, but the crews of the others bailed out into darkness as their planes ran out of gas.

Routes of ten of the sixteen B-25s. Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle’s airplane, 40-2344, enters the chart at the upper right corner, the exits to upper left. (United States Army)
Yokosuka Naval Base photographed from an American B-25 bomber, 18 April 1942. (National Archives and Records Administration, 342-FH-#A-3028-9302)
The wreckage of Jimmy Doolittle’s North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell bomber, 40-2344, China, April 1942. (Smithsonian.com)
Lieutenant Colonel James Harold Doolittle (just right of center) with his crew in China following the 18 April 1942 air raid on Japan. Left to right, Staff Sergeant Fred A. Braemer; Staff Sergeant Paul J. Leonard; Lieutenant Richard E. Cole; Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle; and Lieutenant Henry A. Potter. (United States Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command NH 97502)

Five of the airmen were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese, two of whom were executed by a military court, and another died in prison.

North American Aviation B-25B interred south of Vladivostok
Captain Edward J. York’s North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell, 40-2242, Aircraft 8, interned about 40 miles (25 miles) west of Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
1st Lieutenant Robert L. Hite, USAAF, co-pilot of Aircraft 16, Bat Out of Hell, was captured by the Japanese after bailing out over China. he was held as a prisoner of war for 3½ years. He is one of just five living members of the Doolittle Raiders, though he was too ill to attend their 2012 Reunion. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Robert L. Hite, USAAC, co-pilot of Aircraft 16, “Bat Out of Hell,” was captured by the Japanese after bailing out over China, and was held as a prisoner of war for 3½ years. (U.S. Air Force)

For his leadership in the air raid, James Harold Doolittle was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. General Doolittle’s Medal is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt presents the Medal of Honor to Brigadier General James Harold Doolittle in a ceremony at The White House, 19 May 1942. The President is seated at left. Standing, left to right, are Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces; Mrs. Doolittle; Brigadier General Doolittle; and General George Catlett Marshall, Jr., Chief of Staff, United States Army. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Photographic Collection, NPx. 65-696)

CITATION:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Brigadier General [then Lieutenant Colonel] James Harold Doolittle (ASN: 0-271855), United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous leadership above the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life while Commanding the First Special Aviation Project in a bombing raid of Tokyo, Japan, on 18 April 1942. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, General Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.

War Department, General Orders No. 29 (June 9, 1942), Amended by Department of the Army G.O. No. 22 (1959) & No. 4 (1960)

The Medal of Honor awarded to Brigadier General James Harold Doolittle, Air Corps, United States Army, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, (NASM A19600049000)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

Medal of Honor, Staff Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin, United States Army Air Forces

Private First Class Henry Eugene Erwin, Air Corps, United States Army, circa 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

STAFF SERGEANT HENRY EUGENE ERWIN (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 52d Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force.

Place and date: Koriyama, Japan, 12 April 1945.

Entered service at: Bessemer, Ala.

Born: 8 May 1921, Adamsville, Ala.

G.O. No.: 44, 6 June 1945.

Citation: He was the radio operator of a B-29 airplane leading a group formation to attack Koriyama, Japan. He was charged with the additional duty of dropping phosphoresce smoke bombs to aid in assembling the group when the launching point was reached. Upon entering the assembly area, aircraft fire and enemy fighter opposition was encountered. Among the phosphoresce bombs launched by S/Sergeant. Erwin, 1 proved faulty, exploding in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. The burning phosphoresce obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. S/Sergeant. Erwin realized that the aircraft and crew would be lost if the burning bomb remained in the plane. Without regard for his own safety, he picked it up and feeling his way, instinctively, crawled around the gun turret and headed for the copilot’s window. He found the navigator’s table obstructing his passage. Grasping the burning bomb between his forearm and body, he unleashed the spring lock and raised the table. Struggling through the narrow passage he stumbled forward into the smoke-filled pilot’s compartment. Groping with his burning hands, he located the window and threw the bomb out. Completely aflame, he fell back upon the floor. The smoke cleared, the pilot, at 300 feet, pulled the plane out of its dive. S/Sergeant. Erwin’s gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty saved the lives of his comrades.

“Red Erwin stands with a painting depicting his act of heroism in the B-29 bomber, City of Los Angeles, on that fateful day.” (U.S. Air Force 170331-F-ZZ999-103))
Crew of the B-29 Superfortress “City of Los Angeles:” Front row, left to right: Vern W. Schiller, flight engineer; Henry E. Erwin, radio operator; Howard Stubstad, CFC gunner. Standing, Pershing Younkin, navigator; Roy Stables, pilot; William Loesch, bombardier; Leo D. Connors, radar bombardier; George A. Simeral, aircraft commander. (Alabama Department of Archives & History Q8799)

XXI Bomber Command’s Mission for 12 April 1945 was an attack against the Hodogaya Chemical Plant (Target ) at Koriyama, a city on the island of Honshu, Japan. The chemical plant produced tetraethyl lead, a critical ingredient in high-octane aviation gasoline. Eighty-five B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bombers took of from their base at North Field on the island of Guam, the largest and southernmost of the Marianas. Each bomber was loaded with 500-pound (227 kilogram) AN-M64 general purpose demolition bombs. The planned time over the target was 12:35–13:26, with the bombers attacking at altitudes of 7,000 to 9,000 feet (2,134–2,743 meters). The weather report for the target area was clear, with visibility of 15 miles (24 kilometers).

29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy) B-29 Superfortresses at North Field, Guam, 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

Koriyama was 1,506 miles (2,424 kilometers) from North Field. With a round-trip distance of 3,041 miles (4,894 kilometers), this was the longest bombing mission flown up to that time.

Navigation Track Chart, XXI Bomber Command Missions No. 64 and 65. (U.S. Air Force)

City of Los Angeles, a Martin-Omaha B-29-25-MO Superfortress, 42-65302, was the  lead ship of the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group. The Superfortress was under the command of Captain George Anthony Simeral. The 52nd squadron’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene O. Strouse, was on board as co-pilot.

B-29 Superfortress very long range heavy bombers of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), XXI Bomber Command. (U.S. Air Force)
Aogashima (Landsat)

The 52nd Squadron’s assembly point was over over Aogashima, a small volcanic island of the Izu archipelago in the Philippine Sea, 222 miles (357 kilometers) south of Tokyo.

It was near this island that City of Los Angeles‘s radio operator, Red Erwin, dropped white phosphorus signal flares to give the squadron a visual reference point.

When the faulty signal flare prematurely ignited, it burned at about 1,300 °F. (704 °C.) and filled the cockpit with dense smoke. The other crew members could not see the difficulty Erwin was having trying to drop the flare overboard.

Erwin was gravely injured. Phosphorus self-ignites in the presence of air. With particles of phosphorus all over, his body was still on fire. The phosphorus could not be extinguished.

A B-29 Superfortress circles Mount Suribachi, a 554-foot (169 meter) volcano at the southwestern end of Iwo Jima, circa 1945.

Captain Simeral aborted the mission and turned City of Los Angeles toward the island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, where an emergency landing field for the B-29s had been built. Iwo was the closest point where Erwin could receive medical treatment.

Erwin’s injuries were so severe that he was not expected to survive. He was evacuated to Fleet Hospital 103 at Guam.

Fleet Hospital 103, Guam, 1945. (U.S. Navy)

Major General Curtis E. LeMay, commanding XXI Bomber Command, and Brigadier General Lauris Norstad, Chief of Staff, Twentieth Air Force, sent a recommendation for the Medal of Honor to Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces in Washington, D.C.

The nearest Medal of Honor was in a display case in Hawaii. Because Erwin was not expected to survive, that medal was obtained and flown to Guam so that it could be presented while he was still alive. In a ceremony held in Orthopedic Wards 3 and 4 of Fleet Hospital 103, Major General LeMay and Major General Willis H. Hale, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas, and Deputy Commander, Twentieth Air Force, presented the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin, United States Army Air Forces.

Flight crew of B-29 City of Los Angeles and Staff Sergeant Henry E Erwin at his Medal of Honor presentation, 19 April 1945. Major General Willis H. Hale, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas, is at right. (U.S. Air Force 170331-F-ZZ999-102)

General LeMay told Sergeant Erwin that, “Your effort to save the lives of your fellow airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.”

General of the Army Henry H. Arnold, commanding the U.S. Army Air Forces, wrote to him, “I regard your act as one of the bravest in the records of the war.”

Red Erwin was the only crew member of a B-29 Superfortress to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II.

Red Erwin underwent 41 surgical procedures. The phosphorus particles in his body continued smoldering for months. Erwin was hospitalized for 2½ years before he was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Forces as a master sergeant, 8 October 1947.

Major General Willis H. Hale bestows the Medal of Honor on Staff Sergeant Henry E. Erwin at Fleet Hospital 103, Guam, 19 April 1945. (U.S. Navy)
Staff Sergeant Henry E. Erwin. (U.S. Air Force 160613-D-LN615-0038)

Henry Eugene Erwin was born 8 May 1921, at Docena, a small mining village in Jefferson County, Alabama. He was the fourth of nine children of Walter Marshall Erwin, a weighman at a coal mine, and Pearl Landers Ervin.

Gene Erwin spent two years working with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a “New Deal” public work relief program. By 1940, he had found employment as a secretary with the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI RR).

On 27 January 1942, Erwin enlisted in the Army Reserve Corps. He had red hair, brown eyes and a “ruddy” complexion, was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.75 meters) tall and weighed 165 pounds (75 kilograms). He was appointed an aviation cadet, Air Corps, 3 February 1943. Because of “flight deficiencies,” Cadet Erwin did not complete flight training and in June 1943 was reassigned for training as a radio operator and technician.

In April 1944, Erwin was assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy), at Dalhart Army Airfield, Texas, for B-29 Superfortress combat crew training.

Sergeant Henry E. Erwin married Miss Martha Elizabeth Starnes, 6 December 1944, at Ensley, Alabama. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Daniel E. Draper. They would have five children.

A B-29 Superfortress of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing, lands at North Field, Guam, in the Marianas. (U.S. Air Force)

The 52nd Squadron deployed to the Pacific in February 1945 as an element of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force, based at North Field, Guam.

Mission Number 65 was Erwin’s eleventh combat mission.

Martha Erwin (standing) with Henry Erwin and his mother, Pearl Landers Erwin, circa 1945. (U.S. Air Force via Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Gene Erwin never fully recovered. Although he had been blinded by the phosphorus burns, he eventually regained his sight. His right arm was disabled, and his body was covered in scars.

When he was able to return to work, Erwin was employed the Veterans Administration, and remained there for thirty-seven years before retiring.

Master Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin, United States Army Air Forces (Retired), died 16 January 2002 at Leeds, Alabama. His body was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham, Alabama.

Henry Eugene Erwin

In his honor, the United States Air Force established the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. The library at the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, is named the Red Erwin Library.

Mrs. Erwin, with the portrait of her husband, painted by artist John Witt, a long time contributor to the Air Force Art Program.

B-29-25-MO 42-65302 was one of 536 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses built by the Glenn L. Martin–Nebraska Company at Fort Crook, Omaha, Nebraska (now, Offutt Air Force Base). Fifty of those were the Block 25 variant. The new B-29 was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on 11 January 1945.

Once assigned to the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), the airplane was named City of Los Angeles, in keeping with the wing’s practice of naming the aircraft after cities in the United States. When it arrived at Guam, 42-65302 was identified with a large yellow letter “O” surrounded by a black square, painted on its vertical fin and rudder. The numeral “37” was painted on each side of the fuselage aft of the wings.

29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (very Heavy), B-29 Superfortresses at North Field, Guam. Note the “Black Square O” identification symbols. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-29 was the most technologically advanced airplane built up to that time, and required an immense effort by American industry to produce.

The B-29 Superfortress was designed by the Boeing Airplane Company as its Model 345. Produced in three major versions, the B-29, B-29A and B-29B, it was built by Boeing at Wichita, Kansas, and Redmond, Washington; by the Bell Aircraft Corporation at Marietta, Georgia; and the Glenn L. Martin–Nebraska Company at Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base), Omaha, Nebraska. A total of 3,943 Superfortresses were built.

B-29s were normally operated by an 11-man crew: Pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, radar bombardier, radio operator, flight engineer, a central fire control gunner, and right, left, and tail gunners.

The B-29 Superfortress was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.053 meters) and an overall height of 27 feet, 9 inches (8.458 meters). It had a wing area of 1,736 square feet (167.28 square meters); The standard B-29 had an empty weight of 74,500 pounds (33,793 kilograms) and gross weight of 120,000 pounds (54,431 kilograms).

A newly-completed B-29 Superfortress at the Martin Bomber Plant. (Nebraska State Historical Society RG3715-2-11)

City of Los Angeles had four air-cooled, supercharged, 3,347.662-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division R-3350-41 (Cyclone 18 787C18BA3) two-row 18-cylinder radial engines with direct fuel injection. The R-3350-41 had a compression ratio of 6.85:1 and required 100/130 aviation gasoline. It was rated at 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m, for take-off. The engines drove four-bladed Curtiss Electric reversible-pitch propellers with a diameter of 16 feet, 7 inches (5.080 meters), through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-41 was 6 feet, 2.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,725 pounds (1,236 kilograms).

The B-29 had a cruise speed of 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Its maximum speed was 306 miles per hour (492 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 357 miles per hour (575 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). The bomber had a service ceiling of 33,600 feet (10,168 meters). The Superfortress had a fuel capacity of 9,438 gallons (35,727 liters), giving it a maximum range of 3,250 miles (5,230 kilometers) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) with 5,000 pound (2,268 kilograms) bomb load.

The B-29 could carry a maximum bomb load of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms). Defensive armament consisted of twelve air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in four remotely-operated powered turrets, and a tail turret. B-29 variants before Block 25 also had a single M2 20 mm autocannon mounted in the tail.

City of Los Angeles was damaged on a combat mission against Kobe, Japan, in July 1945. Captain Simeral was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

42-65302 survived the war and remained in service with the U.S. Air Force for several more years. It was “reclaimed” at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, 17 November 1953.

This B-29 Superfortress of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy) on fire over Kobe, Japan, 17 July 1945, MIGHT be City of Los Angeles. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

Medal of Honor, Airman 1st Class William Hart Pitsenbarger, United States Air Force

Airman 1st Class William Hart Pitsenbarger, United States Air Force

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863 has awarded in the name of the Congress the Medal of Honor posthumously to:

A1C WILLIAM H. PITSENBARGER
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty Near Cam My, 11 April 1966:

Rank and organization: Airman First Class, U.S. Air Force, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.

Place and date: Near Cam My, 11 April 1966

Entered service at: Piqua, Ohio

Born: 8 July 1944, Piqua, Ohio

Citation: Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on 11 April 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Airman 1st Class William Hart Pitsenbarger, United States Air Force, with his Colt M-16 rifle and Kaman HH-43 Huskie rescue helicopter. (U.S. Air force)
Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Medal of Honor, First Lieutenant Edward Stanley Michael, United States Army Air Forces

First Lieutenant Edward Stanley Michael, Air Corps, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

First Lieutenant Edward Stanley Michael

United States Army Air Forces

Rank: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps

Organization: 364th Bombardment Squadron, 305th Bombardment Group (H), 8th Air Force

Place and Date: Over Germany, 11 April 1944

Entered Service: Chicago

Born: 2 May 1918, Chicago, Ill.

General Orders: War Department. General Orders No. 5. January 15, 1945

Citation: The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Edward Stanley Michael, United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as pilot of a B-17 aircraft on a heavy bombardment mission to Germany, April 11, 1944. The group in which 1st Lt. Michael was flying was attacked by a swarm of fighters. His plane was singled out and the fighters pressed their attacks home recklessly, completely disregarding the Allied fighter escort and their own intense flak. His plane was riddled from nose to tail with exploding cannon shells and knocked out of formation, with a large number of fighters following it down, blasting it with cannon fire as it descended. A cannon shell exploded in the cockpit, wounded the copilot, wrecked the instruments, and blew out the side window. 1st Lt. Michael was seriously and painfully wounded in the right thigh. Hydraulic fluid filmed over the windshield making visibility impossible, and smoke filled the cockpit. The controls failed to respond and 3,000 feet were lost before he succeeded in leveling off. The radio operator informed him that the whole bomb bay was in flames as a result of the explosion of 3 cannon shells, which had ignited the incendiaries. With a full load of incendiaries in the bomb bay and a considerable gas load in the tanks, the danger of fire enveloping the plane and the tanks exploding seemed imminent. When the emergency release lever failed to function, 1st Lt. Michael at once gave the order to bail out and 7 of the crew left the plane. Seeing the bombardier firing the navigator’s gun at the enemy planes, 1st Lt. Michael ordered him to bail out as the plane was liable to explode any minute. When the bombardier looked for his parachute he found that it had been riddled with 20mm fragments and was useless. 1st Lt. Michael, seeing the ruined parachute, realized that if the plane was abandoned the bombardier would perish and decided that the only chance would be a crash landing. Completely disregarding his own painful and profusely bleeding wounds, but thinking only of the safety of the remaining crewmembers, he gallantly evaded the enemy, using violent evasive action despite the battered condition of his plane. After the plane had been under sustained enemy attack for fully 45 minutes, 1st Lt. Michael finally lost the persistent fighters in a cloud bank. Upon emerging, an accurate barrage of flak caused him to come down to treetop level where flak towers poured a continuous rain of fire on the plane. He continued into France, realizing that at any moment a crash landing might have to be attempted, but trying to get as far as possible to increase the escape possibilities if a safe landing could be achieved. 1st Lt. Michael flew the plane until he became exhausted from the loss of blood, which had formed on the floor in pools, and he lost consciousness. The copilot succeeded in reaching England and sighted an RAF field near the coast. 1st Lt. Michael finally regained consciousness and insisted upon taking over the controls to land the plane. The undercarriage was useless; the bomb bay doors were jammed open; the hydraulic system and altimeter were shot out. In addition, there was no airspeed indicator, the ball turret was jammed with the guns pointing downward, and the flaps would not respond. Despite these apparently insurmountable obstacles, he landed the plane without mishap.

 

LT Michael's B-17G-20-DL 42-37931, Bertie Lee, at RAF Grimsby, 11 April 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Michael’s Douglas-built B-17G-20-DL Flying Fortress, 42-37931, WF-D, “Bertie Lee,” at RAF Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England, 11 April 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

By 11 April 1944, four of Lt. Michael’s original crew had been replaced. For the six remaining, Eight Air Force Mission 298 would be their twenty-sixth combat mission. (The combat tour had just been increased from 25 missions to 30.)

On that day, 917 B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, along with an escort of 819 P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighters were dispatched to strike aircraft production centers in Germany. The mission was divided into three sections. Lieutenant Michael’s B-17 was one of the 341 in the first section, and one of the 127 which were assigned to attack a ball bearing plant at Stettin, Germany (now, Szczecin, Poland).

While on the approach to the target, Bertie Lee came under continuous attack by enemy fighters. The airplane was heavily damaged and several crew members, including Lieutenant Michael, were severely wounded. Two engines were out and several incendiary bombs in the bomb bay caught fire.

When Michael found that he was unable to jettison the bomb load, he ordered his crew to bail out. Four gunners and the airplane’s navigator jumped. The flight engineer/top turret gunner was badly injured and could not put on his parachute. Lieutenant Michael put on the ‘chute for him, and as he jumped, Michael pulled the parachute’s rip cord.

All of those who escaped from Bertie Lee were captured and held as prisoners of war. One was so badly injured, though, that Germany repatriated him to the United States.

Boeing B-17G-30-BO Flying Fortress 42-31820, WF-E, of the 364th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy), trails smoke during a combat mission, 25 February 1944. It went down soon after this photograph was taken. “Bertie Lee” was marked WF-D. (American Air Museum in Britain)

Of the original aircraft sent on the mission, 52 B-17s were lost, 4 (including Bertie Lee) were damaged beyond repair, and another 313 damaged. 12 B-24s were lost, 1 damaged beyond repair, and 63 damaged. Seven of the P-47s were shot down and 16 damaged. Nine P-51s were shot down and 13 damaged. The P-38s were unscathed.

19 U.S. airman were listed as Killed in Action, 31 wounded, and 668 missing in action.

Gunners and fighter pilots claimed 124 enemy fighters shot down.

Mission 298 was one of the worst single-day losses of World War II.

1st Lieutenant Michael was hospitalized for months while he recovered from his wounds, and was sent back to the United States to recover.

The Medal of Honor was presented to 1st Lieutenant Edward S. Michael by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States of America, in a ceremony at The White House, Washington, D.C., 10 January 1945.

President Roosevelt congratulates 1st Lieutenant Edward S. Michael at The White House, 10 January 1945.

Edward Stanley Michael was born at Chicago, Illinois, 2 May 1918. He was the son of Stanley William Michael and Lillian Harriet Konior Michael. He attended Chicago High School, graduating in 1936. By 1940, Edward Michael was employed as a machinist.

On 2 November 1940, Michael enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, United States Army. He was 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 148 pounds. He served at Wheeler Field, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, and was present during the air attack of 7 December 1941. Private First Class Michael was appointed an aviation cadet, 5 June 1942. He graduated from flight training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve, 12 April 1943. He trained as a multi-engine pilot at Douglas Army Airfield, in Cochise County, Arizona, and then underwent training as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot at Geiger Army Airfield, Spokane, Washington.

Lieutenant Michael with the crew of his Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, 1943. Standing, left to right: SSGT Arthur Kosino, waist gunner; SSGT Pat Malone, tail gunner; SSGT Ray Ridge, flight engineer/top turret gunner; SSGT Anthony Russo, waist gunner; SSGT Fred Wilkins, ball turret gunner; SSGT Reynold Evans, radio operator/top gunner. Kneeling, left to right: 2LT Franklin Westberg, co-pilot; 2LT Sid Miller, navigator; 2LT John Lieber, bombardier; 1LT Edward S. Michael, pilot/aircraft commander. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Michael with the crew of his Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, 1943. Standing, left to right: Staff Sergeant Arthur Kosino, waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Pat Malone, tail gunner; Staff Sergeant Ray Ridge, flight engineer/top turret gunner; Staff Sergeant Anthony Russo, waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Fred Wilkins, ball turret gunner; Staff Sergeant Reynold Evans, radio operator/top gunner. Kneeling, left to right: 2nd Lieutenant Franklin Westberg, co-pilot; 2nd Lieutenant Sid Miller, navigator; 2nd Lieutenant John Lieber, bombardier; 1st Lieutenant Edward S. Michael, pilot/aircraft commander. (U.S. Air Force)

2nd Lieutenant Michael married Miss Bertie Lee Parks, whom he had met while training in Arizona, at Geiger Field, on 21 October 1943. He would later name his B-17G 42-37931, Bertie Lee, in her honor. They would divorce in 1956.

Michael was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 25 Jan 1944.

Lieutenant Michael remained in the Air Corps following the War. On 5 July 1946 his wartime Army of the United States rank was converted to 1st Lieutenant, United States Army Air Forces, with date of rank effective 12 April 1946.

Captain Michael returned to flight status ferrying aircraft from Love Field, Dallas, Texas, and was the assigned to Fort Totten, Washington, D.C., for air transport operations. When the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service in 1948, Captain Michael was transferred.

Michael graduated from the Air University at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, in April 1949. He was next assigned to the 1729th Air Transport Squadron, Military Air Transport Service (M.A.T.S.) at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and remained there for three years. In September 1952, Captain Michael was assigned as operations officer of the 1503rd Air Support Squadron at NAS Agana, Guam, in the Marianas Islands, followed by assignment to the 1500th Air Base Wing, Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, Hawaii.

In 1957, Major Michael was trained as a B-47 Stratojet pilot at McConnell Air Force Base, near Wichita, Kansas, then served with the 4347th Combat Training Wing at McConnell.

Major Michael married his second wife, Ms. Louise Erdman, 21 November 1958, at Salt Lake City, Utah.

Major Michael was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 1 August 1963.

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Stanley Michael retired from the United States Air Force on 12 February 1971, after 30 years of military service.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, during his military service Lieutenant Colonel Michael was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Purple Heart; the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters (five awards); the Air Force Commendation Medal; Army Commendation Medal; Presidential Unit Citation; Air Force Gallant Unit Citation; Army Good Conduct Medal; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one bronze service star; European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal with bronze campaign star; World War II Victory Medal; Army of Occupation Medal; National Defense Servce Medal with bronze star (two awards); and the Air Force Training Ribbon with one silver and one bronze oak leaf cluster (six awards).

Edward Stanley Michael died at Fairfield, California, 10 May 1998, at the age of 76 years. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Springville, Utah.

A B-17G Flying Fortress. This is the same aircraft type as “Bertie Lee.” (American Air Museum in Britain)

Bertie Lee was a B-17G-20-DL Flying Fortress, 42-37931 (Douglas serial number 8897), built by the Douglas Aircraft Company at Long Beach, California, in October 1943. It was delivered to Denver, Colorado, on 13 October. On 5 November 1943, the B-17 was flown to Grand Island Army Air Field, Nebraska; then to Bangor, Maine on 7 November. It was flown across the Atlantic Ocean to England, arriving at RAF Chelveston (USAAF Station 105) on 5 January 1944. The bomber was assigned to the 364th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and given the fuselage identification markings WF-D.

When 42-37931 was assigned to Lieutenant Michael and his combat crew, he named the airplane Bertie Lee, after his wife.

Bertie Lee was damaged beyond repair when it crash-landed at RAF Grimsby on 11 April 1944. It was later scrapped.

A B-17G Flying Fortress salvoes its bombs during a mission over Europe. Though unpainted, this airplane is the same type as Lt. Michael’s “Bertie Lee.” (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes