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Air Force heritage lives at special tatics students' dormitory

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Inside Keesler’s 81st Training Group, stands a building called Erwin Manor. From all outside appearances, it looks like any other dormitory; three wings, three stories and solid concrete.

But inside this building, Keesler’s special tactic students from the 334th and 335th Training Squadrons live. Here, special tactics officers, combat control team and special operations weather team students learn what it means to be selfless and truly dedicated to each other, as well as the importance of being willing to sacrifice everything for the safety of their wingman.

The name that rests on the stone wall in front this building is synonymous with those traits.

Erwin Manor is named after Medal of Honor recipient Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin. Henry Erwin was born in Adamsville, Alabama in 1921. In 1942, Erwin joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps with the hopes of being a pilot. He was unsuccessful in becoming a pilot, and was instead sent to radio and radio mechanic training schools right here at Keesler, then on to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In April 1945, now Staff Sgt. Erwin was assigned to a B-29 Superfortress under the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, based in Guam as a radio operator.

One of Erwin’s duties as radio operator was to drop phosphorus smoke bombs through a chute in the B-29’s floor over enemy territory. While on a combat mission over Koriyama, Japan on April 12, 1945, Erwin was given the signal to drop a bomb.

The canister ignited while in the chute, burning at more than 1,100 degrees and flew back into the aircraft, seriously injuring and blinding Erwin. Smoke immediately began to fill the aircraft, and fearing the bomb would burn through the floor he jumped into action.  Erwin, while blinded and burned, picked up the bomb and made his way around the gun turret to the co-pilot’s window by touch alone to throw the bomb out of the window. His path to the window had been blocked by the navigator’s table, so he held the white-hot bomb against his chest with one arm as he made his way up the aircraft.  

Erwin suffered massive burns, some down to the bone, across his face, arms, and chest. He managed to push the bomb out the co-pilot’s window before collapsing in the cockpit. He remained awake all the way back to Iwo Jima. Medics on the island were amazed that Erwin was still alive. Expecting the worst, Maj. Gen. Curtis Lemay and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad approved Erwin’s Medal of Honor decoration within a few hours, not expecting Erwin to survive.  

In 1945, Staff Sgt. Henry Erwin showed what it means to be an American Airman. Without hesitation, he put his own life on the line in order to save the lives of every other member on that aircraft. He knew if he had done nothing, all lives aboard would have been lost.  We never know when we may be called upon to act, but we must answer the call and answer it true as he did. 

Erwin survived his injuries and retired as a master sergeant in 1947. After retiring, he continued to help veterans in Birmingham, Alabama while serving as a veterans’ benefit counselor for 37 years. On January 16, 2002 Henry E. “Red” Erwin passed away peacefully at his home.

In August 2005, Sen. Henry E. “Hank” Erwin, Eugene’s son, alongside Brig. Gen. William Lord, the then-81st Training Wing commander, dedicated the building that now holds our special tactics Airmen as Erwin Manor.

A portrait of Erwin was unveiled and now hangs on the main wall inside the entrance of the building. It sits alongside painted rocks and other memorabilia of the students that have passed through Erwin Manor’s halls and serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our enlisted heroes.