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Locals celebrate, remember heroes of war

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

McDonough resident, Marcia Hutchins, remembers her great uncle's disfigured right arm, from family gatherings. But, she said, it is not what she remembers most about him.

"As a child, I'd look up at him and stare, and he'd look back down at me," Hutchins said of her great uncle, World War II hero Henry Eugene Erwin.

Erwin died on Jan. 16, 2002, as one of the last surviving Medal of Honor recipients from World War II.

Marcia Hutchins will help retell Erwin's story during the "History Live! World War II Remembrance Day" program Sunday at The Atlanta History Center.

"These stories with the veterans are growing more and more precious," said Leigh Massey, the center's spokeswoman. "I definitely believe that it is one of our most popular programs at the Atlanta History Center."

Children under the age of 18 will be admitted free, with one paying adult.

"I encourage anyone who has free time that day to come out," Massey added.

Hutchins' uncle was one among thousands of young enlisted soldiers during World War II. He was born in Docena, Ala., in May 1921, and was the eldest of several children. His father died when he was just 10 years old.

Erwin joined the United States Army in January 1943, enlisting and training on B-17s, before transferring to B-29 bombers, where he served as a radio operator.

In April 1945, he was shipped to Guam for assignment with the 52nd Bomb Squadron. He joined the crew of a B-29 bomber named, "City of Los Angeles," and, on his 18th mission, was assigned to bomb a Japanese chemical plant at Koriyama, just north of Tokyo.

As a staff sergeant, his job was to jettison phosphorous smoke bombs through a tube in the B-29's fuselage. However, as he shucked one of the smoke bombs, there was a malfunction.

"It exploded in the tube and then sprang back into his face," said Mark Hutchins, Marcia's husband, who will help present Erwin's story.

Smoke from the bomb began to fill the B-29 with 1,300 degree phosphorous, and burn Erwin's skin and hair.

"Henry picked up the bomb with his bare hands," he said. "When he finally got the bomb out of the air plane, his skin was on fire. They had to scrape the phosphorous out of his eyes. Nobody expected him to survive that level of burns."

Erwin spent more than two years in the hospital and underwent several sessions of surgery to restore his eyesight, and the use of one arm.

"I think it shows extra-ordinary courage for someone to pick up a 1,000-degree phosphorous flair," Mark said. "I think it takes an extraordinary person to do that sort of thing. I think anyone who does that should be remembered no matter who they are and when they served."

After his service, Erwin built a civilian career, working 35 years with the Veteran's Administration. He and wife, Betty - who still lives in Leeds, Ala. - had four children and eight grandchildren.

Their only son, Henry "Hank" Erwin, Jr., is an Alabama senator.

"He was a tower of a man," said Erwin, Jr., of his father. "His actions in World War II were truly fitting of what the Medal of Honor is all about, 'going beyond the call of duty.'

"Dad was the finest man I have ever known," he added. "Not only was he a great father, but he was the epitome of what a decorated soldier was all about: He loved the country, and he felt like we ought to do everything in the world to protect it and pass it on to future generations."

Erwin's great niece, Marcia Hutchins, will conduct the presentation on Erwin's life and service this weekend in Erwin Jr.'s place.

"I think of him as a really kind and generous person," she said. "I knew him as a child, and I saw the kind of person he was. He was an honest and sincere person and a really kind father and uncle. He lived it, it wasn't just words."

The Atlanta History Center's "History Live! World War II Remembrance Day" program will be held on Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. The center is located at 130 West Paces Ferry Road N.W., in Atlanta.

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On the net:

Atlanta History Center:

www.atlantahistorycenter.com