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The Road to Independence

SAF/PA 2005 Air Force Public Affairs

Independence Day, 2005

Today fireworks, music and great food will mark the 229th anniversary of our nation's birth. Delegates from the 13 colonies gathered together this day in Philadelphia to declare America's independence. Americans have been celebrating this anniversary - in some way - ever since. John Adams and his compatriots dreamed of a new nation founded in freedom and dedicated to great ideals: the rule of law, the inalienable rights of individuals and limited government that serves those whom it governs. To these goals, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. This was not done lightly. Fellow drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, said: "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." These 56 individuals knew that the victory of their cause was not assured, nor was the realization of their great vision guaranteed. In challenging one of the greatest powers in existence, they understood that a long and terrible struggle lay before them, whose cost would be dear and whose outcome was uncertain. 

Yet they and the many thousands who rallied with them to the stars and stripes of our new country did not shrink from the task that was given to them. With a stark determination, they grappled with such a difficult challenge because they believed that life without freedom would be unendurable and because they knew that the liberty and happiness of countless future American lives depended upon their actions. Like the patriots of 1776, the nation has faced other great powers with uncertain outcomes. Whether motivated by violent ambition or by armed ideologies that love only power, determined adversaries have confronted our country in every era. In each new test, we have been called again by the founders' heritage to hold fast in our belief that depth of character, strength of will and persistence of effort in combination with the powerful force of freedom will triumph in the end. This great holiday with its fiery displays also helps us remember that the founders were not the last generation to see their convictions put to the test or to have their cherished freedoms and ideals challenged on the international stage. The costs were tremendous, but members of the "greatest generation" knew they had to stand up to an enemy and fight oppression and tyranny. This year is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, and while those veterans are numbering less and less each year, they deserve our thanks every year. 

Depth of character, strength of will and persistence of effort - all describe Staff Sgt. Henry E. Erwin. His heroism resulted not only in saving his aircrew but also earning him the ultimate military honor, the Medal of Honor. He was a radio operator on a B-29 Superfortress called the City of Los Angeles, piloted by Capt. George Simeral. Along with their primary jobs, the 12 B-29 crew members had additional duties to perform. Sergeant Erwin's was to drop phosphorus smoke bombs through a chute in the B-29's floor when the lead plane reached an assembly area over enemy territory. He was given the signal to drop the bombs when the aircraft came under attack by anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. In his shirtsleeves, Sergeant Erwin, called "Red" by his crew members, pulled the pin and released a bomb into the chute. The fuse malfunctioned, igniting the phosphorus, burning at 1,100 degrees. The canister flew back up the chute and into his face, blinding him, searing off one ear and obliterating his nose. Smoke immediately filled the aircraft, making it impossible for the pilot to see his instrument panel. Sergeant Erwin was afraid the bomb would burn through the metal floor into the bomb bay. Completely blind, he picked it up and feeling his way, crawled around the gun turret and headed for the co-pilot's window. His face and arms were covered with ignited phosphorous, and his path was blocked by the navigator's folding table, hinged to the wall but down and locked. The navigator had left his table to make a sighting. 

Sergeant Erwin couldn't release the table's latches with one hand, so he grabbed the white-hot bomb between his bare right arm and his ribcage. In the few seconds it took to raise the table, the phosphorus 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. The smoke cleared enough for the pilot to pull the B-29 out of a dive at 300 feet above the water and turn toward Iwo Jima where "Red" could be given emergency treatment. His horrified crew members extinguished his burning clothes and administered first aid, but whenever his burns were uncovered, phosphorus embedded in his skin would begin to smolder. Although in excruciating pain, Sergeant Erwin remained conscious throughout the flight. He only spoke to inquire about the safety of the crew. Back at Iwo Jima, the medics didn't believe he could survive. Army Air Force officials, led by Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, approved the award of the Medal of Honor in a matter of hours, so a presentation could be made while Sergeant Erwin still lived. A medal was flown to Guam and presented in the hospital. However, Sergeant Erwin managed to survive. He was flown back to the United States, and after 30 months and 41 surgeries, his eyesight was restored. He also regained use of one arm. Despite the fact that he associated the smell of hospital disinfectant with pain, he served as a Veterans' Benefit Counselor at the Veterans' Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., for 37 years. He passed away peacefully at home on Jan. 16, 2002. 

Sergeant Erwin was part of the "greatest generation," but as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper has said, the current generation won't let you down. They also have high ideals and believe in high principles, heroic qualities and steadfast faith that are not just part of America's past. They are very much alive in the hearts of freedom's champions today. The present generation of men and women in our armed forces are among the most courageous of Americans. A broad community encompassing many different backgrounds, they rise boldly to the defense of our country from every state in the union. In the Air Force today we have a diverse force of active, Guard, Reserve and civilian men and women. They are all "Airmen." We are one Air Force. And our nation remains free today as a result of their bravery, excellence and selfless service. The great Americans who wear the uniform of our country also share with the founders a steadfast commitment to promoting freedom and defending the ideals enshrined in our Constitution. As they take forward the fight against tyranny and terror, they carry freedom and democracy with them, demonstrating those values to many whose lives have only known brutal oppression. In doing so, our troops and our allies are achieving tremendous progress. In Afghanistan, terrorist training camps and sanctuaries have been destroyed, and coalition forces continue to hunt down al Qaeda remnants and Taliban holdouts. 

With our support, the government of Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai continues to succeed. Clean water is being provided throughout the country and hospitals and clinics are improving. The Afghan economy is expanding, the Afghan education system is growing in size and effectiveness, and democratic institutions are becoming ever stronger. In Iraq, an evil dictator has been removed, and today the Iraqi people enjoy sovereignty once more while renewal of their country continues. With our help, Iraqis are becoming increasingly capable of ensuring their own security. America and her coalition partners are also working to see that electricity, water service and healthcare continue to improve and expand. One of the proudest possessions of the Iraqi and Afghani people are their voting cards with their signature and fingerprint. We can't imagine - sitting here at this great distance -- the impact that this had on the normal person in Afghanistan and Iraq to be able to go out and to vote. Even on the al-Jazeera and al-Arabia television networks, you saw pictures of people lined up to vote in Iraq and to exercise that right for the first time in their lives. We take our right to vote for granted, while they were willing to risk their lives for it. And our warriors and their allies daily risk their lives in attacking the leadership and infrastructure of terrorist networks around the world. They are on the offensive denying access to safe havens, funding, material support, and freedom of movement, even while taking every possible precaution to protect innocent civilians, friendly forces, facilities and infrastructure. 

America's men and women in uniform accept the sacrifices required to defend and promote freedom. Fighting in far away regions means enduring long deployments under arduous conditions with few comforts and constantly braving the danger of sudden attack Throughout the Central Command Area of Operations, Soldiers and Airmen work side-by-side delivering special operations capabilities, protecting convoys and bases, combat search and rescue, and theater lift to U.S. and allied forces. These are highly dedicated people -- people like Master Sgt. Alan Machita -- a combat controller who lost the use of his right arm. He's staying in the Air Force because he wants to stay in and can still do a valuable job. He's lending his expertise to develop more effective special operations equipment.. In Iraq, Afghanistan and in many other parts of this troubled world, America's warriors are called upon to demonstrate clearly to all enemies of liberty and those who would like to be free, the strength of America's character. No matter where their duty takes them, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and DOD civilians are called upon daily to show the world that there is no force of tyranny or oppression that can overcome free men and women working together to defend their freedoms. So enjoy today's fireworks, food and joyful spirits. However as you do, remember the great sacrifices our brave men and women in the services are making and the sacrifices of those who served before them to ensure the freedoms we enjoy today remain as first envisioned by our founding fathers 229 years ago. Let freedom ring and happy Fourth of July!