Filmmaker Jon Erwin tells story of World War II hero grandfather in book ‘Beyond Valor’
By GREG GARRISON | Alabama Media Group | Published: August 13, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — When World War II hero Henry “Red” Erwin returned to Alabama in 1945, he was barely recognizable, with severe burns all over his body.
He feared that his wife, whom he had met at a church social and married Dec. 6, 1944, three months before he left for the war, would be shocked and terrified at his appearance.
“He was horribly burned on the right side of his body,” said Birmingham-born filmmaker Jon Erwin, CEO of Kingdom Story Company, who has written a new biography of his grandfather. “He was terrified that she would abandon him, as many of the wives of burn victims did. They just didn’t know what to do. This was his greatest fear. And she came and found the only unburned portion of his cheek, on his left side, kissed him, and said, ‘Welcome home, I love you.’ It was really special.”
They remained married until Red Erwin died in 2002; together they raised five children in Birmingham. “One of the great things about this is it’s a beautiful love story,” Jon Erwin said. “The way my grandmother accepted him and loved him after his injuries is just incredible.”
That story, along with the heroic act that earned Red Erwin the Medal of Honor, is at the heart of “Beyond Valor,” a new book written by Erwin and co-author William Doyle. The book is set for release on Aug. 18 by Thomas Nelson Books, and is available for pre-order at $26.99.
The book includes recollections and letters by Red Erwin. It features interviews with his wife, Betty, and many veterans of World War II.
“I remember asking my grandmother, ‘How’d you do that?’” Jon Erwin said. “She said, ‘I didn’t even think about it. That was my husband. That was who I loved.’ That’s an incredible moment.”
Red Erwin’s grandsons Jon and Andy Erwin, the Birmingham brothers who made the 2018 hit Christian film “I Can Only Imagine,” began interviewing family and World War II veterans in 2004, knowing they would one day like to make a movie about their grandfather.
“That started a journey, for Andy and I, over 15 years ago, to find his surviving crew members, and to interview his family, his brothers, my grandmother, other B-29ers, to go to the B-29 reunions,” Jon Erwin said. “It was this incredible journey of discovery.”
Last year, Jon and Andy founded a film production company now called Kingdom Story Company. They moved from Birmingham to Nashville in July 2019 and now commute between Nashville and Los Angeles. “I Can Only Imagine,” made on a $7 million budget, grossed $83.4 million at the U.S. box office and launched them into the big-time of the movie business.
Kingdom Studios, in its first major release, followed the Erwin Brothers mold for success with another Christian music-theme movie, “I Still Believe,” which opened at No. 1 at the box office on Friday, March 13, pulling in more than $9 million before the coronavirus pandemic closed movie theaters worldwide.
With the movie business shut down, Jon picked up with another form of storytelling, working on a book about his Granddad, with assistance from Doyle.
“William Doyle is an amazing historical biographer,” Erwin said. “I love war stories. I love historical biographies. So, I had read a couple of his books.”
That included Doyle’s 2015 book “PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy.”
Erwin had his agents contact Doyle and ask if he’d collaborate on writing the story of Red Erwin.
“I really wanted to tell this story,” Jon Erwin said. “He brings a level of nuance and history and detail and research that’s just really impressive. He’s a wonderful writer. It’s great to be able to tell a story, finally.”
Red Erwin was a crew member on a B-29 bomber flying a bombing mission to Japan on April 12, 1945, when a phosphorus bomb detonated inside the plane, engulfing Erwin in flames. Smoke filled the plane. The pilot couldn’t see the controls and the plane nosedived. Erwin picked up the fiery explosive, carried it to a window that the pilot had opened, and hurled it out, saving the plane and its crew of 12 men. After emergency treatment to save his life and a series of military flights, Erwin arrived at Northington Hospital in Tuscaloosa on May 7, 1945, and underwent 41 surgeries over the next two years.
The Erwin brothers hope to make a big-budget movie of the story at some point, and Jon hopes the book will be a step towards that. “I just felt like we really needed to get the story told and a book was the best way to do it,” he said.
“Of course, the dream has always been to do a movie of our Granddad’s story,” Jon Erwin said. “It’s a big movie. There’s only two flying B-29s left in the world. It’s going to take awhile. We’re starting that process now. I’d love to see the story on the big screen where it belongs. But I’m really happy to have gotten this version of it done, so that we can preserve the story, and I hope it inspires people, and reminds people.”
Wild Blue Yonder
Chelsley Sullenburger, the airline pilot who landed a jet on the Hudson River in 2009 and was the subject of the 2016 Clint Eastwood movie “Sully,” has written that Red Erwin was one of his heroes.
“What’s interesting about my Granddad’s story is that it keeps coming up,” Jon Erwin said.
“There’s an old movie in the 1950s, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder,’ that was about the B-29s and his story is nestled in the middle of that movie,” Jon Erwin said.
Forrest Tucker, the actor who starred in ‘Wild Blue Yonder,’ came to visit Red Erwin in Birmingham in 1952. Tucker would later star as Sgt. O’Rourke on the TV show “F Troop” from 1965-67. He did not portray Erwin in the movie about B-29s.
“He played a fictional character, but right in the middle of the movie they cover my Granddad’s story, and dramatize it, but it’s sort of ancillary to the plot of the film,” Jon Erwin said.
The book is an effort to tell the full story, and to inspire, Jon Erwin said.
“I hope this is another story of heroism that reminds people that the freedoms that we enjoy came at a price,” he said. “We should never forget that.”
Flight crew of the B-29 City of Los Angeles and Henry "Red" Erwin at his Medal of Honor presentation.
U.S. AIR FORCE