James William Erwin was born on September 6th, 1927, to Edward and Blanche Erwin of Detroit, Michigan. Erwin’s father served in the Navy as a chief yeoman first class during the First World War, a fact that perhaps would partially motivate three of his sons to enlist in the armed forces. When Erwin was just eight years old, his father passed away, leaving his family to be supported by their mother. After the family heard the radio report of the Pearl Harbor Attack on December 7th, 1941, Erwin’s brothers Edward and Jack enlisted with the Marines in order to serve their country. Erwin was keen to follow in their footsteps, despite his mother’s insistence that having sent two sons to war was too many. In the end, Erwin convinced his mother of his decision to enlist in the Marines by reasoning that the Army would have drafted him anyway. When questioned about what motivated him to enlist as a young man, Erwin humbly answered:
As far as I was concerned, it was a duty. My grandparents came over to this country as immigrants, poor immigrants from Ireland, you know… at that time, Ireland was under British occupation. They had no rights of citizenship or anything of their own country. They couldn’t vote or anything… This country, we are kind of repaying our country back for what they had given them.
Ultimately, the Second World War would end before Erwin was done with his training at Parris Island, South Carolina. He recalls the moment that he and his barrack-mates were informed of victory in Japan, “Sometime in August, this was, a guy came in the barracks one morning about ten thirty, eleven o’clock, we were sacked out. And he was really excited and yelling, ‘The war is over! The war is over!’ There was no reaction from us. He said, ‘I’m not kidding. The war is over!’ And one of our guys said, ‘Yea? Who won?’”
After graduating boot camp, Erwin was briefly sent with the Marines at Camp Dewey to break up a railroad strike, then was mobilized to China to protect American assets. During and after the Second World War, China was engaged in a civil war between two factions; Communists and Nationalists. During his time spent deployed in China, Erwin and the rest of the Fifth Marine Regiment would engage primarily with the Communist Ba Loo (8th Route) Army. The goal of the Marines in the area was to stay as neutral as possible, allowing the conflict to play out around the American interests that they protected. Throughout his months of service there, Erwin was involved in several misadventures; including horseback scouting, scrounging up money to repay a farmer whose donkey was killed by a stray bullet, enjoying horsemeat with local Chinese villagers, and engaging in a standoff with the Ba Loo where they and the Marines shouted insults at each other in Chinese.
The deadliest instance of Erwin’s service came during the Ba Loo ambush on Hsin Ho. Erwin describes how fellow Marine Jacob Gerib stumbled upon the Ba Loo’s attempted sabotage while sneaking a smoke break near the Marines’ ammunition sheds,
While he was in the shed, he heard some noise at the wire, and he went out and looked, and these Chinese were cutting the wire. And he said he saw they were armed. So he said, well, screw this noise. So he challenged in Chinese and then immediately began squeezing off rounds from his M1 rifle. And he said, as soon as he fired, a Chinese bugle blew and they just rose up from the field all over the place… And he thought, oh, my God, what have I done?
What followed was fierce fighting where five Marines were killed in action, as well as at least fifteen wounded. Erwin himself scraped up his hands as he was nearly dragged to death falling out of a jeep during the assault. According to Erwin, the ambush was not widely reported in America because it had happened the same week that Henry Ford died.
Not long after Hsin Ho, the United States pulled the Marines out of China. Erwin was given an early out of his service using furlough and vacation time and made an attempt at college. He found that college did not suit him and signed back on with the Marine Reserves. Due to his colorblindness (which he successfully hid during his first enlistment) he was placed in a clerical role. The Korean War broke out during this time, and Erwin was working feverishly as part of the team mobilizing the Marines to ship out to Korea. It was during this time that he met Mary O’Brien, a Women’s Reserve Marine who worked in his headquarters. The two began dating and married privately because they did not expect the possibility of furlough time during mobilization. When some friends of the couple informed their First Sergeant of this, he came to bat for the Erwins: “So my wife and I are in the hotel there, and the phone rang. And it was the first sergeant. ‘Why in the hell didn’t [you] tell me you were getting married?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, there is no leave or anything like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you got a 72 hours. That is what I can do for you.’” By 1951 the situation in Korea was cooling down, so the couple was able to retire from service within the span of a few months.
Following their military service, the Erwins had five children. Erwin worked at a chemical company to support his family, then taught at the University of Detroit following his retirement. Erwin was an avid volunteer at Lakeview Library and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, where the volunteering award is named for him. Erwin passed away on May 1st, 2009, in his home. He leaves behind a legacy of sacrifice and service, showing clear dedication to his country’s freedom at a young age, as well as tenacity and malleability in the face of the abnormal conditions of war in 1946 China.