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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

John Irwin's Daughter Writes

My father was John Newton Irwin. He was the adopted son of Frances and Winifred Irwin. I do not have the names of his birth parents as my grandfather refused to discuss it with me. My mother said that she was told my father's birth parents were a supreme court judge and an English nanny. When you think about it, I guess it was pretty important to keep those identities quiet.

My father was born on September 19, 1923 and died December 7, 1946, at the age of 23 in the fire of the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. I was one day shy of 3 months old at the time. He and my mother had been married only one year at the time of his death.

He served as a photographer in the Allied Air Forces, Southwest Pacific Area. He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, 1st Oak-Leaf Cluster to Air Medal, 2nd Oak-Leaf Cluster to Air Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Ribbon, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with one Silver and one Bronze Service Star for Bismark-Archipelago, Luzon, New Guinea, Northern Solomons, Southern Philippines, and Western Pacific Campaigns; World War II Victory Ribbon, Army Air Forces Technician Badge with Photographer Bar, Aviation Badge, Aerial Gunner, and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one Bronze Star.

It is my understanding that the photographers accompanied troops on missions. The following is a quote from a letter received from George C. Kenney, Lieutenant General, Commander and written to my grandfather Frank E. Irwin on November 18, 1944 regarding the Bronze Star Medal award for heroic achievement against the enemy on Manus Island from May 25, 1944 to June 5, 1944:

Your son was a member of a photographic party of three men who volunteered to make a pictorial record of the hardships and dangers encountered by ground troops on jungle patrols, armed with only .45 calibre automatics, and heavily laden with photographic equipment, they traveled with a ten-day patrol over mountainous country, through five malarial mangrove swamps, and across four crocodile-infested streams. On one occasion your son accompanied a four-man group engaged in a wire-laying mission, during which they twice surprised parties of Japanese. In the first encounter, your son wounded an enemy soldier twice, and the second time, he killed one who was charging another photographer. The heroism and devotion to duty displayed by your son are worthy of commendation.

My mother told me that when he was home he would take me out in my baby carriage and show me off to everyone he met. It makes me so sad every time I think of him and I have always wondered how my life would be different if he had lived. It is heartbreaking to think that he went through wartime without injury only to come home, go away on a business trip, and die in a hotel fire.

Although she (my mother) didn't give me many details, she did say that there was a lawsuit against the Winecoff Hotel and she and her father (John Godbout) received a very small settlement, but only after being subjected to humiliation in the courts and even being called "carpetbaggers." I can only imagine what she must have gone through as a young widow, trying to raise a baby daughter on her own.

Pam Windspirit

Dear Pam,
Strong public reaction to the Winecoff fire forced congress, state legislatures and parliaments around the world to upgrade fire safety codes. Your father is remembered for his service to others. In World War II, to millions of Americans. In his peace, to billions the world over.
Be safe,

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