Hello, Midway Family! Welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical blog written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum.
In honor of Black History Month and drawing inspiration from developing motion picture, “Devotion” – I will be sharing a story of adversity, valor, and brotherhood. Keep reading…
Seven Decades Ago
Seven decades ago, service to country brought two men together who would otherwise never have crossed paths. The shared aspiration of carrier aviation made them squadron mates, but a desperate combat mission over snowbound North Korea made them legends.
Jesse Brown came from an impoverished African American family and grew up in the Depression-era deep South. But for a fierce family commitment for education, he might have followed his father’s path of odd jobs and becoming a sharecropper in mid-century America.
Becoming an Aviator
It was the boyhood thrill of watching an airshow that gave Brown a goal – the focus and drive to excel in school. He became a salutatorian in his biracial high school and later attended the Ohio State University. As a college sophomore, Brown learned about the Navy’s V-5 Aviation Cadet program and applied. Passing all the required entrance examinations, he entered the Naval Reserve in 1946.
Thomas Hudner of Massachusetts was the eldest son of a businessman who operated a chain of long-established grocery stores in New England. Growing up in Fall River, just across Mount Hope Bay from Rhode Island, Hudner attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in his teens, just as his father had. With World War II raging in the midst of his tenure at Phillips, Hudner chose the U.S. Naval Academy over Harvard and entered in 1943. Although he was in the Class of 1947, the curriculum at Annapolis was accelerated during the war, and Hudner graduated as an ensign in 1946. After serving two years on Navy surface ships, he was accepted for flight training and qualified as a naval aviator in 1949.
Although Brown’s experiences in his initial flight training were routine, he experienced some prejudicial treatment in his advanced flight training at southern air stations. Yet he persevered and was awarded his wings of gold and a commission in 1949, becoming the first African American to complete the entire naval flight training program.
He was assigned to VF-32 flying F4U Corsairs aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. Joining him in the squadron was Hudner. The two struck up a friendship and progressed in their flight qualifications in the challenging business of flying fighters from a carrier flight deck.
The Korean War broke out in June 1950, and although the Leyte was part of the Atlantic Fleet, in the midst of a Mediterranean deployment, orders arrived in August sending her westward via the Panama Canal to the Pacific. When the Leyte and VF-32 arrived off Korea in early October, American-led United Nations forces were advancing into North Korea after the triumph of the Inchon landings. The Leyte’s pilots flew close support missions and performed an interdiction role against enemy supply points over the rugged country as the early winter set in.
With the occupation of North Korea nearly completed, the U.N. forces looked forward to an armistice. However, the newly-established People’s Republic of China was alarmed at these developments, and secretly amassed a large army in southern Manchuria along the North Korean border. In late November, the Communist Chinese launched a series of massed attacks against the over-extended U.S. forces along the Yalu River in harsh wintry conditions, sending the stunned U.S. units reeling back across the mountains. By early December, the 1st Marine Division was forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, staving off complete encirclement with the aid of close naval air support.
On Dec. 4, during the Chosin River campaign, a flight of VF-32 Corsairs, including a pair flown by Hudner and Brown as wingmen, launched from the Leyte seeking targets to suppress while covering the Marines’ retreat. The Chinese by now had developed a healthy respect for American air cover and were accomplished at effective camouflage. The Leyte’s fighters were forced to fly low over the rugged terrain to see any targets. After more than an hour of searching, vapor was seen to be trailing from Brown’s aircraft. Apparently, in the last pass over the countryside, a volley of rifle fire had struck his aircraft, severing his fuel line.
The flight tried to shepherd their stricken comrade over the hills towards the sea, but Brown’s F4U was losing power rapidly. Too low to parachute, he dropped his ordnance and external fuel tanks to improve his glide, but the ground below was forbidding, especially for a dead-stick crash landing. Sliding and locking his canopy back, Brown braced for a vicious landing on the side of mountain in 15-degree weather. Careening along a shallow valley, the Corsair was mangled upon impact. As the rest of flight orbited above, the pilots soon saw Brown wave from his seat, but he did not climb out. With flames emerging from the wreckage, it was apparent he was hopelessly trapped.
Tom Hudner decided to assist his wingman and broke away from the flight to attempt a controlled crash landing as near to Brown as he could manage. Employing flaps and throttle, Hudner successfully set his Corsair wheels up upon the snow, though the jarring impact wrenched his back. Bounding from the cockpit, he ran 80 yards through the snow to reach Brown’s wrecked aircraft and discovered that his leg was pinned by the crushed instrument panel. Desperate attempts to pry the panel loose failed, and Brown was beginning to lose consciousness. Having radioed for a rescue helicopter, Hudner turned to suppressing the growing fire with snow. While he was doing this, a helicopter arrived, but even with the aid of the chopper’s pilot and an axe, they could not free Brown, who was clearly fading away. Just before losing consciousness, Brown asked Hudner to convey his love for his wife, Daisy.
Darkness was setting in and the rescue helicopter was unable to operate at night. Hudner and the pilot reluctantly boarded the aircraft and departed. It is believed that Brown died later of his injuries and extreme cold exposure. Two days later, Leyte aircraft returned with napalm to immolate the wreck sites and Brown’s remains. Although some criticized Hudner’s actions as reckless, he went on to receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman in 1951. For his heroic actions, Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Hudner completed his career in naval aviation in 1973, but not before he attended the commissioning of the Navy frigate, USS Jesse L. Brown, with Brown’s widow Daisy. “He died in the wreckage of his airplane with courage and unfathomable dignity, said Hudner of Brown during the ship’s commissioning. “He willingly gave his life to tear down barriers to freedom of others.”
Tom Hudner lived to the age of 93, passing away in 2017 just months after the Navy destroyer named in his honor, USS Thomas Hudner, was commissioned.
The commitment of dissimilar men like Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, in not only attaining the pinnacle of naval aviation, and breaking barriers, but in devoted sacrifice under extreme circumstances will be celebrated anew with a motion picture currently in production. Appropriately entitled “Devotion,” the film stars Jonathan Major as Jesse Brown; “Top Gun Maverick” costar Glen Powell as Tom Hudner; Christina Jackson as Daisy Brown; and is being directed by the up-and-coming director J.D. Dillard.
Thank you for reading this month’s “Karl’s Korner” blog reflecting on the life and sacrifice of Jesse L. Brown. Leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Are you planning on watching the movie “Devotion” when it comes out?
Launch ‘em… until next time –