Heroism in the Korean War: A story of racial redemption
By Robert Bradley | February 26, 2016, 6:08 EDT
At a time when there are news articles nearly every day about racism in the U.S., it is encouraging to come across a story of two American servicemen who contradict the narrative of deep seated and irascible racial hatred in this country. And this is a true story which took place in 1950 when the country was, in fact, still mired in the evil swamp of segregation and racial injustice.
The story is told in Adam Makos’s inspiring book, “Devotion.” He tells of two naval aviators stationed on the U.S. aircraft carrier, the Leyte, shortly after hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” from Communist China crossed the Yalu River and ambushed the First Marine Division near the Chosen Reservoir. It is a story of remarkable courage, sacrifice and heroism.
Raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, Tom Hudner was the son of a businessman who went to the prestigious prep school, Andover, and graduated from Harvard. The other aviator was Jesse Brown, the son of an African-American sharecropper in Mississippi. Despite the cruel institution of segregation in Mississippi during Brown’s formative years, Brown excelled in high school and matriculated at Ohio State before transferring to the Naval Academy, following President Truman’s executive order integrating the U.S. military.
Both men ended up in Flight Squadron 32 which was stationed on the carrier, the Leyte, which was deployed off the coast of Korea after the outbreak of the Korean war. Brown was the first African-American naval aviator to qualify for carrier landings. He and Hudner became fast friends, as they often flew in the same bombing and close air support patrols in the fall of 1950 as U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel and approached the Yalu River.
On Dec. 4, Ensign Brown and Lt J.G. Hudner were part of a patrol of ten F4U Corsairs flying close air support for U.S. Marine troops retreating south near the disastrous Chosen Reservoir ambush by Chinese troops. Corsairs were propeller driven aircraft whose pilots were tasked with providing cover for the thousands of marines who were fighting a vicious rearguard action against the Chinese. During this patrol, Brown’s Corsair was hit by Chinese ground fire with the bullet puncturing an oil line. With no oil reaching the engine, the plane’s pistons shut down.
Hudner was Brown’s wingman that day, and they both searched desperately for a place to land in the rocky terrain. Finally they spotted an open pasture atop one of the mountains. Brown jettisoned his ordinance and made a crash landing in the snowy field. Remarkably he survived the crash but was pinned in the fuselage so he could not get out of the open cockpit.
Despite standing orders that a pilot was never to crash land his plane in order to help another downed pilot, Hudner broke the rules. He decided to crash land his Corsair in the same field to rescue his wingman, while other pilots circled above the crash site to provide air support should Chinese troops approach to capture the pilots.
Risking his life to save his friend, Hudner crash landed his Corsair next to Brown’s plane in the same field. Surviving the crash, Hudner soon found that Brown’s leg was trapped by the fuselage which had buckled when his plane had landed. Hudner tried every possible method to get Jesse out of the plane but to no avail.
By this time, a helicopter was on its way to recover the pilots, but Hudner radioed that the helicopter needed to return to base for an ax to free Brown. Even with an axe, Hudner and team on the helicopter were unable to free Brown. As night approached in the frozen air, Hudner said goodbye to his friend whose life was slowly ebbing away.
Heartsick, Hudner returned to their base in the helicopter. When the Hudner reached the Leyte several days later, he half expected to be court martialed for intentionally crash landing his plane to rescue Jesse Brown. Instead he was greeted as a hero.
There was an outpouring of emotion and grief by the crew of the Leyte, who loved and respected Ensign Jesse Brown. Brown had often talked about the importance of giving his daughter, Pam, an education, and the crew took up a collection for her. With so many wartime casualties, collections of this kind were very rare, yet almost every crew member on the Leyte, enlisted and officer, contributed to the collection for his daughter’s education.
Some months later, Lt. Hudner was invited to the White House, together with Ensign Brown’s family, where President Truman awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Hudner.
Anyone who has served in the U.S. military knows that there is no racism among combat troops. Unfortunately dreadful Hollywood movies such as “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now” paint a false narrative of racism in the U.S. military, but racial differences fade into insignificance among a band of brothers who are fighting for each other and for a larger cause.
“Devotion” is an inspiring work which helps us see that the trajectory of racial redemption and reconciliation has been part of the U.S. experience since the Civil War. It reminds us that while there may still be individual instances of racism here, there are many more stories of brotherhood like those of wing mates Brown and Hudner.
Robert Bradley is an investment advisor and entrepreneur. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his investment management firm. Read his past columns here.