In 2018 the U.S. Navy commissioned the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hudner in Boston. The ship’s name pays tribute to two naval aviators’ incredible tale of gallantry, self-sacrifice and friendship in the Korean War. And the story of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner started on Narragansett Bay in the late 1940s.
Traces of this story are still visible nearby. On board the battleship USS Massachusetts in Fall River, Mass., a small memorial just aft of the officers’ wardroom depicts a navy-blue F4U Corsair, a propeller-driven fighter built to duel the Imperial Japanese Navy from island airstrips and the wooden decks of aircraft carriers. The Corsair is the gull-winged plane flown by Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron in the Pacific, familiar from the 1970s TV program Baa Baa Black Sheep.
But this is more than your average sentimental aviation painting. Rather than soaring above the clouds, the Corsair in the foreground is about to crash on a bleak mountainside. Snow swirls around it, churned up by its prop and wings. Another F4U has already fallen to earth in the background. It smolders. Other fighters swoop around overhead. Inset into the painting’s frame are the photos of two young naval aviators, one black and one white, along with a set of Wings of Gold. Officers who graduate from flight school earn their wings and wear them throughout their careers in uniform. The title of the painting is “Devotion.”
Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner
It’s an apt title. The crashed and about-to-be-crashed aviators are Ensign Jesse Brown and Lieutenant j.g. Thomas Hudner. Jesse was born into an African-American sharecropper family in Depression-era Mississippi and grew up dirt poor. He fell in love with aviation after one of the locals buzzed him in a field and resolved to become an airman himself. Them Jesse moved to Hattiesburg to attend an elite high school, studied at Ohio State for two years, joined the Navy, got married and had a baby girl. He completed flight training in 1948 and became America’s first black naval aviator.
Jesse Brown was a badass. An anecdote from his carrier flight qualifications in the F4U during the spring of 1950 makes the point. Aircraft don’t land on carriers, strictly speaking; they crash aboard in a controlled way. To land a plane on the flight deck, an aviator drops the aircraft’s tailhook to snag one of several arresting wires stretched across the deck, perpendicular to the incoming plane’s flight path. The wire reels out and brings the plane to a halt. In those days carrier crews rigged a barricade just beyond the arresting wires, in case the pilot missed all of them. Otherwise the plane would plow into aircraft parked up forward on the ship’s bow and cause havoc.
To qualify an airman had to complete six landings aboard the light aircraft carrier USS Wright, a flattop based at Quonset Point, on the Narragansett Bay’s western shores. Jesse had qualified on a different airframe and had a hard time adjusting to the F4U, a warplane new to him and to his squadron in the spring of 1950. The Corsair had a massive engine that blocked his view of the flight deck on final descent. He had to trust the landing signals officer on the ship to bring him in, motioning with paddles to tell him to come left or right, add or cut power, or what have you.
Doing it blind demanded a leap of faith Jesse found hard to make. He managed five landings but was at risk of failing to make a sixth. On his very last try he bounced his plane on deck, missed the wires . . . and then gunned his engine, jumping the Corsair over the barricade and back into the air! He managed to “trap” after that. Aviators love to grade each other. His supervisor assigned him the grade of DNKUA—Damn Near Killed Us All—but he qualified for sea duty.
Tom was a native of Fall River. He was of Irish descent and enjoyed a country-club upbringing. His father operated a chain of grocery stores, Hudner’s Markets. Tom turned down admission to Harvard to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, did a brief stint in the cruiser Helena in the Pacific, and applied for flight school, basically on a dare from his shipmates.
Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner became friends while serving in the Narragansett Bay. They flew together as wingmen in VF-32—Fighter Squadron 32, nicknamed Fighting 32 or the “Fighting Swordsmen,” embarked aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. Jesse loved to buzz his cottage in Warwick, delighting his wife Daisy and especially their daughter Pam. Tom buzzed his old man on the golf course in Fall River.
Close Air Support
The navy reclassified Fighting 32 as a “close air support” squadron in early 1950. The F4U excelled in air-to-air combat during World War II, but faced obsolescence with the onset of jet fighters. But it could haul a load of ordnance for striking targets on the surface, including hostile forces in close contact with friendly forces. Close-air-support planes go out hunting for targets of opportunity, or they loiter overhead awaiting calls for fire support from troops beneath.
Close air support weakens hostile armies and hampers their maneuvers on the battlefield while protecting friendly troops and giving them a firepower advantage—or, in the case of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, where this story culminates, correcting a firepower mismatch so that ten thousand U.S. and U.N. soldiers could stand against one hundred thousand or more Chinese infantrymen who came against them.
Battle of Chosin Reservoir
By November 1950 some 300,000 Chinese People’s Volunteer Army soldiers had infiltrated across the Sino-Korean frontier undetected. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had brought his force north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea, and Communist China resolved to repel the invaders. The Chinese host slammed into the U.S./U.N. army in darkness on November 1. Writes Adam Makos, who chronicles these events in his book Devotion, the Chinese descended on the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division “like the hordes of Genghis Khan,” slaughtering a 600-man battalion in a night.
And that was just the beginning. MacArthur sounded retreat lest he lose his army. That was a real possibility. By early December the Chinese Ninth Army had encircled the First Marine Division, which was accompanied by some army troops and British commandos, at the Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea. U.N. forces faced annihilation unless they could fight their way out of the trap the Chinese People’s Volunteers had sprung.
Back to Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner. Close air support is the great equalizer for a weaker force. Because Korea is a peninsula jutting out of continental Asia, much of it is accessible to sea power, carrier aviation in particular. Leyte had supported the initial fight against the North Koreans. But in October the flattop withdrew to Sasebo, Japan, for some R&R. The war seemed to be over. North Korea seemed beaten. Jesse had written Daisy that they might be coming home.
Then came the Chinese intervention, and back they went to the Sea of Japan, joining Task Force 77 off the Korean east coast. On December 4, Ensign Brown and Lt. j.g. Hudner were part of Iroquois Flight, a six-plane contingent launched from 100 miles offshore on a three-hour mission. The planes cruised as low as 700 feet, hunting for Chinese formations to target.
During the sweep Jesse’s aircraft, Iroquois 13, was nicked by small-arms fire from Chinese “White Jackets,” troops so named for the white uniforms they wore for camouflage in the snow. A Chinese bullet punctured an oil line. This was a mortal wound, leaving Jesse too little fuel to get back to his ship. His engine seized up, compelling him to crash-land on a mountainside during the coldest winter on record, and 17 miles behind enemy lines.
This need not have been the end. With any luck a search-and-rescue helicopter could have picked him up. Fortune deserted the airmen, though. Jesse’s Corsair broke up on impact. He survived, but twisted metal pinioned his leg within the cockpit. He couldn’t extricate himself. Worse, a fire started in the wreckage, threatening to ignite its fuel tanks. That’s when Tom deliberately crash-landed his F4U nearby while the remaining Iroquois Flight pilots patrolled the sky to fend off Chinese soldiers from the downed airmen.
This is the scene portrayed in the painting on board USS Massachusetts. It commemorates the devotion of one aviator to another, of one American to another, and of one human being to another. This is an uplifting story, but it does not end well. Tom was unable to free Jesse from his crashed plane. Nor could Lt. Charlie Ward, another friend of Jesse’s. (He was from south Alabama, so Jesse called him “Alabama” and Charlie called Jesse “Mississippi.”)
Charlie piloted a helicopter into the mountains at great personal risk to bring rescue equipment and retrieve the airmen. But Jesse lost consciousness intermittently, and perished before they could pull him out. The rescuers had to withdraw at nightfall because helicopters couldn’t operate in darkness in those days.
Jesse Brown fell at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, known to U.S. Marines as the “frozen Chosin.” He was posthumously decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry, and had a frigate named after him during the 1970s.
Tom made a career in the Navy, retiring as a captain in the 1970s. In 2017 he passed away in Concord, Mass., at the age of 93.
He now rests at Arlington National Cemetery. Tom received the Medal of Honor for his selfless act. After the Korean War he and Daisy went on the road together from time to time to spread Jesse’s story and promote the cause of racial integration in the United States Navy and fellow armed services.
Jesse fell along with a thousand of his brothers-in-arms and over 9,000 missing or wounded. But the First Marine Division lived, in part because of the U.S. naval aviators’ skill and bravery. The results of Chosin could have been far worse.
These were lives well lived—and it all started in the Narragansett Bay.
The author of this story about Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, James Holmes, Ph.D., is the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is the author of two books, Maritime Strategy and Red Star Over the Pacific. You can read his blog, The Naval Diplomat, here.
Image of restored Corsair By Gerry Metzler – https://www.flickr.com/photos/flyguy71/7427977930/sizes/l/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20571543. This story was updated in 2023.