Skip to content

A Pilot's Heroic Effort to Save a Friend

New book chronicles sacrifice and selflessness during the Korean War

In Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, author Adam Makos shares the story of Lt. Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown. The men were pilots from starkly different backgrounds serving in the Korean War. An Irish American from Fall River, Mass., Hudner came from money; his family owned a grocery store chain. Tom and his brothers were expected to attend the prep school Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard University like their father.


Courtesy Random House/Ballantine Books

'Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice' was published this fall by Ballantine Books.

Brown was the African American son of a Lux, Miss., sharecropper and his schoolteacher wife. In this world, dawn-to-dusk labor and discrimination were givens. Through grit and brains, Brown attended Ohio State University. A husband and a father, he became the first African American carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy.

In December 1950, the two pilots, now friends, were flying together in F4U-4 Corsairs near the Chosin Reservoir, trying to protect Marines who were stuck in subzero weather fighting the communist Chinese. Brown's Corsair took a bullet through the oil line, forcing him to crash-land. Hudner decided to land his plane in a near-suicidal effort to save his friend.

Hudner, now 91, failed to save Brown. But in an interview with the AARP Bulletin, he continues to preserve and bring honor to his friend's memory.

Tom Hudner

Tristan Spinski

Tom Hudner today

What motivated you to try to rescue Jesse?

Well, I could see that smoke was coming from the nose of the airplane, which indicated fire. And I figured that the fire could eventually envelop the whole airplane. I just couldn't bear the thought of Jesse being burned to death. So I made the decision to make a crash landing near his airplane. My thinking was: It's just a matter of pulling him out of the cockpit and getting him away from the plane and waiting for the rescue helicopter.

Were you worried about being punished?

Oh yes, I was aware that I could be punished. Our squadron commander warned the pilots that if they even thought about playing hero and landing an airplane to save somebody else — forget it! In spite of that warning, I don't think I'd have done anything differently. I'd have gone in anyhow, because Jesse was not just another pilot, he was a friend. There are any number of reasons for not doing it. There is only one reason for doing it.

What happened on the ground that day?

After I got out of that airplane it was cold — bitter cold — and the sun was dropping, so it was becoming colder. I didn't stop to assess the situation; I was really pumped up about pulling Jesse out of that plane. I had sprained my back in the crash, but it didn't encumber me. I knew there was a possibility of Chinese troops arriving and I realized that things could go to hell at any time. I guess I was sort of a fatalist on the ground: "If the enemy troops come out, so be it." I just felt very strongly that there was a good chance of getting Jesse out. When I reached him, he was so calm; he just said: "Tom, we got to figure out a way to get out of here." [Hudner's efforts failed. Brown was hopelessly wedged in his crashed plane. Even after a helicopter arrived, he couldn't be freed and eventually died. Hudner and the helicopter crew were then forced to evacuate. For his efforts, Hudner received the Medal of Honor.]

Ensign Jesse Brown

U.S. Navy via 'Ebony'

Jesse Brown, first African American naval aviator

What was Jesse Brown like?

Jesse was very personable and made friends quickly. He was soft-spoken, smart; he had a great sense of humor. To hear about the things he overcame, the many obstacles to get into the Navy and the racism that he and his wife, Daisy, went through, it makes you wonder how humans can act that way toward one another. Jesse Brown was one good man. It ripped me apart to have to leave him there.

Was your friendship unusual in 1950?

After I came home from Korea, there were citizens who heard about our incident and they just couldn't believe it. Some stranger asked me: "Did you realize he was black?" That always struck me, because I never thought that way growing up. I said: "Yeah, we were shipmates and friends!"

What should readers take from your story?

It's astonishing how many Americans have not heard of Jesse Brown. [Korea] was a long, bitter war for the survival of a smaller country that we didn't even know much about, and I think all of us are proud of the fact we had something to do with that. That's what Jesse died for, on a snowy mountainside, far from home. Once you discover his story, I promise: You'll never forget him.

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.