What kind of man intentionally crashes his airplane behind enemy lines during wartime to save a friend?
That’s the question that New York Times best-selling author Adam Makos set out to answer in his book “Devotion,” about the bond between two Navy pilots during the Korean War: Tom Hudner, a white New Englander from the country-club scene, and Jesse Brown, an African American sharecropper’s son from Mississippi.
As Makos recalled during a “Christopher Closeup” interview with me, “On December 4th, 1950, the Korean War had turned very dire. We had 10,000 U.S. Marines surrounded by 100,000 Chinese communist troops at a place called the Chosin Reservoir, way up in northern North Korea. Men like Tom and Jesse would fly [from their nearby naval carrier ships] to give air support to the Marines. They would drop bombs and strafe, and that’s when Jesse Brown was shot down. He was hit by a bullet from the ground, from a Chinese soldier, and he crash-landed in the only place he could — on the side of a North Korean mountain.”
Brown’s wingman, Tom Hudner, witnessed what happened, and then saw smoke rising from the nose of Jesse’s plane, which lay 13 miles behind enemy lines. Hudner said, “I’m going in.” All the other pilots remained silent.
Makos continued, “Tom knew his friend was about to die, and he was willing to give his own life to try to change that. With his wheels up, Tom circled around and came to a skidding, screeching stop alongside of Jesse’s plane. Tom got out into that deep snow and set out to try to save his friend’s life. It had never happened before; it has never happened since.”
Makos wasn’t solely interested in the incident itself, but what made these two men who they were since they came from such different backgrounds. He knew it had to be special because the seed of this book was planted when the author attended a Veterans History Conference in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, and saw Hudner there wearing his Medal of Honor, “the highest award in the U.S. military.”
Hudner, he learned, could have lived a comfortable life following in the footsteps of his father who had opened a chain of grocery stores. But he gave it up to join the Navy because his country was in the midst of World War II, and he wanted to help.
Jesse Brown, meanwhile, had grown up dirt poor in Mississippi. As a child, he fell in love with the idea of being a Navy pilot, even though that was a nearly impossible dream for African Americans at that time.
Racism was a major challenge that Jesse had to face, so he prepared himself while growing up. Makos explained, “Jesse’s mother was a missionary and a teacher, his father was a deacon at their local church. They both taught him to let words roll off his back. So when someone called him a slur, when they would say the most hateful thing, his mother would say, ‘You can let it get to you, Jesse – or you don’t have to give the words any power, and you can just let them go.’ So Jesse would stand in front of a mirror at night and he would curse himself in the mirror. Imagine a 13-year-old boy looking in the mirror, calling himself every racial epithet there was! And he taught himself to be hardened to it and to smile at it, and to just let it go. So when he got to flight training and people were picking on him and calling him every such name, he was immune to it by then.”
Makos was amazed by the fact that Jesse wanted to serve his country despite the fact that it discriminated against him. It was a testament to his character, which was greatly formed by the Christian faith in which he was raised.
The author said, “Jesse would read his Bible before bed. He sang in the choir at their little 70 member church. I think Jesse learned from religion that we have to aspire to a higher sense of value. The circumstances that we live in are one thing, but we have to rise above them. He saw what America could be, and he knew he loved the spirit of this country. I think that faith was his anchor. It gave him that promise that things can be better.”
Tom Hudner’s Catholic faith also played into the man he became: “It influenced Tom in a very quiet way, more from a social justice perspective. I’m a Catholic, Tom is a Catholic, and we’re taught to love everyone equally…Tom grew up with that principle. His father told him, ‘A man will reveal himself through his character, not his skin color.’ That set up his friendship with Jesse.”
Makos credits military service during wartime with helping to dispel both racial and religious prejudices in society. For instance, he cites a cadet who had never met a Jewish person telling a Jewish cadet that he believed Jews might actually have horns. His perceptions changed once he got to know this cadet as a human being, not just an offensive stereotype.
Makos said, “[Everyone fighting] knows that their lives are all intertwined, so true value shines through at that time, true character. Hatred and things like racism, they go right out the window, because we really have to rely on each other. So I think those men came home from that war, and they were changed forever in their attitudes about other races. It was more or less the civilians in the United States who carried on that legacy of racism for the next 30 years.”
The character of both Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown shone brightly on that fateful day in North Korea. Tom put out the fire from Jesse’s plane with his bare hands. Unfortunately, Jesse was so badly injured that he died. But he wasn’t alone at the end. Tom comforted him the best he could, and made a promise to his friend that it took him until 2013 to fulfill (though you’ll have to read the book to find out what that promise is).
There is one mystery to which Makos offers an answer, however: namely, why this story remained untold until now. After all, the captain of Hudner’s ship said of his actions, “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.”
Makos believes it has to do with the Korean War itself: “I think that we Americans like to forget a tie. There was no victory parade, there was no sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. So, we’re happy to just let this one go…[And Jesse’s story has] a heavy element of tragedy to it. [We think,] ‘He’s old news, he died.’ But we don’t stop reading the Bible because we know the end of that story…No, that’s all the more reason to study how Jesse lived in such a short time.”
Hopefully, readers of “Devotion” will gain a sense of the character and heroism both Tom and Jesse exhibited throughout their lives.
Makos concludes, “I hope readers walk away with inspiration and hope for our future because race relations in America seem rocky right now. But I also think the media plays up the worst of it. We’re taught to fear each other. But if we look back to the friendship of these two men at a time that was darker in American history, at a time when the races didn’t even associate with each other, they can show us the way to the future. And I also hope that when we read this book, we discover the Korean War. We all have a Korean War veteran somewhere in our family tree. We don’t know what they were fighting for, why they were fighting, but this beautiful story can open our eyes to these forgotten heroes [so] no generation of American veterans will be forgotten.”
(This article was originally published on The Christophers’ blog at Patheos Catholic.)