Heroes From History: Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner

Thomas Hudner (right) and Jesse Brown (left)

Human history is filled with stories about bravery, brotherhood, and the power of friendship. There are many instances throughout the existence of our species which exemplify these traits and inspire us to be better than we are. This is one of those tales, which despite not having the happiest of endings, speaks to the importance of courage and bravery, as well as the power of the bond between friends that pushes us to strive for greatness.

Jesse Brown was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on October 13, 1926. He studied aviation and aeronautics at Ohio State University. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 and went straight to flight school at NAS Pensacola. Brown was the first African-American aviator in the U.S. Navy, graduating as a pilot in 1948. He was one of the few in his class to successfully complete the training with the new F4U aircraft which had bigger engines that blocked the pilot’s view when landing. Brown was trained with a different aircraft, but pilots were required to qualify with the new F4Us at the time of his final testing. Out of the 100 trainees, Brown was one of 6 who managed to qualify with the new aircraft.

Jesse Brown's Graduation Photo
Jesse Brown’s graduation photo

Hudner was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 31, 1924. He was accepted into Harvard, but declined the invitation in order to join the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. After graduating in 1946, Hudner briefly served aboard the USS Helena off the coast of China as a signal officer before being reassigned to Pearl Harbor with CINCPAC. Eventually, he applied for flight training to try and become a pilot, and in April of 1948, he entered into Naval flight training at NAS Pensacola. After basic training, he received his specialized flight training to become a F4U-4 Corsair pilot at NAS Corpus Christi. Hudner graduated as a new Navy pilot in 1949.

Thomas Hudner's Graduation Photo
Thomas Hudner’s graduation photo

The two would-be heroes met onboard the USS Leyte in Narragansett Bay off the coast of Quonset Point, Rhode Island. They were part of the VF-32, a fighter squadron nicknamed the “Fighting Swordsmen” or “Fighting 32.” Even though Hudson was a higher rank, Brown was the more experienced fighter pilot, and so Hudson was assigned as Brown’s wingman per Navy policy. The two became good friends flying together. They would become instrumental in providing close air support to ground forces during the Korean War, a role which brought them into their fateful last mission together during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Leading up to that final mission, Jesse Brown became a section leader for VF-32 and received commendations for leading daring attacks against communist forces. Brown was awarded the Air Medal by the U.S. Navy for bravery and excellence in the face of vicious anti-aircraft fire, inflicting heavy causalities on the communists at Wonsan, Chongjin, Songjin, and Sinanju. Under Brown’s leadership, the VF-32 was able to evade AA fire and support allied ground forces from overwhelming Chinese communist numbers. With close air support from the F4U Corsairs, the Americans and South Koreans were able to withstand being outnumbered by 10-1 and still win fights against the communists.

The Korean War was a conflict between North and South Korea that began on 25 June 1950 and still officially continues to this day. However, a ceasefire was reached 27 July 1953. It was a part of the First Cold War. The North Koreans were supported by the communists in the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The South Koreans were supported by the United States and a coalition of numerous other countries from the United Nations. After three years of brutal conflict, a stalemate was reached and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) established. Tensions have occasionally flared up recently as a result of the currently ongoing Second Cold War between the United States of America and the Chinese Communist Party.

USS Leyte
The USS Leyte (CV-32) at anchor in 1950.

As for Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, their role in this human story came to a climax in the wintery mountains near Pyongyang on December 4, 1950. The Battle of Chosin Reservoir saw 30,000 brave American, South Korean, and British warriors face off against approximately 120,000-300,000 communists from mainland China. Jesse Brown deployed with his squadron from the USS Leyte 100 miles off the Korean coast as part of Task Force 77. Their mission was to fly low and identify Chinese communist targets engaged with the Americans and South Koreans for 3 hours, and then return.

Unfortunately, Brown’s Corsair – Iroquois 13 – was hit by small arms fire and critically damaged. Chinese “White Jackets,” named so due to their all-white camouflage which hid them in the snowy mountains managed to hit the oil line of Brown’s aircraft, bringing him down in the mountain range. He radioed to Hudner that he was losing oil pressure and going down. Brown’s aircraft broke up during the impact and trapped his leg, preventing him from freeing himself from the burning hot wreckage.

Battle of Chosin Reservoir
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir took place in the snowy mountains near Pyongyang.

Hudner refused to leave his fellow pilot behind. He said he had been influenced heavily by the U.S. Marines aboard the USS Leyte and their refusal to ever leave a another Marine behind. In that moment, seeing his section leader crashed in the mountains, Hudner made the decision to intentionally crash his plane next to Brown’s in order to make a daring rescue attempt while the rest of the squadron provided cover.

Hudner survived his crash landing and made his way over to Brown’s crash site. He was unsuccessful in freeing Brown’s leg, and instead tried to stop the fire from spreading by putting snow on the burning plane fragments near Jesse. Hudner radioed for help, requesting a helicopter to bring some tools to help free Brown from the wreckage. Charlie Ward, another friend of Jesse’s came in a helicopter with the tools and landed at the crash site. Together, Ward and Hudner tried to free Brown without success.

Napalm Strike
Napalm strikes assisted friendly ground forces in the fight against the Chinese communists during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Jesse began to lose consciousness from loss of blood, and night was coming closer as the sun began to set. Helicopters could not operate at nighttime in that era, and Ward warned Hudner they would have to leave before nightfall or they would never make it back. They tried to free Brown some time longer, as Hudner refused to leave his friend behind. Sadly, Jesse Brown died from blood loss, and Hudner and Ward were unable to free his body before they were forced to retreat.

Jesse Brown died at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir on December 4, 1950. The day after, four Corsairs from the USS Leyte flew over his crash site and deployed a napalm strike over the wreckage in tribute to their fallen section leader. Jesse Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his brave and noble service. A U.S. Navy frigate, the USS Jesse L. Brown was commissioned in 1973 in his honor.

USS Jesse Brown
The USS Jesse Brown

Thomas Hudner survived the Korean War and made a career in the U.S. Navy. He served for 26 years and attained the rank of Captain before retiring. Thomas Hudner was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for his daring rescue attempt during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, almost ending his own life when he intentionally crashed his Corsair in the mountains alongside Brown’s to try and rescue his section leader. In 2018, the U.S. Navy commissioned a guided-missile destroyer in his honor, the USS Thomas Hudner. He passed away on November 13, 2017.

USS Thomas Hudner
The USS Thomas Hudner

To further commemorate the sacrifice of Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, the painting known as the Devotion was created and hung aboard the USS Massachusetts. It pictures a Corsair, flying low among the fog, just above the water. Other craft can be seen off in the distance, flying through the snowy mountain range. The Devotion is a painting meant to show the Corsair of Thomas Hudner about to crash into the mountainside as the rest of the squadron provided cover. It is accompanied by the images of Hudner and Jesse Brown, to honor their service in that fateful battle. The Devotion is pictured below.

The Devotion
The Devotion is a painting aboard the USS Massachusetts which depicts Thomas Hudner’s Corsair crashing.

As humans, we are all part of a whole which is stronger than any one of us is individually. Understanding the value of that whole, it becomes easier to understand why some people would go to great lengths to try and help others. We are stronger together, and a desire to stick together drives us to face insurmountable odds to try and stay together. Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner’s story embodies that.

What do you think of the story of Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner? Do you approve of Thomas Hudner’s decision to crash his own plane to try and save Jesse Brown? Does the fact that Hudner was unsuccessful and Brown still died impact your stance on Hunder’s actions? Please, feel free to share your thoughts and talk about them with others.

Thomas Hudner and Daisy Brown next to President Truman
Thomas Hudner and Jesse Brown’s wife, Daisy Brown next to President Truman.

I believe that Hudner made the right call to try and save his friend, even though he was unsuccessful. I almost decided not to share this story because Hudner was unsuccessful. I was unsure if it was inspiring because of Brown’s death. I felt it would be more heroic if Hudner was able to save his friend, and it certainly would have been. However, I felt the story was still inspiring to me, as it embodied the devotion of one friend to another and the lengths one would go to try and save the life of their companion. The fact that we cannot always save our friends only makes this story more emotionally impactful to me.

Creative Commons License

All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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