On Dec. 4, 1950, Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, was leading a six-plane reconnaissance patrol over North Korea near the Chosin Reservoir. Marines and soldiers on the ground were conducting a fighting retreat and Navy aviators were covering their withdrawal.
The Korean and Chinese soldiers were well-camouflaged, so Brown’s flight of F4U Corsairs from Fighter Squadron 32 flew at low altitudes to try and spot the enemy infantry. The noise of the engines prevented the pilots from hearing ground fire, but muzzle flashes began blinking against the snow.
Immediately after the shots, Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner, a friend of Brown’s and a member of the flight, spotted vapor streaming from Brown’s engine. Hudner radioed Brown, who confirmed that he was quickly losing oil pressure. 17 miles behind enemy lines, Brown was going to crash.
Hudner pointed out an open expanse of snow where Brown could land with relative safety, but the crash was still violent enough that the cockpit buckled in. Hudner worried that Brown was dead until he began moving. Knowing that Brown wouldn’t survive long in the extreme winter cold of the Korean mountains, Hudner crash-landed his own plane near Brown’s.
He jumped from his cockpit and rushed to Brown. He attempted to free his friend, but saw that his leg was pinned down by the instrument panel.
Hudner began alternating between trying to free Brown and packing snow around the smoking engine to keep it from bursting into flames. When he got a chance, he returned to his plane and requested a rescue helicopter with an ax and fire extinguisher.
When the helicopter arrived, Hudner and the helicopter pilot, 1st Lt. Charles Ward, continued to try and free Brown. It became clear that they would need more equipment, and Hudner asked his friend to hold on.
“I told Jesse we couldn’t get him out without more equipment, and we were going to get more,” Hudner told The New York Times in 2013. “He didn’t respond. I think he died while we were talking to him.”
Hudner and Ward flew back to the USS Leyte Gulf. A few days later, Fighter Squadron 32 decided that they wouldn’t be able to secure the crash site and recover Brown’s remains, so they conducted a napalm run to burn them rather than allow their capture.
Hudner later received the Medal of Honor for his attempts to save Brown. He stayed in the Navy until he retired as a captain in 1973.
Hudner and Brown had been unlikely friends. They met in the locker room of Fighter Squadron 32 in Dec. 1949, a year before the events at the Chosin Reservoir.
“Shortly after I joined the squadron, I was changing into flight gear and he came in and nodded ‘Hello,” Hudner said in The New York Times interview. “I introduced myself, but he made no gesture to shake hands. I think he did not want to embarrass me and have me not shake his hand. I think I forced my hand into his.”
Brown was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who knew he wanted to be a Navy aviator since he was a child. He fought tooth-and-nail to overcome racial barriers and become one of the first African-American Navy officers and the first Navy’s first black aviator. Hudner was the privileged son of a Massachusetts business owner and a graduate of the Naval Academy.
The story of Brown and Hudner is the subject of “Devotion,” a new book by New York Times bestselling author Adam Makos. Hear Hudner tell the story in his own words in the video below.