Review: Devotion, a Unique Look at the Korean War

By Scott Spangler on March 8th, 2021

paperback-coverTipped off by the movie being made about its story of Jesse Brown and Medal of Honor recipient Tom Hudner (see “Devotion: Bearcats, Corsairs, and Real Moviemaking Oh My!”), I found the book in our local library system. In Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, author Adam Makos surprised me. Not only did he tell the story of Brown and Hudner, he told similar stories of heroism and friendship of the Marines the aviators were closely supporting from the air as they fought their way out of the Chosin Reservoir early in the Korean War. But what made these 445 well-illustrated pages unique were the first-person recollections of the participants.

This historical gift exists because a 26-year-old Makos summoned the courage to walk across a hotel lobby, introduce himself to Thomas Hudner, a speaker at a 2007 veteran history conference he’d just attended, and asked if he could schedule an interview. Hudner agreed, and one interview led to many more with Hudner and more than 60 real-life “characters” in the book, carrier pilots, Marines, their spouses, siblings, and offspring. Makos found the bones of their stories in the nation’s archives, but like a gifted anthropologist, he fleshed them out with their recollections that are so concisely vivid that you’re with them in the cockpit or frozen foxhole.

When I started reading, I thought I had a good working knowledge of the Korean War and the particulars of Jesse Brown’s final flight, which ended behind enemy lines northwest of the Chosin Reservoir when ground fire created an oil leak that led to an engine failure. But new and often corrective information surprised me on every page. Unable to stop turning pages, I devoured every one of them in two nocturnal marathons that went past 0130.

leyteWith VF-32 embarked on it, the USS Leyte (CV-32), an Essex-class carrier homeported on the East Coast, was in the midst of a Mediterranean cruise when it was reassigned to Korea. This is where it connects with the Marines in the story, and a chance encounter with the 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor connects them with the aviators of Fighting 32. And the ship carried the Marines on the first leg of their journey to Korea to bring the undermanned post World War II divisions closer to their fighting strength. On its way to Korea from a supply stop in Japan, the Leyte carried to Korea the first cohort of Marine helicopter pilots, including Charlie Ward. They shared a ready room with VF-32, and Ward would see Brown and Hudner again, and fly Hudner away from the two downed Corsairs northwest of the Chosin Reservoir.

Because he outranked Brown, I’d always assumed Hudner was the flight lead, but it was the other way around because Brown had more flying experience. After graduating from the naval academy, Hudner served a year in the surface Navy before putting in for flight training, and he flew Skyraiders before joining VF-32. After two years of architectural studies at Ohio State, Brown became the Navy’s first Black naval aviator through the NavCad program. After earning his wings he went to VF-32, which was flying Bearcats. Just before the Leyte’s Med cruise, the squadron transitioned to Corsairs and a close-air support mission.

hudner_presentationOver the years I’ve read various, often conflicting, accounts of Brown’s final flight, when he died, and what transpired afterwards. The book discusses briefly these media machinations, which withheld the truth from Brown’s wife, Daisy, until she finally met Hudner at the White House when Truman draped the Medal of Honor around his neck.

When Brown landed on the mountainside, the terrain rippled Corsair’s R-2800 from the nose, bending the fuselage and pinning his right leg between the center pedestal and the outside of the cockpit. With a message relayed by squadron mates overhead, Ward returned to his helo base for an axe. Despite their best and strenuous efforts, the tough old Corsair did not yield. But by then, after giving Hudner a message for his wife, Brown was gone.

According to photo recon planes, the North Koreans were also unsuccessful. When the Leyte’s captain asked if he should steer close to the coast to launch a helo with the flight surgeon could surgically remove Brown, Hudner shook his head and said, “Sir, those mountains are teeming with Chinese and that helicopter makes an easy target. There’s a good chance more men are going to get killed…I know Jesse wouldn’t want that.” The skipper had a second plan, a warrior’s funeral officiated by a flight of four carrying napalm. “I think Jesse would understand,” Hudner said, “And, sir, our squadron should be the ones to” conduct this funeral flight.

There are very few nits to pick with this book. The primary one is the author’s desire not to confuse civilian readers with military terms. This is why he consistently referred to the Leyte’s island, which rises above the carrier’s flight deck amidships on the starboard side as the “tower” and the officers mess or wardroom as the “dining room.” On the other hand, Makos did a superb job describing race relations by showing, not telling. Just as readers feel like they are in the cockpit or frozen foxhole, they will be silently in line to the air group commander’s office door to deliver their contribution to a college education fund for Brown’s daughter, Pam.

adam-tom-kpaTom Hudner’s final words to Jesse Brown were, “We’ll be back for you.” In 2013, at age 88, he took matters into his own hands and traveled to North Korea. Military officers were waiting when he arrived. Two days later, in the capital of Pyongyang, Hudner put on his Medal of Honor, faced “a North Korean colonel and his staff,” and asked them to begin a search for Brown’s remains. The colonel read the prewritten reply, North Korea’s supreme leader “granted approval to his army to resume the search for the remains of MIA American servicemen—beginning with Jesse Brown.”

With photos from the Adam Makos website, the author continues to deliver first-person history because he traveled to North Korea with Hudner. Jesse Brown, who died on December 4, 1950, still rests somewhere northwest of the Chosin Reservoir. His wingman, Thomas Hudner, died on November 13, 2017 and is now at rest at the Arlington National Cemetery.

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