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The Frozen Chosen: The story of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, author of The Frozen Chosen and the upcoming book Holding The Line explains how a friendship was cemented during the freezing conditions of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Korea, in 1950
Buy a copy of The Frozen Chosen
Snow squalls covered the heaving whitecaps of the Sea of Japan as the mountains of North Korea came into view and the six dark blue F4U-4 Corsairs of VF-32’s Iroquois Flight went "feet dry." The rugged mountains were covered by snow drifts ten feet deep. As they flew on, the clouds broke to reveal the flat, windswept expanse of the desolate frozen Chosin Reservoir. It was Monday December 4, 1950.
Iroquois Flight leader LCDR Dick Cevoli banked north as they passed the ruined village of Yudam-ni, site of a deadly battle between the First Marine Division’s 5th Marine Regiment and the Chinese "volunteers." The Navy fliers were searching for the Chinese forces they knew were pursuing the Marines. Cevoli looked at his wingman, Lieutenant George Hudson. Beyond him, Lieutenant (jg) Bill Koenig and Ensign Ralph McQueen kept station. To the rear were element leader Ensign Jesse Brown and his wingman, Lieutenant (jg) Tom Hudner. Koenig dropped beneath Brown’s Corsair and saw a thin spray of liquid. "Jess, check your fuel status."
Jesse Brown saw the fuel needle drop alarmingly. There was a ridgeline ahead. He soared over the ridge and felt the engine stutter. “This is Iroquois One-Three. Losing power. Mayday. Mayday.”
Brown dropped his belly tanks and ordnance; wingman Hudner pulled alongside. “Okay, Jesse. Lock your harness. Open your canopy and lock it.” The big bubble canopy slid back as the nose dropped. “Watch your airspeed, Jess.”
The rest of the flight watched, helpless, as the Corsair dropped toward a mountainside clearing. Brown set up to crash land. Hudner winced as he watched the plane touch down in a cloud of snow and plow across the field, throwing a rooster tail of snow until it came to an abrupt stop in the line of trees bordering the clearing.
The others watched for movement by their comrade. Hudner spotted smoke wafting from the broken cowling. There was still no movement. Hudner later recalled, “Somebody was going to have to go down and help. Since nobody was volunteering, I decided it would have to be me.”
Hudner ditched his ordnance and tanks and throttled back. “I’m going in.” He set up a carrier approach at minimum speed, flaps down. As the ground came up fast, Hudner told himself: “This is really stupid, you know?”
“The ground seemed to rush at me as I hit, and then I was out of control, snowplowing across the field and hoping I was going to end up somewhere close to Jesse.” With a lurch, the Corsair slewed to a stop. As the snow cloud settled, Hudner saw he was 80 yards from Brown.
Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown couldn’t have been more unalike. A graduate of the Annapolis Class of 1947 and a classmate of future President Jimmy Carter, Hudner was the oldest of five children of an Irish father who owned Hudner’s Markets, in Boston. He became a naval aviator in late 1949.
Jesse L. Brown Jr., born a sharecropper’s son in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1926, had a more difficult route into the ranks of naval aviators. Enrolled in the Aviation Midshipman program after graduating with an NROTC scholarship from Ohio State in 1946, he became the first African-American naval aviator when he graduated from Pensacola in 1948. The Navy at that time had a career officer corps primarily southern in origin. Brown had his job cut out for him.
Hudner and Brown met when they joined VF-32 aboard USS Leyte in 1950. The squadron then flew F8F-1 Bearcats. Brown was recognized as the squadron’s best pilot, whether all his squadron mates admitted it or not, when he took a wave-off, added throttle too rapidly – easy to do in the Bearcat – and survived a torque roll 100 feet above Leyte’s flight deck. He recovered in full view of everyone and made a textbook landing, cool as could be.
When war broke out in Korea in June 1950, Leyte was in the Mediterranean. She returned to the United States for deployment to Korea and VF-32 traded up to the Corsair, a far better fighter-bomber.
Leyte transited the Panama Canal, and crossed the Pacific to join the Seventh Fleet in Japan. She arrived in early October, just after the Inchon invasion. No one knew when she arrived on station in the Sea of Japan on October 9 that they were about to set a record-breaking tour of 92 days before returning to Japan on 19 January 1951. Her fliers were among the first to discover the Chinese warnings about military intervention if UN forces approached the Yalu River were not mere bluster. The now-frozen Yalu River had obviously been crossed by large units.
By the time the Marines arrived at the Chosin Reservoir during the second week of November, they had fought fresh enemy troops identified as Chinese. Despite warnings from the Marines and Eighth Army that they were encountering the Chinese Army in combat, Douglas MacArthur discounted the reports and stated in a Tokyo press conference that Chinese threats to enter the war were not to be taken seriously. He went further, promising America “the boys will be home by Christmas,” with Korea fully liberated from the Communists.
During the early morning hours of November 25, the worst Siberian blizzard in a century swept over the Korean peninsula, dropping temperatures lower than -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The storm ended at dusk on November 27.
At 2200 hours that night, bugles blared out of the frozen darkness as the Chinese Ninth Army Group of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, commanded by Long March veteran General Song Shi-lun, struck every position from Yudam-ni at the Reservoir south to Koto-ri, at Funchilin Pass. The army of 120,000 hardened veterans of the Civil War were ordered to “Wipe out the Marines to the last man.”
Aboard Leyte, the dawn of November 28 found the flight deck and aircraft covered with snow. For the next seven days, the pilots flew multiple sorties in bad sea conditions with blowing snowstorms to give support. Without their cover, the enemy would have defeated the outnumbered Americans.
And then there was the mission of December 4.
Badly shaken, Hudner climbed out. “The snow was waist-deep, it was colder than I have ever experienced anywhere else, and at first I couldn’t move. It took me over thirty minutes to get to Jesse's airplane, and I was damn near frozen stiff.”
Brown’s legs had been crushed; it was impossible to pull him out of the cockpit because the broken fuselage jammed him in. Hudner fought to free his friend while Brown went in and out of consciousness.
The sun was setting and temperatures dropped colder. A helicopter from VMO-6 finally arrived. Hudner and Master Gunnery Sergeant Herbert Valentine tried to break the plane open with a fire axe. In the last light of day, when he had to go or die of frostbite himself, Hudner realized his friend had frozen to death. The helicopter lifted off in a cloud of snow, leaving Jesse Brown and his Corsair in the frozen stillness.
In March, 1952, Lieutenant (jg) Thomas J. Hudner Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor for his willingness to risk his life above and beyond the call of duty to save his friend. His award was one of fourteen Medals of Honor awarded for heroism at Chosin, more than have been awarded in any other American battle.
In 1970, riots among African-American sailors broke out on several naval stations over poor treatment. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt assigned then-Captain Tom Hudner to investigate the outbreaks and to “institute reforms to achieve justice,” since he was the only white naval officer with the moral authority to win the trust of the sailors. Hudner’s reforms changed the Navy; in the years following, as the American military became an all-volunteer force, these reforms were adopted by the other services. A friendship cemented on a frozen North Korean hillside in 1950 transformed the military into that part of American society where equality for all has been most closely achieved.
The Knox-class frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FFT-1089) was commission January 17, 1973. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Thomas J. Hudner (DDG-116) was christened April 1, 2017.
Author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver has been a published writer for the past 40 years. He has had a lifelong interest in the Korean War and this work is the product of 25 years of research. During his 30 years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, he wrote the cult classic The Terror Within and worked as a supervising producer on a number of TV and cable series. He served in the US Navy in Vietnam.
To find out more about Jesse Brown, Tom Hudner, and the events at the Chosin reservoir, you can pick up a copy of The Frozen Chosen. Based on first-hand interviews from surviving veterans, it recounts an incredible story of heroism and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, as a handful of Marines fought determinedly against wave after wave of Chinese forces. For more from Thomas Cleaver, pre-order his new title Holding the Line which publishes in March 2019, and find more of his titles on the Osprey website.