BEIJING >> As more than 100,000 Chinese soldiers swarmed far fewer U.S. Marines and soldiers in subzero temperatures on treacherous terrain in one of the fiercest battles of the Korean War, two U.S. Navy pilots took off from an aircraft carrier to provide cover for their comrades on the ground.
One of the airmen, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, was the son of an African-American sharecropper from Mississippi. The other, Lt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., was the son of a white patrician merchant family from Massachusetts.
An hour into the flight, Brown’s plane was hit by enemy fire, forcing him to crash land on the side of a mountain at Chosin, north of Pyongyang. Hudner brought his plane down nearby and found Brown, but he could not rescue him.
On Monday, nearly 63 years after the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Hudner, 88, arrived in Beijing after a 10-day visit to North Korea aimed at finding his friend’s remains.
The trip to North Korea coincided with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, a milestone that the North Korean government has tried to use for propaganda purposes.
Hudner’s trip was arranged by Chayon Kim, a Korean American who organized the visit in April of Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star who became the first American to meet with the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, since he took over from his father in 2011. The timing of Hudner’s visit coincided with a massive military parade on Saturday.
Not wanting to be a North Korean prop, and citing his frail legs, Hudner said he avoided the parade and stayed away from the opening of a military museum featuring the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship captured by North Korea in 1968.
Nonetheless, he said he made the trip to help bring closure not only to himself but to Brown’s widow, Daisy Brown Thorne, 88. In the end, though, his mission failed. It is the rainy season in the North, and the North Koreans told him that almost daily downpours had washed away roads and bridges and made access to the crash site, a five-hour drive from Pyongyang, impossible.
“It was sort of a jolt to see how they were claiming this was a victory,” Hudner said, as he and his traveling companion, Dick Bonelli, 82, a Marine veteran from the battle of Chosin, relaxed at a hotel here before returning to the U.S. on Tuesday. “We decided not to go to the parade and to skip the museum and the USS Pueblo. It still belongs to the United States.”
Hudner’s attempt to save Brown has resonated through U.S. military annals not only for its daring, but because of what it said about race relations in the newly desegregated military.
“Shortly after I joined the squadron, I was changing into flight gear and he came in and nodded ’Hello,’” Hudner said of meeting Brown in December 1949. “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, the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator, had endured scorn and prejudice during training from 1947 to 1948, said Adam Makos, who is writing a book on the wartime friendship between the two pilots, and who also visited Pyongyang with Hudner.
On the day of the fateful flight, Hudner said he took off with Brown on his wing on Dec. 4, 1950. They were in a formation of six Corsairs, single-propeller planes from World War II that are big enough only for a pilot and are mounted with 50-caliber machine guns.
The pilots had been flying almost daily sorties, giving protection to U.S. soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese soldiers sent by Mao Zedong to fortify the weak North Korean army.
The Americans, surprised by the wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers, and hindered by machine guns that did not work in the freezing weather, had been ordered to withdraw.
They were within days of completing that operation when Hudner and Brown flew with instructions to patrol roads for enemy troops.
About an hour after takeoff, Hudner saw white vapor from Brown’s plane. “I pointed to a clearing on the mountain where Jesse could land,” Hudner said. “He landed with such force, we were convinced he perished. But we saw that Jesse opened the canopy of the cockpit, and we knew he was alive.”
Hudner managed to land about 100 yards from Brown. Two feet of snow covered the ground, the temperature was around zero, and they were behind enemy lines.
“Jesse saw me coming and said in a calm voice: ’Tom, we’ve got to figure a way of getting of here.”
The downed pilot had taken off his gloves, apparently to unbuckle his harness, but his hands were frozen stiff and he could not lever himself out of the cockpit, Hudner said. Hudner clambered onto the wing of Brown’s plane, but his boots, slick with ice and snow, slid and he could not grab his friend.
Hudner went back to his plane and called for a rescue helicopter to come with an ax and a fire extinguisher. “I was trying to console him and assuring him help was on the way.” By the time a U.S. helicopter arrived Brown had grown weak. “He told me, ’If anything happens to me, tell my wife, Daisy, I love her.’”
The helicopter pilot told Hudner that darkness was coming, and they had to leave. “I told Jesse we couldn’t get him out without more equipment, and we were going to get more. He didn’t respond. I think he died while we were talking to him.”
During his visit to Pyongyang, Hudner met twice with three North Korean army officers to discuss the return of Brown’s remains from the crash site. In the end, he was told that he should return in September when the weather was more predictable.
The North Koreans wanted a representative of the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the arm of the military that sends recovery teams to old battlefields to retrieve the remains of U.S. soldiers, to come on the return trip, Hudner said. The command ceased working with North Korea in 2005, in protest of the North’s disputed nuclear program.
Hudner, who received a Medal of Honor for his actions, said it was disappointing not to go to the crash site. “But we were gratified by the encouragement” of the North Koreans to return, he said.
“From what we’ve seen, something positive will come out of getting the remains.”