For Jesse Brown, the greatest challenge was not the rigors of becoming a Navy fighter pilot, nor the dangers of flying missions against North Korea from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. Brown rose from Jim Crow-era Mississippi to the cockpit of an F4U Corsair when the services were still segregated, becoming the first African-American to complete Navy pilot training. In 1948, he began a tour of duty with VF-32 at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.
About a year later, Brown met a new pilot named Thomas J. Hudner, a graduate of Phillip's Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and also the son of successful Massachusetts business owners. After graduation from the academy in 1946, Hudner served aboard a cruiser as a signal officer before being assigned to shore duty in Pearl Harbor. Bored with his job, he applied for flight training at Pensacola.
After earning his wings, Hudner was eventually sent to VF-32, which had earned a notoriety for being the home of the Navy's only black pilot. Brown and Hudner were soon flying together. Despite Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Hudner's senior rank, Navy policy set flying assignments based on experience, and Ensign Brown had more hours. Hudner was assigned to be Brown's wingman and found Brown a patient and disciplined pilot.
But off duty, the two aviators spent little time together. "In those days, the O (officers') club was the center of activity," Hudner says, who recently retired as the Massachusetts commissioner of veterans' affairs. "He [Brown] was married and I was a bachelor.
[Almost all the bachelors] went to the club because the club was the only place to gather. Jesse didn't go very much-very few of the married officers went there, because they went home to their families at night."
In June 1950, VF-32 was operating from the USS Leyte in the Mediterranean on a routine cruise but was soon diverted to the Korean peninsula when North Korea invaded South Korea. On December 4, both pilots were part of a formation of eight Corsairs flying armed reconnaissance patrols near the Chosin Reservoir. "We'd fly around and look for targets of opportunity," Hudner says. "We didn't have predesignated targets, but if we saw military equipment, trucks, or troops, we'd destroy them with rockets or our .50-caliber guns. We were high enough to see fairly well ahead, but low enough to see objects and people on the ground. It was very mountainous in that area and we didn't want to go too low. A lot of our planes came back to the ship with small-caliber holes in the wings and fuselage."
Hudner and Brown were at about 1,000 feet when Brown radioed that he was losing oil pressure. "We think it was an oil line that got hit-somebody just got a lucky shot," Hudner says.
The engine on Brown's Corsair quit. Too low to either clear the mountains or bail out, Brown was forced to attempt a wheels-up landing in the best place he could find-a clearing that looked reasonably flat.
Brown had limited control over his unpowered Corsair, and when it slammed into the ground, it bent 30 degrees at the cockpit. The F4U slid through snow and finally came to rest as smoke began to rise from its engine. Hudner and his fellow pilots circled the wreck. "The plane was so mangled from the landing that we thought he had died in the crash," Hudner says. "We continued to circle around and the conversation on the radio was 'My God, poor Jesse.' I knew that his canopy was open because I went over the checklists with him, but the airplane hit with such force that the canopy slammed shut. Then someone noticed that his canopy was open and he was waving to us."
Seeing that Brown was alive, the flight leader climbed to altitude to give his radio better range, transmitted a Mayday, and asked for a rescue helicopter. "We got an acknowledgment that the helicopter was on the way, but it was at least 15 minutes before it could get there," Hudner says. The delay, Brown's apparent inability to free himself, and the smoke rising from the Corsair made the situation desperate. "I made the decision to try and pull him out of the cockpit and both of us would fly out with the helicopter," Hudner says.