Thomas Hudner was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and became a naval aviator. Jesse Brown, the child of African-American sharecroppers, was born in Depression-era Mississippi. A racial pioneer, Jesse completed flight training and became America’s first Black naval aviator.
Hudner and Brown were part of a six-man squadron dispatched to defend the First Marine Division encircled by 100,000 Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir. It was a brutal 17-day fight in freezing weather. The Marines appeared so doomed that newspapers back home referred to them as the “Lost Legion.”
During the battle, Jesse’s Corsair was hit by small-arms fire. His engine seized up, and he crash-landed seventeen miles behind enemy lines.
Jesse tried to climb out of the cockpit but he was pinned inside. Flames were rising from the fuselage as swarms of Chinese troops headed toward him. His wingman, Lt. Tom Hudner, decided to do something that could justify a court-martial. He crash-landed into a mountain clearing in an effort to rescue Brown. Hudner tried to free Brown from the wreckage for 45 minutes, but Jesse did not survive.
U.S. Marines remember the fallen at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir as the “Frozen Chosin.” Jesse fell with a thousand of his brothers in arms and over 9,000 missing or wounded. The First Marine Division survived because of their skill, bravery, and sacrifice.
President Harry Truman invited Tom and Daisy, Jesse’s widow, to the White House to award Tom the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. Jesse was posthumously decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry, and a frigate was named after him. President Truman publicly praised them both for their service and sacrifice. The friendship between Hudner and Brown validated Truman’s controversial decision to desegregate the nation’s armed forces. The Brown and Hudner relationship exemplifies the devotion of one aviator to another, one American to another, and one friend to another.
After the Korean War, Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown’s wife Daisy traveled the country together telling the Brown and Hudner story to promote the cause of racial integration in the armed services. In 1987, Ronald Reagan became the second U.S. president to honor Brown publicly. Reagan said at a Alabama ceremony, “Jesse didn’t consider the race of those he sought to protect. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think of the color of his skin. They only knew that Americans were in trouble.”