December 4, 1950 Wingmen to the End

Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.   A mixed-race young man of African, Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry, Jesse grew up in a time of real discrimination.  Brown had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”.  Julia and John Brown made sure their kids stuck with their studies.  Such parental devotion would serve them well.

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Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The pair could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became  carrier pilots with the United States Navy, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

110kqivOn June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were streaming south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.

At 13:38 on December 4, Thomas “Lou” Hudner took off from the carrier USS Leyte, part of a six-aircraft flight with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen and Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown.

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“Off To The Chosin” by Nicolas Trudgian

An hour later, Koenig radio’d Brown that his aircraft appeared to be trailing fuel.  Chinese infantry were known to hide in the snow, and ambush incoming aircraft.  It’s likely that Brown was hit by small arms fire, from the ground.  Losing oil pressure with the aircraft all but impossible to control, Brown had no choice but to crash land on a snow covered mountain side. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

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“Wingmen to the End” by Gareth Hector Hat tip Adam Makos, author of “Devotion, an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice”, https://www.adammakos.com/devotion-book.html

Hudner did the unthinkable and deliberately crash landed his own aircraft.  Now injured himself, Hudner hobbled across the snow to the aid of his trapped wing man. He scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the process as Brown faded in and out of consciousness. A Marine Corps helicopter landed at 15:00, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward.  The two went at the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The two were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with that axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

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They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner later explained, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.  Jesse Brown could no longer hear.

Hudner pleaded the following day to be allowed to go back to the crash site, but his superiors were unwilling to risk further loss of life. Two days later, the site was bombed with napalm, to prevent the aircraft and the body from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands.  Jesse Brown’s body was still stuck in the cockpit though, by this time, his clothes had been removed.

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H/T Sierra Hotel Aeronautics

American pilots recited the Lord’s prayer, as they watched his body being consumed by the flames.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black Naval Aviator in American history, became the first to die, sixty-eight years ago, today.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,  posthumously.

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner would remain the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

In July of 2013, Thomas Hudner returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, in fulfillment of a 63-year-old promise.  “We’ll come back for you“.

Political relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea were as frigid at that time as the frozen mountains of the Chosin Reservoir, yet Hudner received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time. In the end, wretched weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

Recently, American President Donald Trump has worked toward a thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula, in cooperation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Less than a week ago, a South Korean train crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, a move which would have been unheard of, for much of the last seventy years.

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“Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, meets Commander Nathan Scherry following the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner in Bath, Maine, on April 1, 2017. Scherry will command the new guided-missile destroyer”.  H/T, KDSK.com

The future is uncertain, but Korean rapprochement comes too late for Lou Hudner and Jesse Brown.  Thomas Jerome “Lou” Hudner passed away at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2017, and was buried a with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 93.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown were never recovered from that North Korean mountainside.

Three days ago, Hudner’s wife of fifty years Georgea was on-hand to witness the United States Navy commission its newest naval warship in Boston.  The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner.

Afterward – Do you believe in Ghosts?

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November 28, 1950 Of Courage, and Candy

Everything had a code name to throw off Chinese anti-aircraft units.  A frantic call went out for 60-mm mortar ammunition, code named “Tootsie Rolls”.  Somebody didn’t read up on the code book, and that’s what they got.  Chocolate candy, by the ton. 

On June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea (ROK) didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the Republic of Korea Army and its government were retreating south toward their capital of Seoul.

The UN security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula.

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H/T, Encyclopedia Britannica

Poorly prepared and under-strength for what they were about to face, units of the 24th Division United States Army were hastily sent from bases in Japan. It was not until August when General Douglas MacArthur’s forces in theater, designated United Nations Command (UNC), was able to slow and finally stop North Korean forces around the vital southern port city of Pusan.

American forces and ROKA defenders were in danger of being hurled into the sea.  Most of the KPA was committed to doing just that, as plans were hastily drawn up for an amphibious landing on Inch’ŏn, the port outlet for the South Korean capital of Seoul.

With a narrow, labyrinthine channel and a tidal variation of nearly 30-feet, Inch’ŏn was a terrible choice for a major amphibious landing, with no more than a six-hour window permitting use of the beaches.

The Inch’ŏn landing was one of the great operations in military history, recapturing the capital and all but destroying North Korean military operations in the South.  Meanwhile, a storm was building north of the border, in the form of a quarter-million front-line Chinese troops, assembling in Manchuria.

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The war seemed all but over in October as UNC forces streamed into the north, the US 8th Army to the west of the impassable Taebaek mountains, the ROK I Corps and US X Corps to the east, reinforced by the US 1st Marine landing at Wonsan.  North and South would be reunited by the end of the year, and everyone would be home by Christmas.  Except, that’s not how things worked out.

By the end of November, 30,000 UN troops were spread along a 400-mile line near the Chosin Reservoir, all but overrun and fighting for their lives against 150,000 Chinese forces of the “People’s Volunteer Army (PVA).

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Hat Tip, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Korean War Gallery

Weather conditions were savage at the “Frozen Chosin”, a Siberian cold front dropping day-time highs to -5° Fahrenheit, with lows exceeding -25°.  Vehicles and radios failed to start in the cold, and medical supplies froze.  Morphine syrettes had to be thawed in the medic’s mouth, prior to use.  Frozen blood plasma was useless.  Just to cut off clothing to deal with a wound, risked frostbite.  Perhaps worst of all, gun lubricants turned to gel and springs froze.  There must be no more demoralizing sound in combat, than the impotent click of a firing pin, too weak to work.

Clifford Meyer remembers: “During November 1950 the First Marine Division with elements of two Regimental combat teams of the U.S. Army, a Detachment of British Commandos and some South Korean Policemen — about 15,000 men — faced the Chinese Communist Army’s ten Divisions totaling 120,000 men. At a mountain reservoir called Chang Jin (we called it “Chosin”) temperatures ranged from minus five degrees below zero in the day to minus twenty-five degrees below zero at night. The ground froze so hard that bulldozers could not dig emplacements for our Artillery. The cold impeded our weapons from firing automatically, slowing down the recoil of our artillery and automatic weapons. The cold numbed our minds, froze our fingers and toes and froze our rations. [We were] seventy-eight miles from the sea, surrounded, supplies cut, facing an enemy whose sole objective was the annihilation of the First Marine Division as a warning to other United Nations troops, and written off as lost by the high command“.

The PVA launched multiple attacks and ambushes over the night of November 27. The “Chosin Few” were all but surrounded by the morning of the twenty-eighth, locked in a fight for their lives.

Over two weeks of bitter combat, fifteen thousand soldiers and Marines fought their way over seventy-eight miles of gravel road, back to the sea. One war correspondent asked 1st Marine General Oliver Prince Smith if they were retreating. “Retreat? Hell”, Smith said, “we are attacking in another direction”.

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Survival depended on air drops from US Navy Task Force 77 running 230 forays per day providing close-air support, food, medicine & combat supplies, and US Air Force Far East Combat Cargo Command in Japan, airdropping 250-tons of supplies.  Every day.

Everything had a code name to throw off Chinese anti-aircraft units.  A frantic call went out for 60-mm mortar ammunition, code named “Tootsie Rolls”.  Somebody didn’t read up on the code book, and that’s what they got.  Chocolate candy, by the ton.

What at first seemed a screw-up of biblical proportions, soon proved a blessing in disguise.  With no way to build a fire and frozen rations unusable, those Tootsie rolls were all that stood between survival and starvation. 15,000 soldiers and Marines suffered 12,000 casualties before it was over: 3,000 dead, 6,000 wounded and thousands of frostbite cases.

2134504558Untold thousands of Tootsie roll wrappers littered the seventy-eight miles back to the sea.  Most credit their survival to the energy provided by the chocolate candy.  It turns out that frozen tootsie rolls make a swell putty too, useful for patching up busted hoses and vehicles.

The Korean War Gallery at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico features a lone Marine, 30-mm machine gun at the ready, marching out of the frozen wastes of the Chosin reservoir.  There’s a paper candy wrapper in the snow at his feet.  Though age has diminished their numbers, the “Chosin Few” still get together, for the occasional reunion.  Tootsie Roll Industries has always sent the candy and continues to do so, to this day.

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