Adam Makos
On the surface of it, this is the story of a friendship between Jesse Brown, the first coloured person to become a US Marine fighter pilot – and his colleague; an affluent white pilot called Tom Hudner. And it starts dramatically with Brown’s Corsair fighter being hit over Korea, losing its engine and crashing behind the Chinese lines during the Korean War. Hudner, in best Hollywood cliché fashion, then decides to crash land his own fighter and help his trapped an injured colleague. The next few chapters move back in time to the two friend’s childhoods and their very different backgrounds: one with every advantage in life and one dirt poor. And for the rest of the book the story moves chronologically.

I will confess to finding the first three or four chapter’s heavy work. The young Jesse stands up to four white boys who are bullying him and then they back down, etc, etc. I was expecting the rest of the book to be a saccharine sweet tale of poor black boy makes good. That is to do it a considerable injustice. Its scope is far broader than it first appears. The friendship between Brown and Hudner is a thread on which to hang a much wider tale.

The story really covers US carrier borne aviation from 1949, when Brown and Hudner first became carrier pilots, up to the early years of the Korean War when their carrier, the USS Leyte, was flying strikes in support of the Marine infantry ashore. As such the book covers Brown’s relationship with his fellow pilots, officers and enlisted men. It also covers the USS Leyte’s activities, both before the outbreak of war and after it and has brief character sketches of key members of its crew.

The book also covers the ordeal of the US Marines ashore and their fighting retreat from the Chosin reservoir through heavy snow while heavily outnumbered by the advancing Chinese, ill-equipped and running short of supplies. It is rightly regarded as a military epic during which the ground troops were greatly helped by carrier shrikes flown from an American task force (including the Leyte) offshore. It was during one of those strikes that Jesse Brown’s engine was hit, forcing him to crash land. It was a bad one and he was trapped in the cockpit with a smoking engine that threatened to set the wreckage alight. It was at that point that Hudner decided to crash land himself and try and help his injured friend.

It was a feat of no mean courage because the Chinese would most likely have shot him out of hand had they captured him. Hudner soon found that Brown’s leg was trapped and asked the rescue helicopter heading his way to make sure it had an axe aboard so that he could hack his way through the fuselage. Sadly, Brown had been injured in the crash and died before the helicopter arrived. And even with the axe, it was impossible to hack through the Corsair’s fuselage and release Brown’s body, so he had to be left.

Hudner’s selfless attempt to save his friend at the risk of his own life struck a chord in America. It resulted in him being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. It was presented to Hudner on the White House lawn by Truman. It is a sad comment on the state of race relations in the US at the time that Daisy, Jesse Brown’s widow, was the only coloured face at the ceremony. And even then, the navy had to arrange for Daisy to stay with a fellow female sailor while in Washington as virtually all the hotels in the vicinity of the White House refused rooms to people of colour.

Racism is possible the one aspect of the story that appears soft-pedalled through the book, often appearing as a background thread to the story rather than one of its main components. Jesse Brown – as the first African American pilot in the Marine Corps – clearly had massive hurdles to overcome.

The evidence from the book is that Jesse Brown was a fine human being who left a lasting influence on the people who knew him. The coloured enlisted men aboard the Leyte clubbed together to buy him a Rolex watch purely because he was an inspiration to them. While after his death the crew of the Leyte – largely white – raised a substantial sum of money to create a trust fund to put Brown’s daughter through college when she was old enough.

With the exception of the first few chapters, the book is an enthralling read. That’s partially the fault of the author and partially the fault of the publisher because there’s nothing to indicate the story is wider than the friendship between Brown and Hudner until you get forty or so pages into the book. But once that becomes apparent, the extremely well researched and written story carries you along – I finished the bulk of the book in a single sitting. Well worth a read if your interests run to military aviation and the Korean War.
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