- - Sunday, February 28, 2016



By Adam Makos

Ballantine Books, $28, 445 pages

The War in Korea (1950-1953) was the turning point for America’s post-World War II military and diplomatic strategy. To the American public the Korean War was an unwelcome interruption of post-war prosperity and peace. And once the Korean War ended most Americans were eager to permit it to slip through the crevices of memory. Not until 1982 was a definitive account of that war published, a 690-page book by Joseph C. Goulden titled “Korea The Untold Story of the War.”

Now, 66 years after the start of what President Harry S. Truman stubbornly insisted was a United Nations police action, we have another Korean War story. It is the very personal account of two Naval aviators who were unlikely comrades from the North and South, one black, the other white. However, as their stories intersected and the country uneasily moved from post-World War II peace time to the uncertain prospect of a threatening Soviet Union their lives as pilots in a carrier squadron became a bellwether of American response to Communist power on the march. Less than a year after victory in Europe President Truman had invited Churchill to visit and ride the train with him to Fulton, Missouri where he delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. On that train ride Truman informed Churchill that he was sending the body of the recently deceased Turkish ambassador back to Turkey aboard the USS Missouri accompanied by a powerful flotilla to make a demonstration of strength in the area to keep Greece and Turkey from falling into the Soviet sphere.

Meanwhile, the two protagonists, Ensign Jesse Brown and Lt. Junior Grade Tom Hudner, and their fighter squadron mates at the Naval Air Station Quonset Point, Rhode Island prepared for a Mediterranean deployment aboard the Carrier Leyte with only passing concern about diplomatic affairs and world politics. Author Adam Makos provides brief biographical details of Jesse and Tom so the reader gets a clear picture of Jesse’s share cropper background and his two years at Ohio State before flight training. Tom on the other hand did not follow his father’s footsteps and enroll at Harvard but secured an appointment to the Naval Academy, class of ‘47 and then went to flight training after serving two years in surface ships.

Though Tom was senior in rank to Jesse he was junior in flight hours and squadron experience and so became Jesse’s wingman, an arrangement which Tom understood and had no problem with. Just prior to deployment with the Sixth Fleet, the Navy Department redesigned their Bearcat F8F fighter squadron to be a ground attack squadron and replaced their aircraft with F4U-4s Corsairs armed with six 50 caliber machine guns, 8 rocket launchers and bomb and napalm racks. This directive showed remarkable foresight on the part of someone in the Pentagon since there was hardly even a hint of trouble in Korea at that time. The June 25, 1950 attack on South Korea was a rueful surprise, and many people had no idea where Korea was. As it turned out, four months after switching to Corsairs Leyte would cut short her Mediterranean cruise, return to the East Coast and then be underway via the Panama Canal to the Far East where ground attack and close air support would be a crucial factor in the rescue of troops surrounded by a Chinese Army.

Before departing the Mediterranean the Leyte made a port call at Cannes and Mr. Makos has written a series of absolutely charming encounters the officers, sailors and Marines had with Elizabeth Taylor, then 18 and just married to Nicky Hilton. Among other things we find out that Jesse is fluent in French and that the American servicemen can be gentlemen and very entertaining. All this, plus an abundance of photos, make this book a delight to read. The last 300 pages are also absorbing reading but of a more serious and deadly nature as the airmen, sailors and Marines fight to survive in sub-zero winds blowing out of Siberia.

In the final climatic week of December 1950 the Chinese encircled the Marines. Jesse is shot down and Tom and the helicopter pilot try to extract Jesse from the Corsair but cannot. Chapter 43 “The Call From The Capital” describes a tender and loving gathering outside the West Wing on the steps to the Rose Garden since the White House at that time is only four walls with no interior. President Truman draped the Medal of Honor around Tom’s neck. Mr. Makos writes “A cameraman shouted Mr. President can we get some close-ups. President Truman turned to Daisy (Jesse’s widow) and called ‘Mrs. Brown — would you be willing to join Lt. Hudner and me?’ Daisy nodded. She descended the stairs like a princess. Truman wrapped his arm around her and steered her close. Daisy glanced at Tom and smiled.”

A wonderful photograph on that page captures the moment. “Devotion” is a story you will not forget. I strongly urge the reader to read the introduction and the afterword which includes a photocopy of Jesse’s last letter to Daisy, written Sunday night, Dec. 3, 1950. The following day he died on a remote mountain slope in North Korea in the cockpit of his Corsair

Thomas Schaaf is a retired Naval Aviator living in Fairfax, Va.

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