To everyone else, it was the Forgotten War -- defined by the reruns of M*A*S*H or the 19 figures on the National Mall, suspended in time on their long, cold walk through Korea. For the men who were there, fighting and dying in freezing reservoirs or snow-capped mountaintops, it was much more. It was a three-year battle -- a half a world away -- for freedom. And the echoes in our American story still linger.
Like most pilots, Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown were thrown together as wingmen -- both graduates of the United States Naval Academy, both on a ship destined for Korea. But that's where the similarities ended. Tom was the New England prep-school son of an entrepreneur; Jesse was the oldest in a dirt-poor family of sharecroppers. Working his way through school turned out to be the easy part for Jesse -- surviving life at an academy with virtually no African-American peers was another. But he stuck it out, surviving flight training and eventually ending up on a carrier destined for one of the bloodiest battles in 1951.
Years later, Tom would say, "I had no qualms about becoming friends with a man of a different color. From an early age, my father had taught me: 'A man will reveal his character through his actions, not his skin color.'" The two men became close on the USS Leyte -- a closeness that would reverberate through history as one of the greatest heroic acts of any war.
By the winter of 1950, Americans back home were moving on from World War II -- oblivious or indifferent to the conflict in Korea that the media rarely talked about. While families back home went on with their lives, almost two million of their sons, brothers, and husbands were shipped to another civil war. From the start, Adam Makos points out in his book Devotion, this was no ordinary enemy. When the massive columns of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army made their way to the dividing line where General Douglas MacArthur's troops were waiting, the Chinese descended on the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division "like the hordes of Genghis Khan" -- massacring 600 Americans in one night.
From there, things only got worse. The Chinese managed to surround the entire First Marine Division, making the American forces sitting ducks. "Wipe out the Marines to the last man," the troops were ordered, an annihilation that would have paved the way for Soviet-style communism to sweep through Asia and beyond.
Desperate for help, the pinned-down Army called for air support -- springing Tom, Jesse, and the rest of their Leyte squadron into action. Flying low over the peninsula, hunting for Chinese units, Jesse's plane was strafed by guns on the ground. "Something's wrong," one of the pilots radioed, surveying the damage. "You're bleeding fuel." Scanning the horizon, Jesse's eyes darted through the snow and ice, looking for a place to crash-land during the coldest winter on record -- 17 miles behind enemy lines.
"Losing power," Jesse told the others before he dove his Corsair into the mountain, crumpling it on impact. From the air, Tom could see the flames. Making matters worse, the sun was setting. Any minute, the Chinese troops would see the fire and start up the mountain for Jesse. Before the pilots could decide what to do, they heard Tom Hudner's voice. "I'm going in," he announced. In disbelief, they watched him dive for the burning plane, slam into the snowbank, and stop -- 100 yards from Jesse's open canopy. It was a move, everyone knew, that could've killed him -- or at least killed his career. A deliberate crash landing -- for whatever reason -- was grounds for court-martialing. But that was the furthest thing from Tom's mind.
"If it wasn't Jesse down there, I don't know if I'd have taken the chance I did," Tom said in the years that followed. "If it had been me down there on the ground, Jesse would have done the same thing." In waist-deep snow, he struggled just to get to the other plane. When he finally did, Jesse was alive, but freezing. Pinned by metal inside the plane, Tom worked for an agonizing 45 minutes to free his friend -- without the gloves or scarf he'd put on Jesse.
Above, the planes were circling, watching for enemy troops and desperately trying to phone in a rescue crew before dark. "Bring an axe," Tom yelled into the radio at the helicopter pilot in route. But it was no use. Jesse drifted in and out of consciousness, as his friend delivered blow after blow, trying to rip the cockpit apart. "Tom," he heard in a whisper. "Just tell Daisy I love her." And then he was gone.
In despair, Tom looked for a way to free the man's crushed legs and take his body back home. "Decide quickly," the helicopter pilot said. "But remember, you stay here, you freeze to death." Distressed, Tom ran toward the chopper, stopped, and turned. "We'll be back for you!" he shouted. It was a promise he tried to keep until his death in 2017. Even at 89, he was still making trips to North Korea, negotiating for the country to help search for Jesse's remains.
Tom never felt like a hero. Like most of the brave men and women who've served, he says he was just doing his duty. But it was, as one paper put it, "A lesson in the brotherhood of man." Today, we honor that brotherhood -- a tradition forged in sacrifice and marked by selflessness. It was my greatest privilege to be a part of that proud tradition as a United States Marine. To everyone who answered the call to defend this incredible nation, you are not forgotten -- not the 40,000 who died in Korea or the millions before and after.
As for the unlikely friends, their story -- and bond -- still resonates. Today, the two men lie 6,700 miles apart. Tom in the long white rows of Arlington National Cemetery, Jesse in the peaks of the Yudam-ni. Somewhere in the ocean between them, a ship sails with the motto Above All, Others. It is the USS Tom Hudner.
From Jesse Brown's last letter home, the night before he was killed, December 3, 1950:
"Don't be discouraged... Believe in God and believe in Him with all of your might, and I know things will work out all right. We need him now like never before. Have faith."