Sony/Columbia Pictures’ new action film Devotion, which tells the story of naval aviators Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, would not have been possible without Iowa. Wait a minute, you’re wondering what a relatively isolated, landlocked Midwestern country could have to do with the first African American to become a Navy pilot and the New England wingman who risked his own life in combat to save him? If it weren’t for the Hawkeye state, the two would never have met and the story, especially that of the Korean War, wouldn’t have been the same.
Jesse Brown was born in Mississippi in 1926 as a farm hand. He fell in love with mechanical engineering after seeing spray planes and enrolled at Ohio State University in 1945. There, the United States Navy offered Aviation Cadet Training exams, and Brown passed all parts of it in his sophomore year at the school.
Three years earlier, the Navy had established its flight training program at the University of Iowa, but the number of recruits had grown so rapidly that the campus could not accommodate all the students. As a result, in March 1943 the Navy turned a flat farm field north of Ottumwa into a military base and poured concrete for runways and erected sixty buildings, including huge hangars and drill halls, to house and teach trainees.
By 1947, 3,625 preflight candidates had graduated and were serving with distinction as naval aviators. One of those enthusiastic young 20-year-old contenders was Jesse Brown.
Brown arrived at Ottumwa Naval Air Station in April 1947 and, like all other would-be aviators, was put through his paces, getting up at 5 a.m., marching, and learning the physics of flying. The drills were held in the huge Hangar #1 (large enough to house eight basketball courts) and the surrounding parade ground.
Nearby was the cavernous aquatic center with what was billed as the state’s largest indoor pool, where scale replicas of naval aircraft slid down rails, slammed into the water and sank as a practical exercise to teach pilots how to survive crash landings at sea.
Brown excelled at all of these things and was posted to Naval Air Base, Pensacola, Florida, where on October 13, 1948 he landed his F-4 Wildcat fighter jet on an aircraft carrier for the fifth time (plus wave-offs) and became classified as a naval aviator, the first African American to receive a pair of gold wings in the Navy.
Excited to have mastered landings in an older, smaller fighter, the aspiring ensign was then upgraded to the more powerful F-4U Corsair (the same aircraft flown by Pappy Boyington of “Bah Bah Blacksheep”) and assigned to Fighter Squadron 32.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he and his wingman Thomas Hudner reported for duty aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte and flew from the ship to North Korea to attack enemy positions and weaken resistance to the arrival of United Nations troops.
Hudner came from a wealthy European-American family in Fall River, Massachusetts and graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was impressed by Lieutenant Brown’s skill and tenacity as Squadron Leader and felt a true devotion to his mentor as an aviator, a minority in the naval ranks and as an inspiration.
On December 4, 1950, during his 21st combat mission, Brown had completed a shelling of enemy troops in the mountainous region around Somong-ni, North Korean territory. Returning to his carrier, he noticed that his plane was rapidly losing oil. He had been hit by anti-aircraft fire and his plane was paralyzed. Seeing a crash landing as his best option, Brown crashed his plane into a snowdrift.
Realizing he was still alive, Hudner dove his own plane into a hard landing into the snow-covered rocks and attempted to pull Brown out of the wreckage. Unfortunately, Brown’s cockpit control panel had lodged on his leg upon impact and he could not be moved. Hudner extinguished a fire in the engine but was unable to move the heavy instrument panel. He remained at Brown’s side well into the night when temperatures dropped below zero, until Brown, bleeding and weak, died from exposure and his wounds.
Hudner’s Corsair had also been damaged and was unable to take off on the mountainside. With frozen fingertips, he called for a helicopter over his plane’s radio, but was unable to extricate Brown’s body from the mangled plane, even with the help of his crew.
Dejected, Hudner was then flown back to the carrier, and shortly afterwards the pair’s corsairs were firebombed to prevent the plane from being captured and Brown’s body from being displayed as a war prize by the communist North Korean army.
Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his harrowing actions that went beyond the call of duty. Since Korea was partitioned two years later, the communist government controlling the north would not allow representatives of South Korea or the United States to cross the border, and Brown’s body and plane were left buried on this mountainside as his final resting place.
The film Devotion, based on the Brown and Hudner biographies, is aptly named. The author of this column is proud to own a model of his F-4U signed by Lieutenant Hudner. Driving just outside of Ottumwa on Highway 63, look north toward the airport, formerly the Naval Air Station, and remember the dedication to country, cause, and comrades that began there.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author, and special events coordinator specializing in American history.