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The new action movie by Sony/Columbia Pictures “Devotion,” telling the story of Naval Airmen Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, would not have been possible without Iowa. Wait a minute, you wonder, what could a landlocked, relatively isolated Midwestern state have to do with the first African American to become a pilot in the Navy and the wingman from New England who risked his own life in combat to save him? Without the Hawkeye State, the two would never have met and history, particularly that of the Korean War, would not have been the same.
Jesse Brown was born a farm laborer in Mississippi in 1926. Seeing crop-duster planes, he became enamored with mechanical engineering and enrolled at Ohio State University in 1945. While there, the United States Navy was offering Aviation Cadet Training exams and Brown passed all sections of it in his second year at the school.
Three years before, the Navy had established its Flight Training Program at the University of Iowa, but the number of recruits had soared so high that the campus couldn’t accommodate all the students. As a result, in March of 1943, the Navy converted a flat farm field north of Ottumwa into a military base and poured concrete for runways and erected sixty buildings, including massive hangars and drill halls, to house and instruct trainees.
By 1947, 3,625 preflight candidates had graduated and went on to serve with distinction as Naval Aviators. One such enthusiastic young 20-year-old aspirant was Jesse Brown.
Brown arrived at Ottumwa Naval Air Station April 1947 and was put through the paces like all other aviator wannabes, rising at five in the morning, marching, and learning the physics of flying. Drills were held in massive Hangar No. 1 (large enough to have fit eight basketball courts inside) and on the surrounding parade grounds.
Nearby was the cavernous natatorium housing what was touted as the largest indoor swim pool in the state, where full scale replicas of naval aircraft would slide down rails, slamming into the water and sinking, as a hands-on practice to teach pilots how to survive crash landings at sea.
Brown excelled at all of these, and was transferred to the Naval Air Base at Pensacola, Florida, where, on Oct. 13, 1948, he landed his F-4 Wildcat fighter plane on an aircraft carrier for the fifth time (plus wave-offs) and was rated as a Naval Aviator, the first African American to receive a pair of gold wings in the Navy.
Excited at having mastered landings in an older, smaller fighter plane, the up and coming ensign then was upgraded to the more powerful F-4U Corsair (the same plane flown by Pappy Boyington of “Bah Bah Blacksheep” fame) 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 sorties off the ship into North Korea to attack enemy emplacements and soften the resistance for the arrival of United Nations troops.
Hudner came from a wealthier European American family of Fall River, Massachusetts and had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was impressed with, by then Lieutenant Brown’s, demonstrated skill and tenacity as a squadron leader, and felt a true devotion to his mentor as an aviator, a minority in the Naval ranks, and as an inspiration.
On Dec. 4, 1950, while flying his 21st mission in combat, Brown had completed a strafing of enemy troops in the mountainous region around Somong-ni in North Korean territory. As he banked to return to his carrier, he noticed his plane was rapidly losing oil. He had been hit by anti-aircraft fire and his plane was crippled. Seeing a crash landing as his best option, Brown plummeted his airplane down into a snowbank.
Hudner, noticing he was still alive, dove his own aircraft into a hard landing in the snow covered rocks and attempted to pull Brown out of the wreckage. Regrettably, on impact, the control panel of Brown’s cockpit had lodged against his leg and he couldn’t be moved. Hudner extinguished a fire in the engine, but couldn’t budge the heavy instrument panel. He stayed by Brown’s side into the night as temperatures dipped below zero, until Brown, bleeding and weak, died of exposure and his wounds.
Hudner’s Corsair had also been damaged and could not take off along the mountainside. With frozen fingertips, he called on his plane’s radio for a helicopter, however, even with the assistance of its crew, could not extricate Brown’s body from the mangled plane.
Hudner, dejected, was then airlifted back to the carrier, and shortly thereafter, to prevent the plane from being captured and to keep Brown’s body from being displayed by the Communist North Korean Army as a war prize, the pair’s Corsairs were firebombed.
For his harrowing actions above and beyond the call of duty, Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor. Since Korea was divided two years later, the Communist government which controlled the North did not allow representatives of South Korea or the United States to cross the border and Brown’s body and plane remained buried on that mountainside as his final resting place.
The movie, “Devotion,” based on the biographies of Brown and Hudner, is appropriately named. The writer of this column is proud to have a model of his F-4U signed by Lieutenant Hudner. If you should find yourself traveling down Highway 63 just outside of Ottumwa, look north to the airport, the former Naval Air Station, and remember the devotion to country, cause and comrades that began there.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.
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