The men's squadron, VF 32, was assigned to USS Leyte (CV 32). They had been on a Mediterranean cruise when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, June 25, 1950, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake as the Americans and South Koreans retreated, then regrouped.
Recalled from the Med in August, Leyte arrived in the waters off of Korea in October, and its pilots got to work, targeting bridges, communication lines, and enemy troops and installations.
By November, the Americans and their allies had reversed the course of the war, and had pushed into North Korea, heading for the Yalu River, the border with Manchuria. This, however, brought China into the war, its troops sweeping down the peninsula in a seemingly endless flood.
About 30,000 American and allied troops, mostly Marines, found themselves trapped at the Chosin Reservoir
, surrounded by some 120,000 enemy soldiers. At night, temperatures dropped to 20, even 40, degrees below zero. That's also when the Chinese liked to attack, wave after wave overrunning the beleaguered, frost-bitten Marines in what would be a battle for the history books.
The pilots' focus turned to protecting the desperate Marines as they retreated south, and they regularly flew danger close air support missions.
On that fateful day, Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner, Brown and four other pilots took off around 1:30 in the afternoon, and flew about 100 miles toward Chosin through terrible winter weather. As they cruised over the desolate landscape, oil began trailing from Brown's plane. He had been hit by ground fire, but the sound had disappeared into the roar of the Corsairs' engines. The plane quickly stalled out and Brown crashed into the snow.
It was a place, wrote Hudner's biographer, Adam Makos, where “only a crazy man would go.”
“I could just see that airplane bursting into flame,” Hudner said. “Jesse was still very much alive, and I thought it was a risk worth taking.”
Hudner, who injured his back in the crash landing, ran to Brown's plane, but couldn't get him out. Brown was stuck, his lips turning blue, his leg pinned by the crumpled, now icy fuselage.
“The first thing he said, in a very calm voice, was, 'We've got to figure out a way to get out of here,'” Hudner remembered. “He'd taken his helmet off, he'd taken his gloves off, probably to unbuckle his parachute harness. He dropped his gloves. ... I used to carry a Navy woolen watch cap around in my flight suit, so I pulled that down over his head, and I had a white scarf ... and I put the scarf over his hands.”
Hudner radioed that the helicopter pilot needed to bring an ax, and began packing the still-smoking engine with snow, doing anything he could think of to help until he heard the distinctive tut-tut-tut of a Marine Corps helicopter some 30 minutes or more later. By that point, Brown seemed to be in shock, and was going in and out of consciousness.
“'Tell Daisy I love her,'” Brown whispered at one point, referring to his wife in what would be his last words. He also had a baby girl, Pam, back home in Mississippi.
“The helicopter arrived — the pilot's name was 1st Lt. Charlie Ward,” said Hudner. “He did have an ax and fire extinguisher, and while I was using the extinguisher, he climbed up into the cockpit, and he couldn't do anything either. Charlie and I conferred for a little bit, and made one more try.”