Posts tagged Jesse Brown

2022 Year-End Potpourri


“None the less we bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year.  The news is excellent, and all things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.” (From Day to Day, January 2, 1944)

Thus did Odd Nansen feel at the start of 1944, and so I also feel at the start of 2023—all things considered, there seems every reason to be cheerful.

Here’s a few thoughts on various year-end matters that I thought worth mentioning, as we fix our burning wishes on the new year.


Recently I was able to send to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities their 50% share in the royalties and speaking fees I earned this past year related to Odd Nansen’s diary.  To date my cumulative distributions now top $26,000.


Before the Christmas holiday I was able to see the movie Devotion (which I had previously written about here). Frankly, I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing the movie version of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown—could it really stand up to the book version (most movies don’t in my opinion).  The film begins by noting that it is “inspired” by the story of Jess and Tom, and there are some film scenes that clearly do not follow the actual events, but overall the film had the same powerful impact that the book version did.  If you get a chance to see this drama, go, but bring tissues.


Recently my wife and I were invited to dinner at a friends’ house, to meet a new couple who had recently moved into town—Bonnie and Jeff.  Jeff, being the excellent attorney that he is, had already Googled our names to get some background on us.  Once we were all settled with a glass of wine, Jeff confessed to being curious why I was so involved with matters relating to World War II, the Holocaust, diaries, etc.  I explained how it all started with a memoir I had read back in 2010, about a young Jewish concentration camp prisoner whose life was ultimately saved by Odd Nansen, and how this prisoner later emigrated to the U.S. and became a world-famous expert on human rights, serving as a justice on the International Court of Justice at The Hague.  By this time Bonnie’s attention was rivetted to my story.  Q: What was this man’s name? A: Thomas Buergenthal.  Q: Does Tom have three sons? A: Why, yes, he does.

Well, it turns out that Bonnie and her younger sister Shannon were classmates with Tom’s  youngest two sons, all while they were attending the Country Day School in—of all places—Costa Rica in the late 1970s.  To add to the coincidence, Shannon is married to a lawyer who attended G.W. Law School—and who of course had Tom as a professor!

In all my travels and presentations, I have now met people who 1) were born in the same village in Czechoslovakia as was Tom, 2) attended the same high school in Patterson, NJ with Tom, 3) went to the same undergraduate college (Bethany College in West Virginia) as Tom, although not in his class, 4) who attended NYU Law School with Tom, and now this.

It is a very small world indeed!


This week I received an email from an old friend, Diana, a brilliant attorney who was recently seconded to her firm’s Singapore office for a short tour of duty.  Diana explained that she was awaiting a meeting at Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for her work permits.  Just outside of the Ministry of Manpower sits another office, of the Norwegian company NHST Worldwide, a global media company.  Diana just had to share with me the writing she saw above NHST’s office entrance:

So while Fridtjof may have never made it to Singapore, Singapore knows Nansen!  If you readers ever spot Nansen memorabilia in your travels (including but not limited to the North Pole) please send them along to me and I’ll be happy to share.

And so, on the advice of no less a role model than Fridtjof Nansen, let us all go FORWARD into the New Year with confidence and hope.


Profiles in Courage: Tom Hudner


Thomas J. Hudner

Never heard of Thomas Hudner?  You’re about to learn a lot more about him and his exploits very soon (more on that later).

The story of Tom Hudner is really the story of two men: Thomas Hudner and Jesse Brown.

In many ways the two men followed similar career paths.

Tom was born in 1924; Jesse in 1926. Tom graduated from high school in 1943, where he was a standout athlete, captaining the track team while also playing football and lacrosse. Jesse, graduating in 1944, was also a three-sport athlete: track, basketball and football.  Tom served as a high school class officer and in the student council; Jesse was the salutatorian of his class. Tom attended college (the U.S. Naval Academy); Jesse studied at Ohio State.  Tom earned his wings as a naval aviator in 1949; Jesse in 1948.

That’s where the similarities end.

Tom was white; Jesse black.

Jesse’s father was a sharecropper. Tom’s father owned a series of grocery stores, and helped found a country club.

Jesse’s family of eight lived in a tin-roofed shack in Lux, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg.  The home, located near train tracks, lacked a phone, plumbing, electricity, and central heat. The family had no car. Tom’s family of seven lived in a three-story Victorian, complete with Irish maid, in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Tom’s family dressed for dinner; Jesse and his siblings wore shoes only for Sunday church services.  Tom attended the prestigious Phillips Academy prep school, as had his father and uncle before him; Jesse moved in with an aunt in Hattiesburg in order to attend a better, but still segregated, public high school.

Tom reluctantly applied for flight school after some urging from his friends; Jesse dreamed of being a pilot ever since his father brought him to an air show as a child.*

And yet, in 1949, Tom and Jesse ended up in the same Fighter Squadron, VF-32, based on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Leyte, flying F4U Corsairs.  And despite their very different backgrounds, Tom and Jesse, the first African American carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy, bonded, professionally and personally.

Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner

When Jesse and Tom reported to their squadron aboard the Leyte the world was technically at peace but the Cold War was becoming increasingly warm.  The Berlin Airlift had just recently ended; China was in the throes of a civil war; and Stalin and the USSR were becoming increasingly belligerent.  But it was in faraway Korea that things quickly heated up in June 1950.

Without warning, North Korean forces overran the unprepared and undermanned armed forces of South Korea.  Things looked bleak until a hastily assembled United Nations force, led by the United States, not only stopped the onslaught, but went on the offensive, driving North Korean forces north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. Then China entered the war, and a stalemate ensued.  Meanwhile, the Leyte’s training cruise in the Mediterranean was cut short and the carrier dispatched to the Korean peninsula for air support.

By December 1950, 30,000 US Marines (and some Army units) found themselves surrounded during the coldest winter in memory by approximately 130,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir.  All available UN planes were tasked with protecting the beleaguered Marines, a process hampered by the wintry weather and often poor visibility.

On December 4, Jesse, Tom, and eight others took off from the Leyte on their 20th combat mission.  Although Tom outranked Jesse, Jesse had more flight time, and so Tom served as his wingman. Their mission was to fly low behind enemy lines in the mountainous area north of the Chosin Reservoir, looking for targets of opportunity and scouting enemy strength.

The raid was uneventful until Jesse’s Corsair was hit by small arms fire, causing an oil leak.  As his plane’s engine began to seize up, Jesse, too low to bail out, spotted an open patch of snow-covered ground high atop a nearby mountain.  Without power, he crash-landed his plane there.  Tom, fully aware of Jesse’s predicament, witnessed the landing, and while circling over the crash site, saw that Jesse had survived the landing, but appeared unable to exit his plane.  With smoke beginning to rise from Jesse’s engine, Tom feared the worst for Jesse: burning to death in his plane; or freezing to death in the subzero weather; or dying at the hands of the Chinese.

Ignoring standing orders not to risk another plane when attempting to assist a downed pilot, Tom elected to crash land his own plane on the same plateau.  Despite incurring a back injury on landing that would take years to fully heal, Tom exited his plane and made his way through the snow to Jesse in the fading afternoon light.  Jesse was conscious, but his right leg was crushed between his instrument panel and the damaged fuselage, and even with Tom’s help he could not be pulled from the cockpit.  Tom radioed for helicopter help, requesting a fire extinguisher and an ax to help cut Jesse free.

Chinese troops were known to be in the area, and undoubtedly were aware of the crash; only the circling US fighters provided any deterrence. While waiting for the helicopter Tom had time to contemplate whether, if attacked, he would save his last two bullets for Jesse and himself rather than risk capture and torture at the hands of the enemy.**

It was late in the afternoon when the rescue helicopter finally arrived, and even the ax proved useless; Jesse could not be extricated, nor could his leg be amputated.  By now, in shock and exposed to freezing temperatures, Jesse was slipping in and out of consciousness.  But his last words were for his wife: “Tell Daisy how much I love her.”  Inasmuch as the helicopter was not equipped for night flying, Tom and the helicopter pilot were reluctantly forced by approaching nightfall to abandon their rescue efforts and leave Jesse behind.  It is believed he perished soon thereafter.

Jesse Leroy Brown was 24 years-old when he became the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War.  He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.  Having successfully overcome so many challenges in his young life, who knows what Jesse Brown could have accomplished had he survived.***

Jesse L. Brown

Tom returned to the Leyte grief-stricken and convinced he faced a court-martial for his actions.  Instead, he was nominated for a Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, for conduct above and beyond the call of duty. The captain of the Leyte later wrote: “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.” Jesse was given a warrior’s funeral when, three days later, napalm was dropped over his crash-site to prevent any desecration of his body by the Chinese.

On April 13, 1951, President Harry S. Truman presented Tom with the Medal of Honor, the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War.  Jesse’s widow, Daisy, had been invited by the White House to attend the award ceremony as well.  Amazingly, when she travelled to Washington, DC she was unable to find a hotel room, as DC hotels still refused to serve Black guests.  Despite losing a husband in the service of his country, despite a personal invitation from the President of the United States, despite the passage of 174 years since the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be equal, Black citizens of this country were treated—in our nation’s capital no less—as if they still lived in the antebellum South.

Daisy Brown, President Harry S. Truman, and Thomas Hudner (wearing the Medal of Honor)

Both Jesse and Tom would eventually have Navy ships named after them.   On March 18, 1972 a Knox-class frigate, the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown, was launched, the third US ship to be named after an African American.  Jesse’s widow Daisy was the sponsor, his daughter Pamela the maid of honor, and Tom gave the christening address.   On April 1, 2017 an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Thomas Hudner, was christened in Boston harbor; Jesse’s family attended the ceremony along with Tom.

In July 2013 Tom, one month shy of his 89th birthday, returned to North Korea in an attempt—ultimately unsuccessful—to locate and return Jesse’s remains.

Tom and Daisy remained close friends until her death in July 2014.

A feature length movie version of Tom and Jesse’s story, entitled “Devotion,” is set for general release on November 23, 2022.  It is based on a book of the same name, written by Adam Makos.  Makos’ writing could have been better, but the story is so powerful that the overall work still packs a punch.  I was in tears several times while reading final 75 pages.

Several years ago I attended a history conference, and as I waited in a long line to register at the hotel’s front desk, I realized that I was standing directly behind Thomas Hudner, one of the event’s featured speakers.  I introduced myself; we chatted for a bit, and he signed the book I had with me, about Medal of Honor recipients.  I’ve never forgotten his graciousness.

Tom Hudner’s signature and card

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. passed away on November 13, 2017, age 93.  Among the high points of my life, one that I will always cherish was the chance to shake Tom Hudner’s hand.


* Jesse also avidly read about the exploits of black pilots as a paperboy delivering the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers of its day.

** 38% of American POWs died in captivity during the Korean War.  This compares to 34% in Japanese POW camps during World War II, 14% in North Vietnamese camps, and 4% in German internment camps.

*** Just as Jesse chose to attend Ohio State because his childhood hero, Jesse Owens, had, his life and example inspired Seaman Apprentice Frank E. Petersen to become the first African American Marine Corps aviator, flying over 350 combat missions, and, in 1979, the first African American Marine Corps general. In 2010 Petersen was appointed to the Board of Visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy, Tom Hudner’s alma mater.

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