PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Two years after he made history by becoming the Navy's first black pilot, Ensign Jesse Brown lay trapped in his downed fighter plane in subfreezing North Korea, his leg broken and bleeding. His wingman crash-landed to try to save him, and even burned his hands trying to put out the flames.
A chopper hovered nearby. Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner could save himself, but not his friend. With the threat of enemy fire all around him and Brown losing consciousness, the white son of a New England grocery-store magnate made a promise to the black son of a sharecropper: "We'll come back for you."
More than 60 years have passed. Hudner, now 88, did not forget. He has come back.
Hudner, a retired Navy captain, arrived Saturday in Pyongyang with hopes of traveling this week to the region known as the Jangjin Reservoir, accompanied by soldiers from the Korean People's Army, to the spot where Brown died in December 1950.
The reservoir was the site of one of the Korean War's deadliest battles for Americans, who knew the place by its Japanese name, Chosin. The snowy mountain region was nicknamed the "Frozen Chosin," and survivors are known in U.S. history books as the "Chosin Few." The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir lasted for 17 brutal days. Some 6,000 Americans were killed in combat, and thousands more succumbed to the cold. Brown and many others who died there are among more than 7,910 Americans still missing in action from the war.
Though the fighting ended with an armistice signed 60 years ago July 27, North Korea and the United States remain technically at war. Efforts to recover remains have come in fits and starts.
Mission's hopes for peaceHudner's mission is to pick up where search teams have left off by locating the exact spot of Brown's crash. Armed with maps and coordinates, he and North Korean soldiers plan to excavate the remote area, a sealed site controlled by the North Korean military.
Approval for the unusual journey comes as North Korea prepares for festivities marking the upcoming anniversary of the armistice. Pyongyang is expected to use the milestone to draw international attention to the division of the Korean Peninsula as well as to build unity among North Koreans for new leader Kim Jong Un. Hudner said he hopes his visit will help to foster peace and reconciliation on the tense Korean Peninsula.
War broke out in June 1950, with the communist North Koreans marching into Seoul. They were countered by U.S.-led UN forces that charged north, taking Pyongyang and continuing up the peninsula.
By November, U.S. Marines had dug in around the Chosin reservoir and in Unsan County to the west. The plan was to push north as far as the Yalu River dividing Korea from China. What they didn't know was more than 100,000 Chinese ground troops had slipped across the Yalu to fight for the North Koreans. They boxed in 20,000 UN forces, mostly U.S. Marines.
Hudner and Brown were members of Fighter Squadron 32, dispatched to the region deep in North Korea's forbiddingly mountainous interior to support the trapped ground troops and carry out search-and-destroy missions.
Theirs was a close-knit squadron. But the two men, both in their 20s, came from completely different worlds.
Hudner, of Fall River, Mass., was a privileged New Englander who was educated at prep school and had been invited to attend Harvard. Brown, of Hattiesburg, Miss., broke the Navy's color barrier for pilots in 1948, months after President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. armed forces desegregated.
"People who didn't know him gave him a hard time just because he was black," Hudner said. But those who got to know him grew to respect the serious, unfailingly considerate young man who impressed his peers with his dedication to flying -- and his gentle sense of humor.
Fellow pilot's last momentsOn Dec. 4, 1950, Brown and Hudner were part of a six-plane formation over the Jangjin Reservoir. Ground fire struck Brown's plane, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. When Brown waved for help from his crumpled, smoking cockpit after slamming into the mountainside, Hudner acted quickly.
"I thought: 'My God, I've got to make a decision,' " he said. "I couldn't bear the thought of seeing his plane burst into flames." Hudner crash-landed his plane about 100 yards from the downed fighter. As flames engulfed Brown's plane, Hudner pulled his cap over Browns' ears, then radioed for help as Brown remained trapped in the cockpit.
A Marine helicopter arrived, but the pilot and Hudner could not extract Brown from the wreckage.
Before losing consciousness, his thoughts turned to his wife, whose name he whispered in his last command to Hudner: "If I don't make it, please tell Daisy I love her."