Keeping Cold Weather In Perspective – Frozen Chosin

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The extremely cold weather on the US east coast (it was -27° F in the Metro DC area last night) and across the hemisphere has made life tough for millions. Cold . . . snow . . . beautiful but not too much fun.

However, our lives are simple and comfortable compared to the tribulations faced 65 years ago by the 30,000 UN troops surprised and surrounded by more than twice that number of Chinese Communist troops in the area of the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir in Korea.

Only five months after Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, the battle raged for two weeks (27 Nov – 13 Dec 1950) before the UN forces broke free and escaped. The mountainous terrain was frozen solid, and a cold front sweeping down from Siberia dropped temperatures as low as -37° F. Frostbite, frozen weapons, morphine, and blood plasma were common. Jeep and radio batteries froze and could not be recharged.

As a person who’s thoroughly researched the 1 August 1943 USAAF attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, where five Medals of Honor were earned in less than five minutes of combat, I was deeply shocked to learn that FOURTEEN US Marines, TWO US Army soldiers, and one US Naval aviator earned the Medal of Honor during those two weeks.

ENS Jesse Brown & LTJG Thomas (Lou) Hudner

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ENS Jesse L. Brown was an Ohio State University graduate who became the US Navy’s first black aviator when he pinned on his Naval Aviator (pilot) wings on 21 October 1948. He was soon assigned to VF-32 (Swordsmen) flying the F4U-4 Corsair and quickly earned a reputation as a capable pilot and section leader.

LT Thomas J. Hudner, Jr, attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis with Jimmy Carter, James B. Stockwell, and Stansfield Turner (a future US president and two admirals), graduating in 1946. Initially serving in surface ships and shore duty, he eventually received his Naval Aviator (pilot) wings in August 1949, about a year after ENS Brown. He too was quickly assigned to VF-32.

Thus, although lower in grade (rank) than Hudner, Brown was actually the senior aviator and section lead on 4 December 1950, about halfway through the agony of the Chosin Reservoir battle, when VF-32 was tasked to support a group of US Marines trapped by Chinese forces. Most accounts claim Hudner was lead and Brown the wingman, but in fact it was the other way around: the more experienced Brown was leading.

(I have several beautiful color photos of VF-32 Corsairs from this cruise but do not have permission to publish them [so don’t ask]. I was able to use them for reference when we did the artwork for my 1/32 & 1/48 Brown and Hudner Medal of Honor mission decal set. Sure wish I could show them to you, but the decal set and artwork exactly match what they looked like.)

PYND32002The six Swordsmen Corsairs descended to 700′ in the mountainous terrain to search for Communist Chinese forces on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir near the villages of Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. Although they spotted no enemy troops, at 1440 (2:40 PM) one of the other pilots notices Browns F4U was trailing fuel, probably from unseen Chinese small arms fire.

With fuel pressure dropping fast and the ship becoming uncontrollable, Brown was forced to attempt a crash landing on the steep side of one of the mountains. Jettisoning his external fuel tank and rockets he hit hard in a small depression, the aircraft breaking up violently on impact. Although trapped in the cockpit section, Brown survived and waved to the other Swordsmen circling the crash site. Unfortunately those pilots did not see him waving and assumed he’d been killed in the brutal crash.

PYND3200215 miles inside enemy lines, the wreckage burning, and the below 15° F, any chance of Brown surviving was dependent on quick extraction by helicopter. Communist Chinese troops were surely nearby, and the remaining VF-32 pilots redoubled their efforts to find and repel any that might approach Brown.

Hudner could see Brown moving in the remnants of the smashed cockpit and continued his attempts to contact Brown by radio, but with the crash damage and Brown’s condition worsening by the minute, no contact was possible.

At that point LT Hudner made his momentous decision. His friend and shipmate was hurt, on the ground in enemy territory, and obviously trapped in the wreckage. He took action.

Unlike Brown, Hudner’s Corsair was under complete control when he deliberately crash landed near Brown’s wreckage. He jumped out of his cockpit and ran to try to free Brown’s trapped lower body. With no tools he was forced to use his bare hands and small pieces of debris to lever Brown’s trapped legs free. The fuel fire was still burning so he threw snow on it in a vain attempt to protect Brown from that danger.

Brown was in great pain and slipping in and out of consciousness, but did not complain. About 20 minutes after the crash a tiny rescue helicopter arrived. The helo pilot, LT Charles Ward, tried to extinguish the engine fire with his small fire extinguisher, but that effort too was in vain.

Hudner and Ward then spent 45 minutes using the helo’s small emergency axe to try to chop Brown free from his smashed cockpit. At one point Brown asked them to amputate his trapped leg, but the wound would certainly have been fatal as the one-man helicopter crew had no way to administer to him in flight.

Brown soon lost consciousness for the final time, just after telling Hudner "Tell Daisy (his wife) I love her." Ward was forced to leave just before nightfall, taking Hudner with him, as his bird was not cleared for night operations.

Jesse Brown remained behind, still trapped in his cockpit. He was very seriously injured and unprotected from the deep, freezing cold. Although he was almost certainly dead when Ward and Hudner were forced to depart, Hudner told audiences in later years that in his heart he was not certain Brown had actually expired before they left. That bothered him greatly.

Upon return to the carrier (USS Leyte, CV-32), Hudner begged his superiors for permission to go back to rescue Brown. They refused, saying the chances of the helicopter getting ambushed were too great.

Two days later the crash site was firebombed with napalm to prevent Brown’s body and the aircraft from falling into Communist hands. Brown was a devoted Baptist, and one of the Naval pilots flying overhead read the Lord’s Prayer over the radio as the crash site was incinerated.

Before they dropped their napalm the Navy pilots overhead saw the crash site had been disturbed and Brown’s body stripped, although still trapped in the wreckage. Neither his remains nor the aircraft have been recovered to this day.

ENS Jesse L. Brown was the first black US Navy officer killed in the Korean War. During his short career he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart, among others.

LT Thomas J. Hudner, Jr, injured his back during his own crash landing to save Brown. He was grounded for a month and suffered back problems for years. On 13 April 1951 he was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman, with Brown’s widow, Daisy Brown, in attendance. His was the first Medal of Honor presented during the Korean War in spite of the fact that several others were earned in actions prior to 4 December 1951, the date of Brown’s crash.

Hudner was criticized by some for his spur of the moment decision to sacrifice his own aircraft and possibly the rescue helicopter and pilot, leading to an official Navy prohibition on similar actions in the future. Hudner retired as a Captain (O-6) in February 1973.

A few days before Hudner’s retirement, the Knox Class frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089) was commissioned in Boston. Brown’s widow and daughter were present, along with CAPT Hudner.

(So keep a little perspective the next time you’re bitching about the cold and snow as you walk back into your warm, safe home. Brave men have fought and died in much worse.)

Lou Hudner’s Medal of Honor citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane struck by antiaircraft fire and trailing smoke, was forced down behind enemy lines. Quickly maneuvering to circle the downed pilot and protect him from enemy troops infesting the area, Lt. (J.G.) Hudner risked his life to save the injured flier who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, he put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free. Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames. Lt. (J.G.) Hudner’s exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

I published the pics below earlier, but am including them here because they beautifully illustrate LT Hudner’s Corsair:

Our fellow modeler (and an outstanding one, as see below) Dr. Rob Benson built the scale model of LTJG Hudner’s F4U that CAPT Hudner keeps on his desk. Although at the moment he can’t find the pics of the actual presentation of the model to CAPT Hudner, his pics of the model itself are below:

Hudner F4U 1

Hudner F4U 1

Hudner F4U 1

Hudner F4U 1

Hudner F4U 1

Now, speaking of my Cutting Edge 1/32 & 1/48 decal sets for Brown’s and Hudner’s F4Us on this mission, I have a few of each left:

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F4U-4 Medal of Honor & First Black Naval Aviator. VF-32, ENS Jesse L. Brown; F4U-4, VF-32, LTJG Thomas J. Hudner; LT Hudner won the Medal of Honor trying to rescue his wingman, ENS Jessie Brown. Hudner crash-landed his Corsair behind enemy lines next to Brown’s crashed aircraft and attempted to free ENS Brown from the wreckage; F4U-4B, F-96995, ‘Football War,’ Honduras, 1969

$19.97
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F4U-4 Famous Planes. MEDAL OF HONOR Corsair! F4U-4, VF-32, ENS Jesse L. Brown; F4U-4, VF-32, LTJG Thomas J. Hudner; LT Hudner won the Medal of Honor trying to rescue his wingman, ENS Jessie Brown. Hudner crash-landed his Corsair behind enemy lines next to Brown’s crashed aircraft and attempted to free ENS Brown from the wreckage; F4U-4B, VMA-332, USS Bairoko (CVE-115), Yellow Sea (off Korea), July 1953; F4U-4, VA-14 ‘Tophatters,’ LCDR Lou Burke (commander VA-14), September, 1949

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