Author: Adam Makos
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2015; 411 pages of text, 16 pages of photos and maps
This narrative history by Adam Makos deals with a time between World War II and the first year of the Korean War. It is the story of two Navy pilots from different backgrounds.
Tom Hudner was from a well-to-do Massachusetts family, and Jesse Brown was a sharecropper’s son from Mississippi. Tom graduated from the Naval Academy and became a Navy pilot. Jesse always wanted to fly. He worked his way through his first two years at Ohio State University, but he left when he earned a place at the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School. He became the first black pilot in the Navy.
Tom and Jesse were squadron mates in fighter squadron VF 32 — The Fighting 32nd. Tom was senior to Jesse since he was commissioned in 1944, and he was a lieutenant. Jesse was commissioned in 1949 and was an ensign. But Jesse became a pilot before Tom did, so, when they flew together, Tom was always assigned as Jesse’s wingman.
Jesse married his sweetheart, Daisy, from back home in Mississippi. Tom and Jesse never really socialized together away from the squadron, but they got along very well as squadron mates.
VF 32 was assigned to USS Leyte (CV-32), an Essex Class aircraft carrier. She was a straight deck carrier since angled deck carrier was not introduced in the U.S. Navy until 1952. VF 32 flew World War II-era F4U Corsair fighter bombers. They were powerful propeller-driven airplanes that could carry a lot of ordinance. Each propeller blade was 13 feet, 4 inches long. Leyte was based out of Rhode Island.
At the very beginning of this book, Makos starts with Jesse being shot down over North Korea on Dec. 4, 1950, after the Chinese had entered the Korean War in force to stave off North Korea’s total defeat. All the action takes place around the Chosin Reservoir, where 9,700 Marines and remnants of an understrength Army Regimental Combat Team fought their way out of encirclement by 120,000 Chinese, destroying three Chinese Corps in the process.
Makos set the stage by following Leyte and her embarked squadrons and Marines during their Mediterranean cruise before South Korea was invaded. With the sailors and Marines on liberty, they ran into and made friends with the newly unhappily married 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. She visited with all of them and came on board Leyte for a tour.
Makos describes the personalities of several Marines who wind up in Korea with air cover provided by the Fighting 32nd. Soon after the north invaded the south Leyte’s Marines with Marines deployed all over the globe were marshaled into Marine Divisions and sent to Korea. Leyte soon wound up off the coast of North Korea flying combat missions up to the Yalu River separating North Korea and China. Their futile job was trying to destroy bridges between the two countries without violating Chinese air space.
When the Chinese entered the war in huge numbers in winter, the Marines and army troops were surprised and outnumbered. I have read quite a few books on the very heroic and epic fight of the Marines to reach the coast, but I had never appreciated the role played by Navy, Marine and Air Force units in supporting those Marines in destroying masses of Chinese. The Fighting 32nd flying off of Leyte and its sister squadrons did an amazing amount of damage to the Chinese.
But the heart of "Devotion" is the story of Tom Hudner landing near Jesse’s Corsair on a mountain plateau north of the Chosin Reservoir. Tom found Jesse badly injured and trapped in his plane with his leg pinned by a bent part of the fuselage. Other planes in their squadron circled overhead and joined by other squadrons to drive away the approaching Chinese troops. A helicopter with a single pilot and no crew landed. The pilot and Tom had an axe and tried in vain to get Jesse out as he gradually lost his life.
With darkness approaching and no sign of life from Jesse, the helicopter pilot took Jesse to a Marine staging area, from which he was able to return to his squadron. He expected to be court martialed only to find Leyte’s captain was recommending him for the Medal of Honor. It was presented by President Harry Truman with Daisy present on April 13, 1951.
I enjoyed the afterword in which Makos had brief reports on what became of about a dozen of the people who were part of the action. The book’s one flaw is that it does not have an index. Other than that, it is a very enjoyable and memorable read.