SEOUL, South 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 light fading, 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 is now 88. But he did not forget. He is coming back.
Hudner, now a retired Navy captain, heads to Pyongyang on Saturday with hopes of traveling in the coming week to the region known in North Korea 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 U.S. remain technically at war. Efforts to recover remains have come in fits and starts, with little recent progress.
Next week’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, they hope to work with North Korean soldiers to excavate the remote area, a sealed site controlled by the North Korean military.