'Devotion' Depicts Heroism of Naval Aviators Over the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir

Jonathan Majors as Ens. Jesse L. Brown in the 2022 film "Devotion." (Sony Pictures/Paramount+)

The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is one of the Marine Corps' most definitive and storied fights. After pushing the communists out of South Korea and almost all the way to the Chinese border, the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (PVA) suddenly intervened, outnumbering elements of the 1st Marine Division and the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division by nearly 10 to one.

In deep snow and sub-zero Siberian winter temperatures, the United Nations forces fought for their lives against an enemy whose orders were to annihilate them. The Marines not only avoided destruction by the Chinese, they fought their way out of an encirclement to the port of Hungnam to be evacuated, all while inflicting 50% casualties on the enemy.

The story of the fight on the ground is so compelling that actions taking place elsewhere during that time are often overlooked. There were only two fleet carriers available to provide close air support to the UN troops being encircled at the reservoir, the USS Philippine Sea and the USS Leyte. Harsh, wintery conditions meant close air support was difficult, but naval aviators flew 100 miles from the ships' positions in the Sea of Japan to do what they could.

On Dec. 4, 1950, six Vought F4U-4 Corsair aircraft from the Leyte flew into North Korea. Among them was naval aviator Ens. Jesse L. Brown. Brown had joined the Naval Reserve to help pay for his college education at Ohio State University and became an aviator after seeing a flight recruiting poster. At only 22 years old, he became the first Black man to complete the Navy's flight training in 1948.

That same year, President Harry Truman officially desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces. Although Brown had experienced incidents of racism while in training, when he arrived for duty, he found his fellow naval aviators had no qualms about serving with a Black wingman. After arriving in Korea, Brown and wingman Thomas J. Hudner Jr. flew 20 combat missions over Korea before flying to aid the Marines at the "Frozen Chosin."

U.S. Marines watch as Navy F4U Corsairs drop napalm on trenches manned by Chinese troops during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. (U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marines had not yet broken out of the encirclement and were still in danger of being annihilated. Brown's flight began searching for targets once they arrived in the area. They didn't find any Chinese positions, but the Chinese found Ens. Brown. His aircraft had been hit by Chinese small arms fire from the ground and was leaking fuel.

Brown dropped his external fuel tanks and rockets before crashing into a snow-covered valley near Somong-ni, behind the Chinese lines. The plane was destroyed and Brown had survived the crash, but his leg was pinned underneath his wrecked instrument panel. As his fellow aviators radioed for help and scanned the area for incoming enemy troops, a fire started near the fuel tanks.

Hudner tried using the radio to help Brown free himself, but it was no use. Brown needed real help. Hudner then intentionally crash-landed his own plane to help his wingman, risking a court-martial, capture by the enemy and even his own death. Hudner made his way to Brown's crash site, tried to put the fire out using snow and began to help unpin Brown from the wrecked plane. A rescue helicopter finally arrived some minutes later, but Marine Corps pilot Charlie Ward was also unable to free Brown.

Forced to leave the area before nightfall, they had to leave Brown behind. Brown would succumb to his injuries and the cold in the night. Unable to retrieve him, the Navy gave Brown a "Warrior's Funeral" by bombing the area with napalm while reciting the Lord's Prayer on Dec. 7, 1950.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, USN, In the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter, circa 1950. (U.S. Navy)

Jesse L. Brown was the first Black Navy officer killed in the Korean War and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and Purple Heart. Hudner was not court-martialed for crashing his plane to save Brown. Instead, he received the Medal of Honor for his daring rescue attempt.

"Devotion" is still in theaters and will be available to stream on Paramount+, starting Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues