CONCORD — Thomas Hudner III opened the small case that holds his father’s Medal of Honor from the Korean War, turning over the nation’s highest military tribute for valor. Softly, he read part of the inscription: “Above and beyond the call of duty.”
He also held a flight jacket that his late father, Navy aviator Thomas Hudner Jr., had worn during his 30-year career. And he opened a logbook to show the block-letter entry for Dec. 4, 1950: “Crash-landed beside Ensign Brown to aid his escape ... west of Chosin Reservoir in enemy territory. Unsuccessful.”
Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first Black fighter pilot, died on a snow-covered mountain where he had crash-landed his F4U Corsair after ground fire struck the plane. More than 70 years later, the bonds of brotherhood and service that linked Brown and Hudner — in an American military that had only recently been integrated — are memorialized in the new film “Devotion.”
It’s a tale that for years had circulated primarily in military circles, as well as the Hudner household here and among the Brown family in Hattiesburg, Miss., and beyond.
Thomas Hudner III, who grew up with the story, said he is still processing its unlikely journey — about two humble men, from starkly different backgrounds, fighting in a largely forgotten war — from the kitchen table to the movie screen. The film opened nationwide Nov. 23.
“Dad always deflected attention from himself and onto others. His take was that he was just doing his job, and that if he hadn’t done it, someone else would have,” Hudner said at his home.
“He was absolutely my hero, and Jesse was also a hero for me,” Hudner, 50, added. “One of the most important things about this movie is that it’s going to make so many people aware of Jesse Brown’s story.”
Brown was a sharecropper’s son who overcame daunting obstacles, both in and outside the Navy, to become its first Black fighter pilot. Hudner, a Fall River native whose father and grandfather attended Harvard, seemed destined to follow that path until he accepted an appointment to the Naval Academy during World War II.
Hudner died in 2017 at age 93, a few months after witnessing in Bath, Maine, the christening of a guided-missile destroyer named in his honor. His wife, Georgea, is 90.
“He probably shouldn’t have survived” the daring rescue effort, his son said. “There were Chinese soldiers throughout the area, but that was a secondary concern for him.”
Hudner, who could not free his dying wingman from the wreckage, was evacuated from the mountain by helicopter. Brown’s remains have never been discovered, although Hudner and author Adam Makos, who wrote the best-selling book “Devotion,” traveled to North Korea in 2013 in an effort to persuade the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and its military to take up the search.
An attempt to reach the site during the visit was scrubbed because of terrible weather, Makos said.
“We left them with coordinates to the crash site, and all the eyewitness details we could, to steer them to that spot on the mountains,” said Makos, who lives in Naples, Fla. “It showed me how special Jesse Brown must have been that Tom Hudner would travel around the world at that age to keep a promise.”
Makos, who lived for weeks at the Colonial Inn in Concord while researching the book, has a cameo role in the film, as does Hudner III.
“They could have made this a fictional tale,” Makos said of the filmmakers. “They could have changed their names and taken whatever liberties they wanted, but they didn’t.”
Instead, Makos said, the movie honors his motivation for writing the book: “to give a face to the Korean War, because there is not a better face than the faces of these two men. Between the two of them, they represent the American story.”
Hudner’s son said he, too, was impressed by the movie’s attention to detail, including actor Glen Powell’s meticulous research into his father’s character and personality. Powell drove from New York City to meet the aviator in Concord on Memorial Day 2017, gleaning a sense of the man and the challenges faced by Navy fighter pilots in the Korean War.
“To Glen’s credit, he wanted to meet Dad in person, get to know him, and get his blessing. It means a lot to me personally,” Hudner said.
Brown’s granddaughter, Jessica Knight Henry, echoed that view. The story had been well told and respected, she said.
“It’s very surreal to see it on the big screen with all the bells and whistles,” said Henry, who is named after her grandfather and serves as deputy executive director of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“His story was always very familiar and a constant topic of conversation,” said Henry, whose daughter, Daisy, is named for Jesse’s wife. “He achieved his dream when some people didn’t think he should have the opportunity.”
In the movie, the coast of Georgia stands in for Narragansett Bay and Quonset Point, R.I., where Hudner and Brown were stationed before embarking for combat half a world away. The mountains of Washington State are fill-ins for the peaks of North Korea.
Throughout, Navy life aboard an aircraft carrier at war is scrupulously rendered. The bond shown there between Hudner and Brown survived the war in the close relationship that their families enjoy to this day.
“I would see Tom Hudner a lot as a child,” said Henry, who lives in Washington, D.C. “One of my proudest moments was him getting to meet my daughter, who is named Daisy, at the ship’s christening before he passed.”
Although Henry never met her grandfather, his legacy remains powerful and personal to her.
“It’s to inspire people to achieve their dreams even when they are seemingly impossible,” she said. “What he thought we could achieve and become has been ingrained in me.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.