CONCORD, Mass. (AP) — Retired U.S. Navy pilot Thomas Hudner is 91 now, but he's never been able to shake the promise he made to a trusted Korean War wingman 65 years ago: "Don't worry, we'll be back for you."
Two years ago, his lifelong quest took him back to North Korea in hopes of recovering the remains of Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy's first black combat pilot. In 1950, after Brown was shot down, Hudner crash-landed his own Corsair on the frozen North Korean landscape in an unsuccessful effort to save his friend.
A new book out just in time for Veterans Day chronicles the two men's remarkable friendship and the heroism that won Hudner the Medal of Honor, America's highest military award.
Adam Makos' book "Devotion," released Oct. 27, chronicles their story: from their vastly different childhoods, to their time on the aircraft carrier USS Leyte, to their final frantic moments together when Hudner made his promise. It includes first-person accounts of the horrific conditions experienced by the Marines on the ground during the fighting around the Jangjin Reservoir — known to Americans as the Chosin Reservoir.
Theirs was an unlikely friendship. Hudner was an affluent white kid from Fall River, Massachusetts. Brown was the black son of a poor sharecropper from Lux, Mississippi, just a speck on the map near Hattiesburg.
The pilots' job was to provide air support to the ground troops, fighting in snow and sub-zero temperatures against tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers intent on their destruction.
Race is irrelevant in war, Hudner said from the neat living room of his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He doesn't look an ounce heavier than in his flying days, his ice-blue eyes still intense. He proudly wears the Medal of Honor around his neck.
Pilots flying in tight formation, so close they can see each other's facial expressions, and often skimming the treetops, need to have absolute trust in each other. Hudner, who retired from the Navy in the 1970s as a captain, had that trust in Brown.
"He was special, a leader," he said.
Everyone liked Brown, the pious, polite pilot who wrote to his wife, Daisy, every day — even white sailors who had grown up in the segregated South. To the black sailors, limited mostly to low-level jobs, Brown was a hero.
"The friendship with Jesse took me out of that bubble and taught me that not everyone grew up like me," Hudner said.
The book has been a seven-year project for Makos.
"It's an inspirational story," the Colorado-based author said. "Jesse Brown didn't get a fair shake from history."
Unable to pull the dying and trapped Brown out of his cockpit, Hudner was whisked away by helicopter, never to see him again. The Navy dropped napalm on the wreckage of the crashed Corsairs so they wouldn't fall into enemy hands.
Hudner had hoped to bring Brown's remains home in 2013 when he traveled to North Korea, but monsoon-like weather that washed out bridges and roads conspired to keep them away from the battlefield. Decades-long hostility between the U.S. and North Korea makes travel there uncommon, but Hudner's trip took place as the reclusive regime was marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.
Today, he doubts he'll ever return, but hopes that relations between North Korea and the U.S. thaw enough that American officials can return to the isolated communist nation to find Brown and the nearly 8,000 other American servicemen still missing.
Not a day goes when Hudner doesn't think of Brown. But Veterans Day is special.
"It's a time of reflection for me more than anything," he said. "Especially about those who never came back."