GHOSTS AND SHADOWS
December 4, 1950
North Korea, during the first year of the Korean War
In a flash, a Corsair fighter plane burst around the edge of a snow-covered valley, turning sharply. The plane’s engine snarled. A bomb hung from its belly, and rockets dangled from its wings.
Another roar shook the valley. A second Corsair blasted around the edge. Then came a third, a fourth, a fifth, and more until ten planes had fallen in line.
The Corsairs dropped low over a snow-packed road. They glided between ice-capped hills and dead trees. It was official: they were now flying far behind enemy lines.
From the cockpit of the fourth Corsair, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Tom Hudner reached to the switches above the plane’s instrument panel. With a flick, he armed his eight rockets.
Tom was twenty-six and a navy carrier pilot. His white helmet and raised goggles framed the face of a movie star--ice-blue eyes, a chiseled nose, and a cleft chin. He dressed the part, too, in a dark brown leather jacket with a reddish fur collar. But Tom could never cut it as a star of the silver screen--his eyes were too humble.
At 250 miles per hour, Tom chased the plane ahead of him. It was nearly 3 p.m. Dark clouds draped the sky. Tom glanced from side to side and checked his wing tips as the treetops whipped by. Beyond the hills lay a frozen lake called the Chosin Reservoir. The flight was following the road up the reservoir’s western side.
The radio crackled in Tom’s earphones. The flight leader was calling the base. His report? “All quiet, so far.”
“Copy that,” replied a tired voice. Seven miles away, at the foot of the reservoir, a Marine air controller was shivering in his tent at the American base. His maps revealed a dire situation. The enemy had the Marines surrounded. To top it off, it was one of the coldest winters on record.
The engine droned. Tom edged forward in his seat, his eyes settling on the Corsair in front of him.
In the plane ahead, a pilot peered through the rings of his gunsight. The man’s face was slender beneath his helmet, his eyebrows angled over honest dark eyes. Just twenty-four, Ensign Jesse Brown was the first African American carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy. The military had only recently desegregated, and the treatment of military men of color was still often exclusionary, sometimes even downright hostile. Somehow, Jesse had been able to overcome that.
Jesse had more flight time than Tom, so in this squadron, that meant he took the lead. Jesse dipped his right wing for a better view of the neighboring trees. Tom’s gut tensed.
“See something, Jesse?” Tom radioed.
Jesse snapped his plane level again. “Not a thing.”
The enemy was undoubtedly there, tucked behind trees, grasping rifles, holding their fire so the planes would pass. The enemy weren’t just anyone; they were the White Jackets, troops from the People’s Volunteer Army--Chinese Communist soldiers. By now their methods were well known. They hid by day and attacked by night. The week before, they had first attacked the American base. Nearly a hundred thousand White Jackets were now laying siege to it, with more arriving.
The base’s ten thousand men had fought back--some U.S. Army soldiers, some British Royal Marine Commandos, but mostly U.S. Marines. Their survival in the war now hinged on airpower--the Corsair pilots knew it. Every White Jacket they could attack from the sky now would be one fewer trying to shoot an American Marine that night.
But the pilots couldn’t just bomb a grove of trees on a hunch. They needed to spot the enemy first. “Heads up, disturbances ahead!” the flight leader radioed.
Finally, something, Tom thought.
Small boulders dotted the snow beside the road.
“Watch the rocks!” Jesse said as he zipped over them.
“Roger,” Tom replied. He wrapped his index finger over the trigger of the control stick. Then he squinted down at the boulders to see if anyone was there. It was well known that the White Jackets would sometimes drop to the ground when American planes flew overhead. That way, they would blend into their surroundings; their stained uniforms looked like gray stone, and the side flaps of their caps hid their faces.
The rock pile passed behind Tom’s wings. He glanced into his rearview mirror. Behind his tail flew a string of six more Corsairs. Now, if any of the White Jackets took a shot at them, Tom’s buddies would deal with it.
Tom trusted the men behind him, just as Jesse entrusted his life to Tom.
After two months of flying combat together, the two of them were as close as brothers, although they hailed from different worlds. A sharecropper’s son, Jesse had grown up dirt-poor, toiling in the fields of Mississippi, whereas Tom had spent his summers boating at a country club in Massachusetts as an heir to a chain of grocery stores. In 1950 their friendship was genuine, but ahead of the times.
Tom caught the green blur of a vehicle beneath his left wing. Then another on the right.
He leaned from side to side for a better view.
Abandoned American trucks and jeeps lined the road. Cannons jutted here and there, their barrels frosty with ice. Splashes of pink colored the snow below. It was a terrible sight. The day before, the Marines had been attacked right here. In subzero conditions, their spilled blood turned pink.
“Bodies, nine o’clock!” the flight leader announced as he flew past a hill on the left. “God, they’re everywhere!”
Sun warmed the hillside, revealing bodies stacked like sandbags across the slope. Mounds of dead men poked from the snow, their frozen blue arms reaching defiantly. Tom’s eyes tracked the carnage as he flew past.
Are they ours or theirs? he wondered.
Just the day before, he had flown over and seen young Marines down there, waving up at him. He had heard rumors of the horrors they faced after nightfall. Nighttime was when the enemy charged in seemingly endless human waves. It was also when the temperature dropped to twenty below--meaning the boys’ weapons froze and they were reduced to fighting with bayonets and fists. It was something the pilots, who slept safely each night on a carrier, didn’t have to deal with at all.
Aboard their aircraft carrier, Tom and the other pilots had become accustomed to starting each morning with the same question: “Did our boys survive the night?”
As the flight raced ahead, the pilots scanned for signs of life. Four Corsairs had changed direction to search for the enemy elsewhere.
The remaining planes followed the same road farther into hostile territory. The clouds ahead were growing stormier. Trees swayed ominously in the wind.
“Possible footprints!” Jesse announced. Tom glanced eagerly forward.
“Nope, just shadows,” Jesse muttered as he flew overhead.
Tom could tell that Jesse was frustrated, too. They both should have been far from this winter wasteland. Tom should have been sipping a scotch in a warm country club back home and Jesse should have been holding his baby daughter on his lap under a Mississippi sun. Instead, they’d both come here as volunteers.
It wasn’t the risk that bothered them--they were frustrated because they wanted to do something, anything, to defend the Marines at the base. The night before, Jesse had written a letter to his wife, Daisy, saying: “Knowing that he’s helping those poor guys on the ground, I think every pilot on here would fly until he dropped in his tracks.”
From a field below, a voice barked a command. Just then, a dozen rifles and submachine guns rose up. Arms aimed skyward--arms wrapped in white quilted uniforms.
The White Jackets. They had heard the planes coming and taken cover.
The shadow of the first Corsair passed overhead. The second shadow zipped safely past, too. Jesse’s Corsair was next.
But just then, the White Jackets’ rifles and submachine guns fired a volley, sending bullets rocketing upward.
Tom’s plane flew over the enemy next, then two more Corsairs in quick succession at 250 miles per hour.
Over the roar of their 2,250-horsepower engines, none of the pilots heard the gunshots.
The flight leader ordered the men to re-form over the surrounding mountains.
Tom and Jesse tucked in behind the leader and his wingman. The trailing two Corsairs wedged in behind them. From the rear of the formation, a pilot named Koenig radioed with alarm. “Jesse, something’s wrong--looks like you’re bleeding fuel!”
Jesse spun in his seat, trying to see behind his tail. He looked toward Tom across the space between their planes.
Tom saw a white vapor trail slipping from Jesse’s belly. “You’ve got a streamer, all right,” Tom said.
Jesse nodded. He glanced at his plane’s fuel selector switch. The handle was locked properly, so that wasn’t the problem. Next, he studied the instrument panel. The needle in the oil pressure gauge was dropping.
Jesse glanced at Tom with a furrowed brow. “I’ve got an oil leak,” he announced.
Tom’s face sank. The hole in Jesse’s oil tank was a mortal wound. With every passing second, the oil was draining.
“Losing power,” Jesse said flatly.
“Can you make it south?” Tom asked.
“Nope, my engine’s seizing up,” Jesse said. “I’m going down.”
Jesse’s propeller sputtered and his plane pitched forward into a rapid descent. Instinctively, Tom held formation and followed him down, frantically scanning the terrain for a suitable crash site. All he saw were snowy mountains and valleys studded with dead trees. This can’t be happening, Tom thought. Jesse would never survive a crash in this terrain and if he did, the cold would kill him.
Tom’s face twisted. Jesse was going down seventeen miles behind enemy lines. If he survived the crash, the enemy would surely double-time it to capture him--and if they didn’t shoot him on sight, they’d surely torture the captured pilot.
Tom needed to do something to help his friend, and fast.
THE LESSON OF A LIFETIME
Twelve years earlier, spring 1938
Fall River, Massachusetts
The cafeteria of Morton Junior High buzzed with chattering voices. Some students stood in lunch lines, while others sat and ate from tin lunch pails.
Thirteen-year-old Tom Hudner set his tray on a table and sat next to his friends. They were all eighth-grade boys, just like him. He wore a white polo shirt and khakis. His chin was strong, and his eyes were blue and honest. Tom and the other boys still sat away from the girls. Morton Junior High was a place of rules and playground codes, and to sit with girls would invite ridicule. Tom was a rule follower by nature.
Tom bought lunch every day for thirty-five cents, a perk of having wealthy parents. He chewed silently and listened far more than he spoke. During a lull in the conversation, his gaze shifted. Outside the cafeteria’s windows, the school’s bullies were gathering in a corner of the courtyard where kids played after lunch.
They were sons of Portuguese fishermen, immigrants who had settled in Fall River. Tom stood up to get a better view. The boys were tossing around a pair of eyeglasses, each one trying them on and laughing. At the center of the circle, Tom could see another kid haplessly lunging to snatch his glasses back. The kid was overweight and wore his hair slicked to one side. Tom recognized him as Jack. Other students often ridiculed Jack for being quick to cry, but Tom was friends with him, and most everyone else for that matter.
Tom alerted the boys around him: “Someone should tell the teacher.” He looked around, but the teacher was nowhere to be seen. Outside, Jack was turning red and about to cry. The boys around Tom scowled, not because of their affection for Jack.
“Portugee rats!” one said.
“Dirty boat hoppers,” whispered another with a cruel hiss. “They should go back to where they came from.” The schoolchildren even had a name for the industrial borough near the waterfront that the immigrants called home: “Portugee-ville.”
The Portuguese kids were working-class and darker-skinned. For those reasons alone, Fall River’s mostly white, privileged families looked at them with distrust. To Tom, the judgments seemed prejudiced. Still, in this moment he felt he should stand up against the Portuguese kids for bullying Jack. “We should do something,” he blurted.
One of Tom’s friends shrugged and looked away. “I’m not getting mixed up in this,” he muttered.
“Yeah, I barely know Jack, anyhow,” said another.
One by one, Tom’s friends sat down. Only Tom remained standing. Outside, he saw that Jack was now blubbering like a baby.
“Come on, guys,” Tom pleaded.
“He’s your friend, not ours,” a boy said.
“If you feel so bad for him, you should do something about it!” another added.
“Okay, fine,” Tom said. He sighed and walked toward the door.
Tom stepped out into the pale afternoon sunlight and approached the bullies. “Hey, fellas,” he said. The Portuguese kids stopped laughing at Jack and turned, some grinning, some glaring. Tom’s stride slowed. His mind raced.
“You say something?” called one of them.
Tom stopped and tried to smile. “I don’t think Jack’s enjoying this very much,” he said. It was the only thing that came to mind.
One of the bullies emerged from the group and sauntered closer. The teen was short and stocky, with a rough-and-tumble way about him. Tom recognized him as Manny Cabral, the group’s leader. Unlike Tom’s polished, expensive clothes, Manny’s brown slacks were patched from wear, and his dark T-shirt had a stretched-out neck. He walked over and stood with his nose nearly touching Tom’s.
“I think you should stay out of our business,” Manny said.
“C’mon, he’s crying,” Tom said quietly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jack running away, fumbling with his glasses.
“We were only having fun,” Manny said, gesturing to his buddies. When he looked back at Tom, his voice lowered. “So what are you going to do about it?”
Tom’s heart pounded. He had never been in a fight but felt Manny was suggesting it. He wanted to tell Manny to let it go, but Manny spoke first.
“We’ll settle the matter later,” he said casually. His eyebrow lifted, seemingly with a change of heart. “After school, outside.”
“You gonna show?” Manny asked.
Tom’s eyes darted from Manny to his gang to the circle of students that had gathered to watch the spectacle.
Just say no, Tom thought. But he knew that wasn’t an option. If he said no, the boys would never leave him alone.
“Okay, I’ll be there,” he said.
Manny smiled and walked away. His buddies followed, all laughing and talking loudly. Tom plodded back toward the cafeteria. The boys at his table congratulated him for acting tough. Tom looked down at his cold food and shook his head. “I’ve got to fight Manny after school.” Just saying the words made him light-headed. Tom’s friends assured him he didn’t need to worry; they would back him up.
Copyright © 2022 by Adam Makos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.