By Sean Walsh
Last week I was able to watch the new movie Devotion along with three other NHF members. The movie centers around the real-life friendship between Ens. Jesse L. Brown, the first African American naval aviator* and Lt. (JG) Thomas Hudner and is based on the book of the same name by Adam Makos, previously reviewed here. I suspect many of you have seen trailers for Devotion on television and are familiar with the basic story. Prior to seeing the film I also re-read portions of Such Men As These by David Sears, about naval carrier aviation during the Korean War and watched the classic film The Bridges at Toko-ri to get additional background.
The movie starts in late 1949 with the first meeting between Brown and Hudner upon Hudner reporting into VF-32 at Naval Air Station Quonset Point and being assigned to fly as Jesse’s wingman due to his relative lack of flying experience despite being senior in rank. One of the surprises to me was despite the times, Jesse’s skill as a pilot was recognized by his seniors and peers although the discrimination he had suffered in the training pipeline is alluded to. Jesse’s wife, Daisy and their young daughter are also introduced here.
Another pleasant surprise is that the squadron is shown flying the Grumman F8F Bearcat which is historically accurate. After a short period, the squadron transitions to the F4U Corsair, conducting carrier qualifications on the USS Leyte, an Essex class carrier. Although not discussed in the movie, the reason was due that VF-32 was assigned a primary role of ground attack (their sister fighter squadron in the carrier air group, VF-31, were flying F9F Panthers, a jet aircraft and had the primary fighter role). The challenge of landing the Corsair on a carrier is discussed and depicted. This was before the advent of the angled deck.
Again as a surprise, the movie timeline then moves to a Mediterranean deployment by the Leyte including a port visit to the French Rivera and the glamour there including meeting a young Elizabeth Taylor which actually happened. A group of young enlisted Marines are also introduced who VF-32 later fly in support of in Korea. During this deployment the Korean War breaks out and the Leyte is re-deployed to the Western Pacific.
At this point the action takes off with exciting flying sequences including AD Skyraiders in addition to the Corsairs conducting strikes. This culminates with VF-32 flying in support of the First Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir, Jesse being hit by ground fire, crash landing and Tom Hudner also crash landing in a futile effort to extract Jesse from his plane before having to leave him. The final sequence shows Hudner receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman with Daisy in attendance. A closing postscript notes that they remained in touch for the rest of their lives.
Comparing the movie to the book, some of the timeline is condensed which is understandable. One event that was contrived was disrespect shown by the young Marines in the Mediterranean and Jesse. The Marines were there but were on a different ship and did not interact with VF-32. What is true was the Jesse’s squadron mates supported him when he was discriminated against. Also not shown in the movie are the Panthers of VF-31 but this is probably due to production limitations.
When we left the movie, we compared notes and agreed that the movie was well done both as a story and technically. I would recommend reading the book as well which has much more detail including about Jesse and Tom’s early lives, and the Marines on the ground. This was based on extensive research and interviews with surviving participants and family members.
As a final note, it would be easy to dismiss the relationship between the two protagonists as idealized but the detail in the book shows that the friendship as well as the respect shown him by his fellow crew members was genuine. The book details that after his death, the crew of the Leyte took up a collection to fund a scholarship for his daughter and that Tom Hudner contributed an honorarium that he received from his home town to Daisy so that she could complete her education.
…* Actually Oscar Holmes would hold the distinction of being the Navy’s first African American pilot, sworn in as an ensign on September 28. 1942. Designated a naval aviator on June 30, 1943, Holmes fair skin tone allowed him to break the racial barrier. “They didn’t ask me and I didn’t tell them,” he would later state. Eventually the race of his parents was noted on his birth certificate but the Navy remained low key as his duties involved ferrying aircraft around the south. He would go on to become the first black air controller for the Civil Aeronautics Administration.