Heroism, Brotherhood and Sacrifice

Heroism, Brotherhood and Sacrifice
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Editor's Note: Below is a conversation between Mark Lee Greenblatt and author Adam Makos about his new book, "Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Brotherhood, and Sacrifice" 

Q: Devotion arose out of a spontaneous, chance meeting with Tom Hudner in the lobby of a hotel. You wrote that you had to muster the courage to talk him and that developed into this highly successful book. Is there a lesson there?

I do believe there’s a lesson there. A professor once gave me some good advice: to stop banging on doors, kicking on doors, trying to open doors—and instead look for the doors that are open to you and walk on through them.

To me, that chance meeting with Tom Hudner was an open door. What he had done in 1950 had never been attempted before and has never since, in fact, the captain of his aircraft carrier once said, “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.”

Yet there he was, Medal of Honor recipient Tom Hudner, alone, reading his newspaper in the hotel lobby.

Q: In doing my research for "Valor," I regularly found myself probing into the worst moments of my subjects’ lives—moments in which friends died literally in their arms or otherwise left them scarred (both physically and mentally). Several told me that, although we were reopening old wounds, they found it cathartic. To some, it was a vehicle to memorialize their fallen friends. I’m curious about your experience in researching for "Devotion." Was it difficult asking 70- or 80-year-old men and women about such old wounds, likely the worst moments of their lives?

My thoughts go immediately to the Marines we follow in "Devotion," they were fighting for their lives in the horrific, subzero environs of the Chosin Reservoir, surrounded, outnumbered 10 to 1, watching their buddies die left and right.

It left a mark. One of our heroes, Cpl. Red Parkinson, watched a buddy run from a Chinese human-wave attack and just as the young Marine leapt for the safety of Red’s fighting position, a bullet struck him in the back of his head and he fell into Red’s arms, dead at age 21.

These days, Red tears-up when he gets to telling that part, but he doesn’t stop talking—because to him, if he doesn’t finish the story then his buddy died for nothing. And every November 27 since that night, Red climbs a hill near his home in Upstate New York and sits in the freezing cold, all night, looking up at the stars and remembering.

Q: In the Introduction, you wrote that you wanted readers not just to read the story, but to experience it. That, in turn, required you to zoom in on the small things in order to “construct a narrative of rich detail.” For what it’s worth, I think you succeeded—Devotion has such a lush, enveloping texture that it felt like I was reading velvet. And that feeling results from capturing the small details. How did you construct such vivid descriptions? What advice would you give to other writers about how to capture such events so powerfully?

Every writer faces a choice—to tell a human story or to talk about people as numbers, like little game pieces moving across a Risk board. 

So I choose to drop the reader into the foxhole or cockpit with the men who were there, so we can ask ourselves—Could I have endured this? And in asking that question, we often walk away humbled by their courage and more appreciative of our everyday freedoms.

The Chinese have a torture called the “death of a thousand cuts,” and I joke with veterans that I’m going to put them through the “death of a thousand questions” to get the level of detail I need.

It often takes a special veteran to endure this; I just write the story, but they lived it. And if they’ll relieve it again so I can write it, all the credit belongs to them.

You infused multiple crosscurrents of varying significance into "Devotion"—there are momentous problems, like racism and classism, and lesser issues, like an initial distance between ground troops and Navy fliers. How did you choose what to include and how to do so?  

I crafted “Devotion” to be a patchwork of stories, layered to give the feeling of an era. But even after it was written, I still didn’t know how to label it—a war story? A story of brotherly love? An inspirational?

In the end, I decided, it’s an American story, set in that forgotten postwar, Leave it to Beaver era when evil arose from the ashes of World War II and the Greatest Generation was called back to fight an encore.

Q: It seems like Jesse Brown was an exceptional human being. He succeeded in life, despite growing up in serious poverty and suffering through horrible racism—beyond anything we can fathom in modern times. In the face of all of those obstacles, he maintained his poise. I can’t help but think that, as the modern world feels like it’s tearing itself apart, we could use Jesse’s even keel. The world would be a better place with Jesse Brown. What should we remember about Jesse and what advice would he give us?

Let’s talk about Jesse Brown, a young man who worked barefoot in the sharecropper’s fields, who grew up in a shack with holes in the roof where the rain would soak the cot he slept in with his younger brother. Let’s talk about a youngster who was spit on and reviled in his own land, who still believed he could become the Navy’s first black carrier pilot, a one-man Tuskegee Airmen, and he did it.

Where did he get that optimism, that poise?

I think for Jesse, it was a balance of dreaming large, he read all kinds of magazines that showed him a bigger world. And religion, his deep faith gave him hope. And reinforcement, he had two amazing parents who told him anything was possible if he worked hard and had an education—in other words: discipline.

How many young people these days are raised with those three factors? If everyone had them, would we see the problems we do?

Q: Recent violence has thrust race issues into the fore. What lessons can we as a community learn from Jesse and Tom’s friendship? What would Jesse or Daisy say about the rising tensions?

A unique trait of Jesse Brown was pointed out by Ebony Magazine in 1951: “The key to Jesse’s popularity was his assumption that no race problem existed and, as a result, none did.”

They’re talking about how, aboard an aircraft carrier crewed by 3,000 men, there hadn’t been one racial incident that Jesse Brown could cite for the reporter.

Now was there racism? There had to be. But Jesse had this sort of blind optimism that made people love him and gave racism no leg to stand upon.

Q: You appear to have developed a special relationship with Tom Hudner. How would you characterize him? Did he give you any pearls of wisdom about life that you can share with us?

Tom is a quiet gentleman, it’s sometimes hard to picture him as a fighter pilot or a warrior.

But as a boy, he received a pearl of wisdom from his father: “Always look for the good in people, but if a fellow proves he’s no good, don’t hesitate to give him what he deserves.”

I think our military today epitomizes that saying. They’re a force for justice and freedom, and on the other hand, they’re damn good at killing evil doers.

Q: "Devotion" doesn’t tell just one story of heroism. There is a second remarkable episode buried in the middle: the story of Lt. Robert Reem, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for diving on an enemy grenade to save his mates’ lives. It’s a shocking moment, particularly poignant because you tell it through the eyes of one of the men he saved. What do you think led Lt. Reem to sacrifice his life for his squad? What lessons can we learn from his sacrifice?

I know it’s been repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, but to us civilians, on the home front, it’s more than shocking; it’s counter-cultural.

Ours is the generation and era of “me, me, me,” where a million people a day are snapping photos of themselves to win praise on Facebook. So how do we relate to a 24-year-old Marine with a young wife back home, throwing himself on a grenade? We can’t even fathom it.

But maybe we can read about it and let it rattle our cages, maybe the idea will stick that some things are bigger than us.

Q: The Lt. Reem story actually leads me to a larger question: you mentioned in the introduction that your story morphed from a tale of two fighter pilots to a much broader narrative that included the Marines on the ground. Why did the scope expand so much? For instance, why did you focus on Battle of Chosin Reservoir and men like Red Parkinson, Bob Devans, and Ed Corderre? Taking a deep dive on their aspects of the story was an interesting choice, as you didn’t necessarily have to explore that angle to tell the core Jesse-Tom narrative. But it added a powerful element to the entire narrative. How did that unfold? What led you to make that choice?

When we see those Marines of the “Lost Legion,” shivering in a frozen creekbed and eating cold rations and fighting with fists and bayonets because their weapons are blocks of ice, it makes the role of the flyboys so much more powerful.

And when we reach that part in “Devotion” when one of our Navy pilots makes the ultimate sacrifice, we realize his death wasn’t just an occupational hazard—we see who he was fighting for and why it meant so much.

Q: You went with Tom to North Korea during your work on this book—one of the very few Americans to visit the Hermit Kingdom. What was your experience like? Were you ever concerned that the North Korean government was exploiting you and Tom? Has anything ever come of Tom’s plea for Jesse’s remains?

We went there with a simple mission: to help Tom keep his promise, to bring Jesse’s remains home.

Our hosts were colonels of the North Korean military and they couldn’t have treated us more professionally. I even saw tired, withered old North Korean generals in over-sized uniforms, come up and salute Tom Hudner as a brother in arms.

The trouble with our trip came from Mother Nature. Right when we were supposed to travel to the Chosin Reservoir to search for Jesse Brown, the monsoons hit, washing away the roads and bridges, stranding us far from our mission.

But we came home with an invitation from the North Koreans to come back a month later to search for the crash site of Jesse Brown. They had even let it slip—they have a witness to his crash site.

All they asked was that we return with an observer from the US government to oversee our search so that if we did find Jesse’s remains, they wouldn’t be accused of "salting" the grave site or any impropriety.

So, we reached out to the State Department and requested this observer. It was the last step, the only thing standing between us maybe seeing Jesse come home in a flag-draped coffin to Arlington. And we were shot down.

The Secretary of State sent us a letter that effectively said there will be no humanitarian mission of MIA recovery until the North Koreans abandon their nuclear aspirations. So the opportunity to bring home Jesse Brown—one of our 8,000 MIAs in North Korea—was tossed away, due to politics.

Q: Every author has to make hard choices about what to include and exclude in order to keep their books to a manageable length. Were there one or two angles that you struggled with, but ultimately decided to exclude?

I’d say the storyline of Red Parkinson and his Marine Company at the Chosin Reservoir was so good it could have been a book of its own.

Q: What, if anything, has surprised you about the response to this book?

I was surprised when some readers of my earlier WWII book, “A Higher Call,” told me they were going to “pass” on my new one because the Korean War is not their cup of tea.

Okay, they’re WWII buffs, I get it. But I think they’re missing something. To me, the Korean War is really the last chapter of World War II, fought by the same generation, using the same weapons, shooting the same bullets. We often forget that the Greatest Generation fought two wars.

Q: What impact or change would you like to see?  In other words, if you could snap your fingers and use the publication of "Devotion" to change any one thing in the world, what would you change?

When we walk past an old timer on the sidewalk and his ball cap reads “Korean Veteran” across the front, I’d like us to thank him with the same sincerity that we do the WWII guys.

And for that to happen, we have to try to understand what he went through. That’s why I wrote this book.

Q: You dedicated the book to the veterans of “the forgotten victory in Korea.” Why do you think it was “forgotten”? What steps can we take to memorialize it and properly honor those veterans and families?

We Americans like winning. We sometimes consider a tie to be a loss and the Korean War ended in stalemate, along the same borders where it had begun, so we don’t remember it so fondly. I think we need a Korean War movie if we’re to change things, a “Saving Private Ryan” of the Korean War.

Maybe “Devotion” will serve that purpose.

Q: Your specialty at the time you started this project was World War II, but the focus here was in the Korean War. So you had to conduct extensive research to learn about Korea. What are some of the significant differences between the two conflicts that you discerned in your work? What critical facts about the Korean War should every American know?

The Korean War was not a pretty war, but it was pretty damn vital at stopping the Communists from swallowing Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines.

Look at a satellite map of Asia at night and you’ll see all these places glimmering whereas North Korea is a big black hole. That says it all. In South Korea alone, fifty million people live in light, thanks to the U.N. Forces and plenty of brave young Americans.

Q: One of the biggest issues regarding the modern military is post-traumatic stress. Did any of the Korea veterans suffer from symptoms like that? How did they deal with it? Did they provide any insights about our contemporary discussion?

The Chosin Reservoir Marines in particular, suffered from PTSD. For a year after the war, Red Parkison couldn’t sleep in a bed or under sheets, for fear he’d be caught unprepared.

But I think the modern military has it even tougher. I saw it myself, I went to Iraq briefly as a journalist. One night I was following a Special Forces raid, then twenty-four hours later I was stepping off a plane at Dulles Airport. I wasn’t shooting or being shot at, I didn’t see anything terrible. But the culture-shock was really something when I stepped to the curb at the airport.

Back then, our fighting men came home aboard ships, the journey took weeks and they were alone with their buddies, decompressing in the ship’s hold or pacing the decks, talking through the wins and losses and putting the war behind them, nautical mile by nautical mile.

These days, our men and women are flown home to a quick reunion in a hangar and the next day they wake up in suburbia.

Q: On your website, you wrote: “[T]he Greatest Generation is fading fast, so I’m in a race to record their stories while I can, to write the best books to honor them, and to share their stories with you, my loyal readers and friends. So that’s my mission.” What are you doing these days in that regard? How can readers support you in accomplishing that mission?

Well, it sounds self-serving but I’d ask them to give “Devotion” a read and if they enjoy it, let me know, via my Facebook page or website.

The Korean War was a mystery to me before I wrote this book. All I knew was M.A.S.H. and the antics of Captain Hawkeye Pierce. As I wrote the book, I discovered that the fighting in Korea was just as savage as WWII and the battles just as harrowing. And the men who fought there deserve more than M.A.S.H. as a legacy. That’s my hope for Devotion—to give a face to the Korean War.

Q: What’s your next project?

With my next book, I’m going back to World War II, with a follow-up to my first book, “A Higher Call.” So expect a story of a brotherhood between enemies…

Q: You worked in this project for seven years, so there must have been some funny moments - ridiculous stories that your interviewees shared or some epic mishaps somewhere along the way. Anything along those lines that you can share with readers? 

I think the appearance of Elizabeth Taylor in “Devotion” was particularly humorous. She was on her honeymoon in Cannes, France, and her new husband was already cheating on her. She struck up a brief friendship with Tom Hudner and I don’t think he’s fully aware, even now, of how good his chances were of becoming her second husband.

Q: What are your best memories from this entire project? What moments do you look back on and a smile automatically breaks out across your face?

A Korean War veteran once wrote say he’d gone sixty years without a way to tell his family about what he saw and did in that war—and now he just hands them a copy of “Devotion.” Talk about a lump in the throat.

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