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Adam Makos’ last book—A Higher Call (Berkley), a gripping account of one German fighter pilot’s incredible decision not to shoot down a badly damaged American B-17 bomber during World War II—spent nearly six months on the New York Times best-seller list in 2012 and 2013. His newest release, Devotion (Ballantine Books)—which hit stores October 27—tells the story of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black fighter pilot, who was shot down in enemy territory during the Korean War, and his wingman, Medal of Honor recipient Tom Hudner. Hudner intentionally crashed landed beside Brown in an attempt to rescue him.
But Makos says he doesn’t write war stories.
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“I really write love stories,” the Broomfield resident says. “Devotion is the story of Jesse and Daisy [his wife], and it’s also the story of brotherly love between men.” Indeed, after the dramatic opening chapter, Makos devotes much of the book to rendering—in tender detail—the lives of Brown, a Mississippi sharecropper’s son who endured prejudice and racism with quiet dignity on his path to becoming a Naval officer, and Hudner, a New England country club kid who eschewed a comfortable life as head of his family’s grocery store chain to pursue his military dreams. From their first flights together near Rhode Island, to beach-side adventures with Elizabeth Taylor (really!) in Cannes, France, to gut-tightening missions from the carrier U.S.S. Leyte, Brown and Hudner forged an unlikely friendship—a bond so strong, Hudner risked his own life when Brown’s plane went down on December 4, 1950.
In his powerful retelling, Makos—who spent nearly seven years reporting and writing Devotion—could have simply focused on the lives of these two courageous men and lost none of the drama. He didn’t. Instead, the 34-year-old also diligently depicts their comrades both on the carrier and on the ground near Chosin Reservoir, North Korea. Here a bloody battle took place between the Americans and a much larger Chinese force during one of the coldest winters on record (nighttime temps dropped to minus 20 degrees).
In these mini portraitures, we meet men like Rhode Islander Ed Coderre, who turned down Red Sox scouts to sign up for the Marines. Coderre survived two grenade attacks in the space of just a few weeks at Chosin. He was injured but spared the first time when Lieutenant Robert Reem sacrificed himself and jumped on the grenade. The second grenade left Coderre badly injured, with shrapnel and frozen feet laming him, but he managed to crawl to safety after the enemy overran his gun pit.
And men like Bob Devans, a beloved Marine sergeant who had enlisted straight out of high school. Devans died in his friend Red Parkinson’s arms after being shot mere feet from his men while sprinting back from a reconnaissance mission. He was 21.
These impeccably reported vignettes provide not only important insight into the horrors of that particular battle—one in which nearly 12,000 Marines died, many from combat, but more from the cold—but also underscore just why Brown and Hudner and their fellow fighter pilots were so driven on missions. And perhaps most important, together with Hudner and Brown’s own stories, they afford readers a greater understanding of a war that often receives only a few pages of attention in high school textbooks. In his poignant and precise retelling, Makos does more than honor just Hudner and Brown; he pays homage to all of the men and women who went to war in Korea, the more than 36,000 who died there, and the thousands whose bodies never came home at all.
Adam Makos will be at the Tattered Cover Colfax to discuss and sign his new book Devotion December 9 at 7 p.m.
Follow senior editor Kasey Cordell on Twitter @KaseyCordell.