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Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos

Review of: Devotion
Adam Makos

Reviewed by:
On February 8, 2016
Last modified:February 8, 2016


Devotion should be read because of what it reveals about the Korean War and the men who fought it. The “police action” claimed five million lives, nearly 37,000 of them American, plus 92,134 American wounded. Indeed, in the author's words:

"One could argue that the Korean War was really a World War –– World War
III –– in which the nations of the world converged to fight on one peninsula, instead of around the globe."

An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice
By Adam Makos

Readers of A Higher Call by this author also will find Devotion absorbing. In addition to elaborating on the particulars in the subtitle, Makos illuminates a conflict little remembered except by those who survived it.

The Korean War

One could argue that the Korean War was really a World War –– World War
III –– in which the nations of the world converged to fight on one peninsula, instead of around the globe. Twenty-three nations committed troops or weaponry to Koreas, among them the world’s largest industrialized nations –– the United States, Britain, Canada, China, France, and the USSR; all took up arms, just without formal declarations of war.

But Interest in the Korean War, coming so soon after World War II, was never very keen. Yet, as the author points out, “the greatest generation” fought the Korean War, too. President Harry S. Truman called it a UN “police action.”

At the end of World War II, Korea was divided between the Soviet Union in the North and the US in the South. On June 25,th 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. A United Nations force, led by America, fought for the South. China, with Soviet urging and help, fought for the North. American troops made up ninety percent of the UN coalition in South Korea.

The CIA assured the secretary of state that the Soviets would hold the Chinese back from intervention … When reporters asked the secretary of state if the Chinese would enter the war, he declared that it would be sheer madness…

At any given moment, twenty thousand Soviet advisors, pilots and gunners were fighting in the Korean War, mostly behind the front lines.

It is now clear that by 1953 China had sent some three million civilian and military personnel to aid North Korea. The military was armed with Soviet and US-made weapons (supplied to the Soviets during World War II). And Soviet-flown MiGs battled Americans in the air.

The Epic Story

Devotion is about friendships brutally tested by the exigencies of that war. Central to the book is the bond between two of the US Navy’s most famous Naval aviators, Lieutenant Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown. They had nothing in common except character, valor, and a love of flying. Jesse Brown was an African American sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who excelled in school, worked his way though college and enlisted in the Navy. He became the first black carrier pilot. He did so at a time when blacks were second-class citizens in the South and refused registration at hotels in Washington, D.C.

Tom Hudner grew up the privileged son of an affluent New England family. Rather than accept an invitation from Harvard, Tom chose to fly for his country. They met on the USS Leyte where the primary mission was to fly sorties in support of Marines at the Chosin Reservoir.

The Hudner-Brown friendship was not the only one formed in the frozen wastes of North Korea. The author also chronicles the extraordinary heroism, suffering and stoicism of those who fought and too often died in ground battles.

One of these accounts is about Robert Reem and Ed Coderre. Reem enlisted during World War II and received a special appointment to the Naval Academy. Coderre was an outstanding center-fielder and team star in high school. The Red Sox tried to recruit him but he joined the Marines.

Reem was a burly 24-year-old Lieutenant when he seized Corporal Coderre’s hand and hauled him up over a small embankment as they struggled to reach the crest of hill 891. They were part of the 2nd platoon of How Company (3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment). “Green tracers swept the darkening sky.” They knew who was shooting at them.

Five days earlier, while the air force was rotating home its B-29 bombers and the navy boys were on R&R in Sasebo. The Chinese had launched a surprise attack in the western valleys of North Korea. Under darkness, on November 1, they struck the army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Like the hordes of Genghis Khan they descended and wiped out a six-hundred-man battalion at night.

“Although no one knew how many Chinese there were, one thing was certain: the North Koreans weren’t fighting alone any more.”

Paired With another platoon, Reem and his men had orders to assault the enemy-held crest. Black shapes began arcing through the twilight. “Grenades!” Coderre shouted.

As bullets slapped the dirt around Coderre, he hopped to a baseball catcher’s crouch, pulled the pin on his grenade and threw it at the Chinese massed on the crest. The grenade exploded amid the Chinese lines. The men around Coderre supplied him with more grenades. “In machine-like fashion he pulled the pins and heaved.”

Reem shouted to “move up” before the Chinese could regroup. Just as he turned to another platoon leader a dark shape flew from the crest and landed in the crater that held Coderre and his platoon. Reem jumped into the crater and desperately began searching for the grenade amid the clutter of rocks that littered the ground.

At the last second, Reem spotted the grenade and dived for it. He swept his powerful arms, pulling the grenade under his chest.

The next thing a wounded Coderre knew, someone was shaking him and saying they had to move out now. Coderre survived, albeit without his amputated frostbitten toes and sans plans for a professional baseball career.

Devotion is replete with similar acts of selflessness on the ground and in the sky. Naval aviators Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner were on a mission to help an outnumbered Marine division at the Chosin Reservoir when the oil-line of Brown’s plane was pierced by ground fire. They were returning to base when Brown was forced to crash-land in the mountains. He was pinned in the smoking wreckage. Hudner refused to leave and let his friend burn to death. In violation of Navy protocol and despite below zero temperatures and approaching Chinese troops, he crash-landed his own plane to assist Brown.

Hudner’s desperate efforts to save his friend should be read as described by Makos. This reviewer won’t spoil the author’s stirring account with a truncated version. Suffice it to say that Hudnor’s actions resulted in a presidential award of the Medal of Honor. Brown was the first black American aviator to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism.

Although peace negotiations began in 1951, an armistice was not signed until July 27, 1953. The sticking point was whether prisoners of war would be forcibly repatriated as North Korea and China insisted, or allowed to decide whether to return to their country of origin, the US position.

The United States, much to its credit, prevailed: unlike Allied acquiescence, after WWII, to similar Soviet demands that prisoners of war as well as displaced persons be forcibly repatriated (Operation Keelhaul). But that is a review of another book

The numbers reveal how the South Korean prisoners regarded their Communist dystopias. 30% of North Korean prisoners elected to remain in the South. 70% percent of Chinese prisoners chose not to return to Communist China.

Devotion should be read because of what it reveals about the Korean War and the men who fought it. The “police action” claimed five million lives, nearly 37,000 of them American, plus 92,134 American wounded. In the final chapter, Makos follows the post-war lives of the survivors.

Readers will notice the author’s exclusively laudatory depictions of the men in this book. It is as if he airbrushed out all human failings. But upon reflection this reviewer concludes that it is not their defects that distinguish these men. It is their decision to risk life itself for others. The choice is instant and irrevocable. There is no time to repent defects or rectify them. It seems fair to remember them for their virtues. Their imperfections are irrelevant.

The pictures of these so-achingly-young warriors, scattered throughout Devotion, evoke comparison with news photos of today’s protesting college students with their demands for “safe zones,” free tuition and the like. And one has to wonder. How would these young people respond, should the need arise, for a call-to-arms?


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