The following article was originally published on Nov. 27, 2003, Thanksgiving Day.
In Lexington, Jim Brown has become semi-famous as a man of unusual fortitude.
Certainly, sitting through every University of Kentucky home football game since 1945 -- which Brown has done -- requires intestines of steel.
But on this holiday morning, Brown’s mind will not dwell on Jared Lorenzen’s passing nor the Wildcats’ chances to upset Tennessee.
Instead, it will be on Thanksgiving Day, 1944, when Brown and four other members of the famed Burma Bridge Busters were in a desperate flight for their life.
Here were five American servicemen on a B-25 bomber that had an engine shot out (by Japanese anti-aircraft fire) and which seemed all but doomed to fall from the sky behind enemy lines.
Says Brown: “I don’t just think about that on Thanksgiving. I’ve thought about that flight every day since.”
I flew (combat mission) No. 30 today against Namhkai Bridge. -- from the Nov. 30, 1944, entry in Jim Brown’s World War II diary
It was around 0900 hours when Jim Brown and four crew mates aboard the B-25 identified as No. 111 took off from the American base at Warazup in Burma.
The combat chronology of the U.S. Army Air Corps for Nov. 30, 1944, notes that nine B-25s -- a two-engine medium-range bomber -- took off that morning in the India-Burma theater.
Their mission, the chronology states, was to interrupt Japanese supply lines by “bombing bridges at Bawgyo, Namhkai, and Hsenwi.”
On 111 this morning were a pilot, a navigator and three gunners.
The navigator was Brown, a 25-year-old Bowling Green native. This was the 30th combat flight for the product of the University of Kentucky ROTC program.
Flying with a second plane on their wing, the mission was to hit the bridge at Namhkai.
All seemed normal when Brown and Co. approached the target first, strafing it with gun fire.
Next their wing ship came over the bridge and dropped its bombs, then headed for home.
Finally, No. 111 returned to drop its bombs.
“The engine went out just as we were about to release the bombs,” Brown recalls.
The pilot was Vernon Morris, a Colorado rancher.
“I don’t know whether it was intuition or training or Cool-Headed Luke,” Brown says, “but almost simultaneously, Vernon did what we call salvoed (dropped) the bombs.”
That was vital because, with one of its two engines disabled, lowering the weight on the B-25 was crucial to the survival of five suddenly desperate American airmen.
Later, they would learn that a single Japanese 25-caliber bullet had passed through three cylinders of the now-bad engine.
Then, all they knew was they were in big trouble.
The plane was flying between 2,900 and 3,100 feet.
It soon became apparent it could get no higher.
Which was a problem since they had flow over mountains with an elevation of some 7,500 feet on their approach.
They couldn’t get high enough to get back to their base.
Turning to his navigator, pilot Morris asked a haunting question.
“How,” he said, “are we going to get home?”
Morris did a wonderful job as pilot. -- from the Nov. 30, 1944, entry in Jim Brown’s World War II diary
Jim Brown had no clue how to get home.
His first thought was “fly up the Burma Road toward the back door of China and land on the road,” he says now.
But, in checking the navigational map, Brown noticed the contour lines showed elevations higher than the crippled plane was flying.
To this day, Brown wonders why he had the thought he had next.
“I guess it was the Good Lord,” he says. “I don’t know any other way to explain it.”
The Americans called it Broadway.
It was a very small jungle clearing just on the safe side of the Allied bombing line.
U.S. advance troops -- what we would now call special forces -- used it as a staging base.
There was a chance you could land a B-25 bomber there.
If you could get there.
The only way included passage through a narrow mountain pass.
Brown couldn’t discern whether the pass was clear all the way through to Broadway.
“I told Vernon, if we can’t make it through, it looks too narrow for us to turn around,” he says.
On a plane, the pilot is the captain of the ship, so the fateful decision fell to Morris.
“Pretty easy decision,” he says. “Some chance beats no chance.”
Trying to lighten the plane, the gunners on the plane fired off ammunition.
Problem was, they were only going 115 mph anyway.
When they fired the guns, they got perilously close to the stall point -- 100 mph.
In later years, Brown would develop a well-rehearsed line to recount the deal he offered God on this Thanksgiving.
If You will let me get back to Kentucky, he would say he told God, I will never leave.
What Brown was really thinking was this: “I just hoped the Good Lord would keep sitting in my lap,” he says. “You know they say there are no atheists in a fox hole? There were none on this plane.”
Perhaps God was present in that cockpit.
They reached Broadway. They got the plane safely onto the ground.
Best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. -- from the Nov. 30, 1944, entry in Jim Brown’s World War II diary
It was 1995.
It was after Jim Brown had worked in the lumber industry, the construction business and in real estate. After he had fathered two children.
It was before his wife of 52 years, Carolyn, died in 1999. Before Brown’s exceptional devotion to UK football got him into Sports Illustrated.
And it was before the widower married for the second time, to his present wife, Mary Anne.
After years of not talking about his war experiences, Brown made contact with a group of alumni from the 490th U.S. Army Air Corps.
The Burma Bridge Busters were among the most unlikely heroes of WW II.
Though the China-Burma-India Theater fell far behind the European and Pacific fronts in terms of military resources, the Bridge Busters still destroyed 192 bridges between 1943 and 1945 alone.
Brown decided to look up the pilot with whom he shared the most intense moments of his life.
Through the 490th alumni, he found an address on Morris.
Brown wrote him a letter saying “you are the man who saved my life.”
Morris, still living on the Colorado ranch on which he was raised, laughs about that.
“I think a lot of ol’ Jim,” he says. “But I was pretty much trying to save my own life.”
The Good Lord surely was with us today. -- from the Nov. 30, 1944, entry in Jim Brown’s World War II diary
Long after they got back to their base, the lucky crew of No. 111 would look at a flight manual for the B-25.
On one engine at full-throttle, the plane was supposed to have a maximum flight capacity of 25 minutes.
They had flown theirs in such a condition for one hour and 15 minutes.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1944, “it was pretty easy to be thankful, that’s for sure,” says Jim Brown.