On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1950, shortly after China had entered the Korean War, Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a lieutenant junior grade, was piloting one of six Navy Corsairs on a three-hour “roadrunner” mission near the Chosin Reservoir, in Korea’s northeast.
After 45 minutes aloft, at roughly 6,000 feet and 5 miles behind enemy lines, Hudner watched in horror as a plane operated by a squadron mate, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, was hit by small-arms fire. Losing pressure quickly and too low to bail out, Brown needed to land. Hudner, among others, directed him by radio to a clearing on a snow-covered mountainside, where his colleague crash-landed belly in.
Others in his formation were sure that Brown had been killed on impact; the mission leader summoned a helicopter to collect his body. But when Hudner lowered his altitude to make sure, he was amazed at what he spotted.
“I rubbed my eyes to make sure that I wasn’t seeing things,” he told Flight Journal in 2005. “The canopy slowly rolled back, and Jesse waved at us!”
The Marine rescue helicopter would not reach the scene for a half-hour. In the meantime, Hudner, 26, saw that smoke was rising from under the cowling, or engine casing, of the downed plane, and that Brown, 24, appeared stuck inside. If the fire didn’t kill him, he feared, the cold would. He resolved instantly to go in to fetch him.
“I was not going to leave him down there for the Chinese,” he later said.
For what followed — he crash-landed his own plane, then tried unsuccessfully to pry his dying squadron mate out from under his battered fuselage in subzero temperatures while Chinese troops hovered — Hudner collected the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War.
But his feat was not purely a military one. It doubled as a civil-rights milestone: Brown was the Navy’s first black aviator, and in going to rescue him, Hudner, who died Monday at 93, defied the expectations of some and defeated a different sort of foe.
When President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces 2 1/2 years earlier, some expressed doubts that white and black soldiers would stand by one another in the heat of battle. But Brown’s race was immaterial to Hudner, and that was precisely the point.
“A lesson in the brotherhood of man,” a leading black weekly, The Norfolk Journal and Guide, wrote. One letter among many by black admirers said of Hudner — who had had no black classmates at the Naval Academy — “I never thought a white man would help out a black man like that.”
Only later, after he had returned home, did Hudner learn that what he did that day in Korea could have gotten him court-martialed.
“The fact that it happened was not met with great joy by a lot of people,” he recalled in a 2013 interview with filmmaker Charles Stuart. “Apparently our squadron captain, commander, said, ‘Now if anybody goes down, I don’t want to have any heroes here trying to crash-land this airplane.’ The very thing that I did later on, I didn’t know that was a direct violation of orders.”
Hudner’s death, at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, was announced by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services.
Thomas Jerome Hudner Jr. was born on Aug. 31, 1924, in Fall River, Massachusetts. His family owned a chain of meat and grocery stores. After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1943 by Rep. Joseph W. Martin Jr., then the House minority leader. He graduated in 1946 and earned his wings in 1949.
Brown, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, came up through the naval aviation cadet program, overcoming racial bias along the way, and had earned his wings the year before.
Assigned to the same 15-man squadron, the two first met in the fall of 1949 while changing into their flight gear in a locker room at the naval air station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. As Hudner recalled it, Brown did not extend his hand for fear of embarrassing him if he did not want to shake it. So Hudner walked across the room and extended his.
War broke out in Korea in June 1950, and that August the aircraft carrier on which their squadron, VF-32, was based, the USS Leyte, was deployed there. On Sept. 15, United Nations forces landed at Inchon, and when tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers crossed into Korea in October, the squadron’s mission suddenly changed from offense to defense — to slowing the Chinese advance and protecting the outnumbered U.N. forces on the ground.
Though technically junior to Hudner, Brown had logged more air time, and was therefore section leader; Hudner was his “tail end Charlie,” flying at his rear that day, Dec. 4.
On seeing that Brown was alive after his crash landing, Hudner tightened his harness, jettisoned all excess weight, and landed, wheels up, within 100 yards of the wreck in two feet of snow. He found Brown conscious and calm, bareheaded, his fingers frozen, unable to reach his fallen gloves and helmet.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get out of here,” Brown told him.
Hudner removed the woolen watch cap he had carried in his flight suit, placed it over Brown’s head and wrapped Brown’s hands in an extra scarf. Then he looked into the cockpit. The ensign’s right knee was crushed and jammed between the fuselage and the control panel.
With only one hand available — he needed the other to hold on to the plane — Hudner could not extricate him. He radioed the incoming helicopter to bring an ax and a fire extinguisher. The trapped man, he later recalled, “was very stoic.”
“He was motionless and slowly dying,” he said.
Hudner packed snow around the smoking canopy to keep any flames away. But the hatchet the helicopter pilot brought just bounced off the unyielding metal, and amputation was not an option: The rescuers could not get deep enough inside the cockpit.
“If anything happens, tell Daisy I love her,” Brown told Hudner, referring to his wife. With nightfall rapidly approaching, the helicopter had to leave. Hudner promised Brown that he would return soon with better equipment.
“It was a baldfaced lie,” he said later; he knew he could never get back in time. By the time Hudner had left him, in fact, Brown might have already died.
Brown’s squadron mates later returned to the site, drenched the body with napalm and set it ablaze to prevent it from being desecrated.
Brown posthumously received a Distinguished Flying Cross.
About four months later, with Brown’s widow sobbing behind him, Hudner was in the Rose Garden at the White House receiving the Medal of Honor from Truman. Two days earlier, Truman had relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea. Away from the microphones, Truman told the young lieutenant, “At this moment, I’d much rather have received this medal than be elected the president.”
Hudner later recounted that his in-laws, whose name was also Brown, had arrived in Washington for the ceremony seeking accommodations, only to be told by a hotel that no rooms were available. When the hotel learned that these Browns were white, they were given rooms.
After his return home, Hudner met with track star Jesse Owens, who had overturned the white-supremacist expectations of his Nazi hosts at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by winning four gold medals.
Hudner retired from the Navy as a captain in 1973. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts later named him state commissioner of veterans affairs.
For the rest of his life, Hudner told one interviewer, the medal left him “highly spoiled” and tiresomely honored, enduring endless rounds of recognition. He put up with it, he said, to honor Americans in the armed forces.
In 2013, he returned to North Korea in an unsuccessful attempt to locate Brown’s remains.
He is survived by his wife, the former Georgea Farmer; a son, Thomas III; a stepson, Stan Smith; two stepdaughters, Kelly Fernandez and Shannon Gustafson; a sister, Mary Hammer; a brother, Philip; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In 1973, Hudner was present in Boston Navy Yard when the destroyer escort Jesse L. Brown was commissioned. In 2013, Brown’s daughter and granddaughter were on hand at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath for a ceremony commemorating the beginning of construction of the guided-missile destroyer Thomas J. Hudner. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned in 2018.