Navy pi­lot

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­post.com

Thomas J. Hudner Jr., 93, re­ceived the Medal of Honor for try­ing to res­cue the na­tion’s first African Amer­i­can naval avi­a­tor dur­ing the Korean War.

Thomas J. Hudner Jr., then a 26-year-old Navy pi­lot with the rank of lieu­tenant ju­nior grade, did not ra­dio for per­mis­sion on Dec. 4, 1950, when amid a pun­ish­ing bat­tle in the Korean War he pur­posely crash-landed his plane into an en­emy moun­tain­side in an ef­fort to res­cue a downed squadron mate. He sim­ply swept in, he said, to do what his com­rade would surely have done for him.

His dy­ing friend, En­sign Jesse L. Brown, 24, was the son of Mis­sis­sippi share­crop­pers and the first African Amer­i­can naval avi­a­tor. Hudner, a fu­ture cap­tain, was white, a New Englander from a well-to-do fam­ily and a grad­u­ate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

For their com­mu­nion that day in the Korean snow, Capt. Hudner would re­ceive the Medal of Honor, the mil­i­tary’s high­est award for valor, and both would be re­mem­bered as paragons of the newly in­te­grated U.S. mil­i­tary forces. Capt. Hudner, 93, died Nov. 13 at his home in Con­cord, Mass. He had com­pli­ca­tions from Parkin­son’s dis­ease, said his son, Tom Hudner III.

Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man signed Ex­ec­u­tive Order 9981 de­seg­re­gat­ing the mil­i­tary in 1948, one year be­fore Capt. Hudner met Brown upon join­ing his squadron. The order, while mo­men­tous, was only one step in right­ing the racial wrongs that per­sisted within the mil­i­tary as well as in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

“I was chang­ing into flight gear and he came in and nod­ded ‘Hello,’ ” Capt. Hudner told the New York Times, re­mem­ber­ing his first en­counter with Brown. “I in­tro­duced my­self, but he made no ges­ture to shake hands. I think he did not want to em­bar­rass me and have me not shake his hand. I think I forced my hand into his.”

Capt. Hudner at­trib­uted his egal­i­tar­i­an­ism to his fa­ther, who, he told CNN, had taught him that “a man will re­veal his char­ac­ter through his ac­tions, not his skin color.” Brown, who had nur­tured a love of air­planes from child­hood, by all ac­counts won the ad­mi­ra­tion of his squadron with his skill.

By late 1950, the two men had been de­ployed to Korea, where the United States was fight­ing with South Korea against the com­mu­nist North Kore­ans and Chi­nese. On Dec. 4, they joined a six-man fly­ing team sent on a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion to sup­port out­num­bered Amer­i­can forces in the frigid Chosin Reser­voir.

Sud­denly, Brown’s plane was struck by en­emy fire. “He hit with such in­ten­sity that there was no ques­tion in the minds of any of us that he had per­ished in that crash,” Capt. Hudner later said.

But to Capt. Hudner’s shock, he eyed Brown wav­ing from the burn­ing wreck­age. Re­al­iz­ing a he­li­copter would not be able to ren­dezvous with him for 30 min­utes or more, Capt. Hudner de­cided to fly to Brown’s res­cue.

“I couldn’t con­ceive of leav­ing a friend alive like that, un­der those cir­cum­stances,” he said.

Capt. Hudner was “fully aware of the ex­treme dan­ger in land­ing on the rough moun­tain­ous ter­rain and the scant hope of escape or sur­vival in sub­zero tem­per­a­ture,” ac­cord­ing to his medal ci­ta­tion. Nonethe­less, “he put his plane down skill­fully in a de­lib­er­ate wheels-up land­ing in the pres­ence of en­emy troops,” in­jur­ing his back.

He hauled snow into Brown’s burn­ing fuse­lage to stop the fire. Slip­ping on the ice and plane, Capt. Hudner failed to free Brown and ra­dioed for backup. A he­li­copter pi­lot ar­rived with an ax and a fire ex­tin­guisher, but still they could not ex­tri­cate their friend.

As the sun set, hopes of sav­ing Brown also dimmed.

“The he­li­copter couldn’t fly at night. We talked about us­ing a knife to cut off Jesse’s en­trapped leg,” Capt. Hudner told the Philadel­phia Inquirer. “But nei­ther of us re­ally could have done it. It was ob­vi­ous Jesse was dy­ing. He was be­yond help at that point. We had to leave. We had no choice. I was dev­as­tated emo­tion­ally.”

The fa­ther of a young daugh­ter, Brown asked Capt. Hudner to tell his wife, Daisy, that he loved her. Capt. Hudner as­sured Brown that they would come back with bet­ter tools, al­though he be­lieved the prom­ise to be, as he later de­scribed it, a “bald­faced lie.”

Brown stopped re­spond­ing be­fore Capt. Hudner and the other pi­lot de­cided to leave. Later, na­palm was dropped on the crash site so that his body could not be dis­hon­ored by the en­emy.

Capt. Hudner’s Medal of Honor, pre­sented to him by Tru­man in April 1951 and in the pres­ence of Daisy Brown, was the first such award be­stowed in the Korean War. Brown posthu­mously re­ceived the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross.

“One of the worst things when some­thing has hap­pened to you is the feel­ing that you’re all alone,” Capt. Hudner said years later, ac­cord­ing to the book “The Medal of Honor: A His­tory of Ser­vice Above and Be­yond.” “Just be­ing with him to give him as much com­fort as we could was worth the ef­fort.”

Thomas Jerome Hudner Jr. was born in Fall River, Mass., on Aug. 31, 1924. His fa­ther ran a su­per­mar­ket chain, and his mother was a home­maker.

The younger Hudner grad­u­ated with the Naval Academy Class of 1947 and served as ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the USS Kitty Hawk be­fore his mil­i­tary re­tire­ment in 1973. He later was a man­age­ment con­sul­tant and served as com­mis­sioner of the Mas­sachusetts Depart­ment of Veter­ans’ Ser­vices.

His friend­ship with Brown be­came the sub­ject of the book “De­vo­tion” by his­to­rian Adam Makos. A Navy frigate was named for Brown, a guided-mis­sile de­stroyer for Capt. Hudner.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 49 years, the for­mer Ge­orgea Farmer, of Con­cord; their son, Tom Hudner III, also of Con­cord; three stepchil­dren, Kelly Fer­nan­dez of La Jolla, Calif., Stan­ford Smith of We­ston, Mass., and Shan­non Gustafson of Sher­born, Mass.; a sis­ter; a brother; 12 grand­chil­dren; and a great­grand­son.

As it turned out, Capt. Hudner’s prom­ise to go back for Brown was not, as he had said, a lie. In 2013, at age 89, he re­turned to North Korea in the hope, how­ever re­mote, of lo­cat­ing Brown’s re­mains. He ar­rived in Pyongyang but was un­able to reach the crash site be­cause of mon­soons. Even then, Capt. Hudner said, he har­bored hopes of go­ing back again.

“One of the last things I told Jesse,” he said, was “‘Jesse, we’ve got to go, but we’ll be back.’ ”

NAVAL HISTORICAL CEN­TER COL­LEC­TION

Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man pre­sents Capt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr. with the Medal of Honor in 1951 for in­ten­tion­ally crash-land­ing his plane to at­tempt a res­cue of En­sign Jesse L. Brown dur­ing the Korean War. The at­tempt failed and Brown died, but both are viewed as paragons of an in­te­grated mil­i­tary.

CHARLES KRUPA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Capt. Hudner in 2013, the year he went to North Korea to try to re­trieve Jesse Brown’s re­mains.

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