Captain Thomas J. Hudner Jr., a naval aviator, passed away in November 2017 at the age of 93. Full military honors were rendered by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, first at the Old Post Chapel on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington, Virginia, and later at the final interment site at ANC. In addition, the ceremony also included a missing man formation flyover by Strike Fighter Squadron 32 (VFA-32) of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This was the same squadron Hudner was assigned to when he earned the Medal of Honor during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner, then a lieutenant junior grade, and his squadron were providing air support to American troops. Ensign Jesse L. Brown, who happened to be the Navy's first African-American aviator to fly in combat, was piloting a plane hit by anti-aircraft fire. This damaged a fuel line and caused him to crash. Brown sustained serious injuries and was unable to free himself from the cockpit.
"Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing in the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, [Hudner] put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels up landing in the presence of enemy troops," according to his award citation.
Brown's right leg had been crushed under the damaged instrument panel. While he drifted in and out of consciousness, Hudner, who had himself injured his back, kept trying to free his friend, all the while packing snow into the still-smoking engine.
By the time a helicopter arrived with help, Brown was unconscious. Hudner and the helicopter pilot used an ax to hack away at the damaged plane for almost 45 minutes, but they could not free Brown. Even a plan to amputate his leg proved unsuccessful because they had no firm footing due to the snow. As nightfall approached, with the corresponding drop in temperature, Hudner and the helicopter pilot, who would not have been able to fly after dark, made the agonizing decision to leave Brown. Already near death, Brown succumbed to his wounds shortly afterward.
President Harry S. Truman presented Hudner with the Medal of Honor, Apr. 13, 1951. For the rest of his life, he would say that the reason he landed to save Brown was because Brown, like all service members, would have done the same for him.
Hudner was "a hero the day he tried to rescue Jesse, a hero when he served our community, and a hero when he passed," said Cmdr. Nathan Scherry, commander of the Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Thomas Hudner (DDG 116). "Whenever I spoke to him, he always talked of Jesse and Jesse's family. He never spoke of himself, or anything he did. It was never about Tom. ... We will, as the first crew of his ship, carry forward his legacy and his values of family, life, equality and service every day of our lives."
After receiving the Medal of Honor, Hudner remained on active duty, eventually completing 27 years of naval service. His accomplishments include flying 27 combat missions in the Korean War and serving as the executive officer aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) during the Vietnam War.
Hudner's namesake ship is expected to be commissioned in Boston later this year and will be the 66th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to join the fleet.
Despite all of his personal and professional titles and honors, however, to his family, Hudner was simply Dad.
"My dad was always there for me," said Thomas J. Hudner III. "I knew he was busy, but he would always attend my sports games. It didn't matter whether my team won or lost, he was always supportive."
At his funeral, he was remembered as both, as father and as hero.
Rear Adm. William Galinis, program executive officer, Ships, presented the flag that draped Hudner's casket to his widow, Georgea Hudner. Also in attendance at the funeral were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford; Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson; and retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command.