A Tale of Two Pilots
Trailing oil, the Corsair plummeted toward the frozen peaks below, deep behind enemy lines in North Korea. The snow-covered slopes loomed closer and closer as the pilot dropped his bombs, hoping to avoid an explosion on impact.
Bang! The plane slammed into the earth wheels up, the fuselage crumpling at the cockpit.
Ensign Jesse Brown opened his canopy and waved. He was alive.
To a man, his buddies circling above breathed sighs of relief. They turned their attention to the next set of problems: Brown wasn't getting out. He appeared to be stuck in the cockpit and the engine was smoking. The temperature was bitterly cold, and it was only a matter of time before he froze to death or the plane exploded — if the enemy didn't get to him first. Hordes of Chinese soldiers were nearby and likely knew an American pilot had gone down.
As the flight leader called for a rescue helicopter, Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner Jr., Brown's wingman, made a decision. “I'm going in,” he radioed. He squared his jaw and prepared to land.
So began a legacy that continues today, as the Navy prepares to commission USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116).
The scion of a well-off New England family, Hudner had attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis after graduating from prep school. He only applied for flight school under pressure from his friends.
Brown, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, had grown up dirt poor, but in a family that valued education. He had been working his way through college in Ohio when he saw a recruitment poster for pilots. Flying had been his dream as a child, a dream that seemed impossible in the age of the Jim Crow south and segregated military. He managed to become a pilot anyway, and not just any pilot, but the first African-American pilot in the U.S. Navy.
“I met him a couple of days after I joined the squadron,” Hudner remembered in a Navy interview conducted several years ago. “He just said, 'Hello.' He was very friendly, but didn't get up to shake my hand.” Hudner immediately walked over, his own hand extended. Brown gratefully reciprocated. “I realized later on that he's a very sensitive person, and it would have been very difficult for him, and for me, if I'd refused to shake his hand,” something that had happened all too often.
Although junior in rank, Brown was the more experienced pilot, so when the two flew together, Brown was in the lead.
“He was a good pilot and everybody liked flying with him,” said Hudner. “He was a regular guy. ... “Most everyone on the ship liked him and respected him. Those were the days when we would eat on white linen tablecloths, and we were all in the wardroom. We were served by either Filipino or black stewards, and they were always falling all over themselves to do everything they could for Jesse. He probably corresponded with more people than everyone on that ship. He was just a fine guy.”