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USS Hudner

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.”

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The men's squadron, VF 32, was assigned to USS Leyte (CV 32). They had been on a Mediterranean cruise when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, June 25, 1950, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake as the Americans and South Koreans retreated, then regrouped.

Recalled from the Med in August, Leyte arrived in the waters off of Korea in October, and its pilots got to work, targeting bridges, communication lines, and enemy troops and installations.

By November, the Americans and their allies had reversed the course of the war, and had pushed into North Korea, heading for the Yalu River, the border with Manchuria. This, however, brought China into the war, its troops sweeping down the peninsula in a seemingly endless flood.

About 30,000 American and allied troops, mostly Marines, found themselves trapped at the Chosin Reservoir, surrounded by some 120,000 enemy soldiers. At night, temperatures dropped to 20, even 40, degrees below zero. That's also when the Chinese liked to attack, wave after wave overrunning the beleaguered, frost-bitten Marines in what would be a battle for the history books.

The pilots' focus turned to protecting the desperate Marines as they retreated south, and they regularly flew danger close air support missions.

On that fateful day, Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner, Brown and four other pilots took off around 1:30 in the afternoon, and flew about 100 miles toward Chosin through terrible winter weather. As they cruised over the desolate landscape, oil began trailing from Brown's plane. He had been hit by ground fire, but the sound had disappeared into the roar of the Corsairs' engines. The plane quickly stalled out and Brown crashed into the snow.

It was a place, wrote Hudner's biographer, Adam Makos, where “only a crazy man would go.”

“I could just see that airplane bursting into flame,” Hudner said. “Jesse was still very much alive, and I thought it was a risk worth taking.”

Hudner, who injured his back in the crash landing, ran to Brown's plane, but couldn't get him out. Brown was stuck, his lips turning blue, his leg pinned by the crumpled, now icy fuselage.

“The first thing he said, in a very calm voice, was, 'We've got to figure out a way to get out of here,'” Hudner remembered. “He'd taken his helmet off, he'd taken his gloves off, probably to unbuckle his parachute harness. He dropped his gloves. ... I used to carry a Navy woolen watch cap around in my flight suit, so I pulled that down over his head, and I had a white scarf ... and I put the scarf over his hands.”

Hudner radioed that the helicopter pilot needed to bring an ax, and began packing the still-smoking engine with snow, doing anything he could think of to help until he heard the distinctive tut-tut-tut of a Marine Corps helicopter some 30 minutes or more later. By that point, Brown seemed to be in shock, and was going in and out of consciousness.

“'Tell Daisy I love her,'” Brown whispered at one point, referring to his wife in what would be his last words. He also had a baby girl, Pam, back home in Mississippi.

“The helicopter arrived — the pilot's name was 1st Lt. Charlie Ward,” said Hudner. “He did have an ax and fire extinguisher, and while I was using the extinguisher, he climbed up into the cockpit, and he couldn't do anything either. Charlie and I conferred for a little bit, and made one more try.”

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But darkness comes early north of the 38th parallel at that time of year, and the helicopter couldn't fly after dark. Hudner's own shipmates had already reluctantly peeled off, needing to get back to the Leyte before dusk fell and before their fuel ran out. Marine pilots had also decimated an approaching Chinese column, but there was more enemy out there. And after dark, it would be cold enough to kill a man in hours or maybe even minutes.

Ward, said Hudner, “gave me the choice of going with him or staying with Jesse, which would have meant unquestionably death,” and by then, Brown was already dead or dying anyway.

“I told [Jesse] we couldn't get him out, and we were going to go back and find some more equipment,” Hudner added. “I don't know if he heard me or not. He died sometime during that time. He was cold anyhow, and between shock and cold and his actual injuries, he was in pretty bad shape.”

Brown posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and USS Jesse L. Brown (FF 1089) sailed the high seas from 1973 to 1994.

Hudner fully expected to be court martialed, Makos wrote. After all, he had crashed a perfectly good airplane. But in the spring of 1951, he learned he would instead be given the nation's highest honor for his “conspicuous gallantry,” the Medal of Honor.

He would always remain humble, said his son, Thomas, who grew up viewing Brown as his hero as well as his father. Hudner, he explained, always said that if he hadn't done it, someone else would have, and that Brown would have done the same for him.

“Through the years,” Hudner said, “we've had a lot of fighting people, whether on the ground, in submarines or in airplanes or surface ships, who have performed valorously who've never been recognized. ... There are a lot of people who have lesser decorations — Navy Cross, Silver Star — whose actions probably took every bit as much as those of us who got the medal. Our feeling is that the medal highlights military service, and we want to highlight it in respect to all who have been in service, even those who never even got close to combat. ... We feel it belongs to everybody who has put on a uniform.”

Hudner retired from the Navy as a captain, and later served as the commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services. He returned to North Korea in his 80s in a futile attempt to recover any remains of Brown's that might be left. He passed away at the age of 93 in November 2017.

That “spirit of selfless service,” his son said, will live on in USS Thomas Hudner, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that will be commissioned Dec. 1.

“He was very fortunate to be alive for so much of the construction period of the ship and as the crew began to get assigned to the ship,” said Thomas. “Really, a highlight ... was for him to be able to visit Bath Iron Works while the ship was under construction and to meet so many men and women who were physically bringing the ship to life — that was incredible. ... Likewise, he did have a number of opportunities to meet the men and women who were becoming part of the crew of the ship. That too sort of gave me chills. ... I think the whole thing was pretty surreal for him.”

“It appeared we meant as much to him as he meant to us — we were Tom's heroes,” wrote Cmdr. Nathan Scherry, the ship's captain, shortly after Hudner's death. “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.”

Source: “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice,” by Adam Makos.