Thomas 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 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. Hudner, 93, died Nov. 13 at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. 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 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,’ ” 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.”
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,” Hudner later said.
But to 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, Hudner decided to fly to Brown’s rescue.
“I couldn’t conceive of leaving a friend alive like that, under those circumstances,” he said.
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, 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,” 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 Hudner to tell his wife, Daisy, that he loved her. 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 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.
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,” 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, Massachusetts, 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 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, California, Stanford Smith of Weston, Massachusetts, and Shannon Gustafson of Sherborn, Massachusetts; a sister; a brother; 12 grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
As it turned out, 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, 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.’ ”