BATH – Retired Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, a former naval aviator and the first Medal of Honor recipient of the Korean War, is uncomfortable with the word “hero.”
When he intentionally crash-landed his plane behind enemy lines in December 1950 to try to save his wingman from a crashed, smoking aircraft, Hudner was not thinking about heroics or recognition. He was just trying to save a friend and shipmate.
“I couldn’t bear the thought that he was down there and there was no way to get him out,” Hudner said. “But ‘hero’? I feel that most of us feel uncomfortable with that term.”
Hudner, 88, will have to get used to the notion of being a hero. His name will emblazen the DDG 116, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer being built by Bath Iron Works. Hudner is only the fourth living namesake of a BIW destroyer since the USS Arleigh Burke was commissioned in 1991.
“I still can’t get over it. What people have done to warrant having a ship named after them — it’s a great sense of responsibility having that recognition,” said Hudner, who retired from the Navy in 1973 and lives in Concord, Mass.
Hudner spoke after a Friday luncheon at the Maine Maritime Museum, where 150 military and civilian guests gathered to honor his career. Earlier in the day, Hudner visited Bath Iron Works and toured the facility where his destroyer will be built. The ship will be commissioned in Boston in 2016.
“In the not-too-distant future, the USS Thomas Hudner will remind future generations of what it means to be a shipmate and to put your life on the line for another,” said Navy Capt. Mark Vandroff, program manager for the DDG class of ships.
Of all the ships in the Navy, only destroyers are named for heroes, said Retired Navy Adm. Gregory Johnson.
Hudner tried to free Ensign Jesse Brown from the crashed plane, but Brown’s leg was pinned by the crumpled fuselage. Brown faded in and out of consciousness. Hudner had to leave Brown behind as darkness started to fall on the snowy crash scene. Hudner said he believed Brown died as he and the helicopter rescue pilot were leaving.
“There was nothing I could do,” Hudner said during a documentary shown during the luncheon.
Hudner told Brown they had to leave to get more equipment.
“It was a bald-faced lie,” Hudner said in the film. “I couldn’t stay. It was suicide.”
Before Hudner left, Brown asked Hudner to make sure he told his wife, Daisy, how much he loved her. Brown was the first African-American aviator in the Navy and the first naval officer killed in the Korean War. Brown also has a ship named after him.
“Thomas Hudner is part of our grandfather. That brotherhood and friendship cannot be separated,” said Jamal Knight, Brown’s grandson, an electrical engineer from Houston, who attended Hudner’s event. “It’s an honor for us to be here and to partake in this celebration and what he has accomplished. My grandfather and he will always be connected.”
After the luncheon, also attended by Brown’s daughter, Pamela Brown Knight, Hudner said he doesn’t often think about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir or his decision to crash-land his F4U Corsair to try to rescue his comrade.
“I never let it take over my life,” said Hudner, who has remained in contact with Daisy and her family.
Navy Cmdr. Rob Patrick, who presented Hudner with a challenge coin to recognize his bravery, said Hudner epitomized what it meant to be a navy pilot.
“Never leave your wingman,” Patrick said. “Captain Hudner lived that motto to the fullest.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6329 or at: