July 19, 2013

Vet returns to N. Korea to seek remains of first black Navy aviator

An Aegis destroyer now under construction at Bath Iron Works bears the name of Medal of Honor winner Thomas Hudner, who was honored at a ceremony in Maine in April.

By Jean H. Lee / The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Two years after he made history by becoming the Navy's first black pilot, Ensign Jesse Brown lay trapped in his downed fighter plane in subfreezing North Korea, his leg broken and bleeding. His wingman crash-landed to try to save him, and even burned his hands trying to put out the flames.

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In this undated file photo from around 1950 provided by the U.S. Navy, Ensign Jesse Brown, who died in December 1950 after his plane crashed in North Korea, sits in the cockpit of his plane.

AP

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Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman, poses on the porch at his home in Concord, Mass., last week.

AP

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A chopper hovered nearby. Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner could save himself, but not his friend. With the light fading, the threat of enemy fire all around him and Brown losing consciousness, the white son of a New England grocery-store magnate made a promise to the black son of a sharecropper.

"We'll come back for you."

More than 60 years have passed. Hudner is now 88. But he did not forget. He is coming back.

Hudner, now a retired Navy captain, heads to Pyongyang on Saturday with hopes of traveling in the coming week to the region known in North Korea as the Jangjin Reservoir, accompanied by soldiers from the Korean People's Army, to the spot where Brown died in December 1950.

Hudner received the first Medal of Honor in the Korean War for his efforts to save his wingman. The Navy has honored Hudner by naming the DDG 116, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer now under construction at Bath Iron Works, in his honor.

He is only the fourth living namesake of a BIW destroyer since the USS Arleigh Burke was commissioned in 1991. The USS Thomas Hudner will be commissioned in Boston in 2016.

The reservoir was the site of one of the Korean War's deadliest battles for Americans, who knew the place by its Japanese name, Chosin. The snowy mountain region was nicknamed the "Frozen Chosin," and survivors are known in U.S. history books as the "Chosin Few."

The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir lasted for 17 brutal days. Some 6,000 Americans were killed in combat, and thousands more succumbed to the cold. Brown and many others who died there are among more than 7,910 Americans still missing in action from the war.

Though the fighting ended with an armistice signed 60 years ago July 27, North Korea and the U.S. remain technically at war. Efforts to recover remains have come in fits and starts, with little recent progress.

Next week's mission is to pick up where search teams have left off by locating the exact spot of Brown's crash. Armed with maps and coordinates, they hope to work with North Korean soldiers to excavate the remote area, a sealed site controlled by the North Korean military.

Approval for the unusual journey comes as North Korea prepares for festivities marking the upcoming armistice anniversary. Pyongyang is expected to use the milestone to draw international attention to the division of the Korean Peninsula as well as to build unity among North Koreans for new leader Kim Jong Un.

Hudner does not plan to stay for a massive military parade expected on July 27. But he said he hopes his visit will help to foster peace and reconciliation on the tense Korean Peninsula.

Japan occupied Korea for decades, until the end of World War II. Then the Soviets and the Americans moved in, backing rival fledgling governments and dividing the country halfway at the 38th parallel.

War broke out in June 1950, with the communist North Koreans marching into Seoul. They were countered by U.S.-led U.N. forces that charged north, taking Pyongyang and continuing up the peninsula.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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This April 3, 1950, photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Thomas Hudner, who received the Medal of Honor for crash-landing his plane and trying to save Jesse Brown, his wingman, who went down behind enemy lines during the Korean War.

AP

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Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner talks with his wife Georgea while packing for his trip to North Korea.

AP

 


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