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

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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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By November, U.S. Marines had dug in around the Chosin reservoir and in Unsan County to the west. The plan was to push north as far as the Yalu River dividing Korea from China.

What they didn't know was that as many as 100,000 Chinese ground troops had slipped across the Yalu to fight for the North Koreans. They boxed in 20,000 U.N. forces, mostly U.S. Marines.

Hudner and Brown were members of Fighter Squadron 32, dispatched to the region deep in North Korea's forbiddingly mountainous interior to support the trapped ground troops and carry out search-and-destroy missions.

Theirs was a close-knit squadron. But the two men, both in their 20s, came from completely different worlds.

Hudner of Fall River, Mass., was a privileged New Englander who was educated at prep school and had been invited to attend Harvard. Brown, of Hattiesburg, Miss., broke the Navy's color barrier for pilots in 1948, months after President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.

It wasn't an easy role for Brown to take on, Hudner recalled. "People who didn't know him gave him a hard time just because he was black."

But those who got to know Brown grew to respect the serious, unfailingly considerate young man who impressed his peers with his dedication to flying — and his gentle sense of humor.

"The squadron, almost to a man, protected him any way they could," Hudner told The Associated Press before his departure, his pale blue eyes sparkling. "He was a friend who, I'd say, was beloved by almost everybody who knew him. A very special person."

Late the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1950, Brown was flight leader of a six-plane formation over the Jangjin Reservoir, a mission like 20 others he had led previously. He paired up with Hudner, who was flying on his right.

This time, ground fire struck Brown's plane, forcing him to land behind enemy lines. When Brown waved for help from his crumpled, smoking cockpit after slamming into the mountainside, Hudner acted quickly.

"I thought: 'My God, I've got to make a decision,' " he said. "I couldn't bear the thought of seeing his plane burst into flames."

Hudner crash-landed his plane in high winds and snowy rocks about 100 yards from the downed fighter. As flames engulfed Brown's plane, and still under the threat of attack, Hudner scrambled to pack the fuselage with snow, burning his hands in the process. He took his cap off and pulled it over Brown's ears, then radioed for help as Brown remained trapped in the cockpit, bleeding heavily, his leg crushed and his body temperature dropping in the subzero conditions.

A Marine helicopter arrived, but the pilot and Hudner could not extract Brown from the wreckage.

Before losing consciousness, his thoughts turned to his wife, whose name he whispered in his last command to Hudner: "If I don't make it, please tell Daisy I love her."

Hudner reluctantly got into the rescue helicopter. Brown is believed to have died soon after. The next day, U.S. military planes dropped napalm on the wreckage to keep the enemy from getting his body.

Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award, for trying to save Brown. Brown posthumously received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"He was a leader," Hudner said. "He had great promise had he not been so tragically killed."

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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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