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

(Continued from page 2)

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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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Hudner went onto a distinguished naval career and later served as Massachusetts' commissioner of veterans' services, eventually settling in the revolutionary town of Concord, Massachusetts.

A few years ago, he was contacted by author Adam Makos about doing a book on his wartime heroics. It was Makos, Hudner said, who suggested returning to the crash site. Hudner hadn't thought it possible, given the abysmal state of U.S.-North Korean relations.

They enlisted Chayon Kim, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen who had been involved in the campaign to build a Korean War Memorial in Washington, and who took the Harlem Globetrotters and former NBA star Dennis Rodman to North Korea earlier this year.

She agreed to take Hudner, fellow Korean War veteran Dick Bonelli, and their group to North Korea. Kim, who says she has built ties over the years with the North Korean military, asked the army to supply soldiers to help with the search.

Hudner hopes to bring Brown's remains home to the aviator's 86-year-old widow, Daisy, and their daughter, Pam Knight, who was a toddler when her father died.

Going back to Jangjin and finding Brown's remains "would be closure to me," Hudner said. "And I'm sure it would be to the family."

Hudner, who turns 89 next month and is in frail health, is bracing himself for what he knows will be difficult journey. There are few paved roads outside Pyongyang, and the route to the region where Brown died is a steep mountain path, treacherous even in good weather.

"I won't be at the bar boozing it up for very long when I get there," he joked.

The political complications may be greater still. The Koreas remain divided by the world's most militarized border, and Washington and Pyongyang lack diplomatic relations.

Diplomatic forays have sputtered over the years, stalled by a standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Earlier this year, Pyongyang threatened to launch a nuclear war if provoked; Washington sent bombers into the region in what defense officials acknowledged was meant as a warning.

America is still Enemy No. 1 to North Koreans, who consider the posting of 28,500 U.S. troops across the border in South Korea to be an "occupation" of the Korean Peninsula.

Hudner is due to arrive at a time known in North Korea as the "anti-American period," a month devoted to recounting the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War and leading up to July 27. Since this is the 60th anniversary of the armistice, it is all the more prominent.

Posters show North Koreans with eyes blazing as they attack American soldiers with bayonets. "Sweep away the imperialist American aggressors," they read. Students file through exhibition halls that lay out the alleged toll: More than 1.2 million soldiers and civilians killed.

More than 54,000 American military personnel died in Korea fighting as part of the U.S.-led U.N. forces, including the nearly 8,000 never accounted for, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

For decades, the families of missing U.S. soldiers have pressed the government to search for their remains.

The first joint U.S.-North Korea searches began in 1996. Teams uncovered 229 sets of remains, but in 2005, with Washington and Pyongyang locked in a nuclear standoff, the U.S. government suspended the searches, citing security concerns.

Last year, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command prepared to resume the search. But those plans were scrapped following North Korea's decision to launch a long-range rocket — widely seen as a test of missile technology. Additionally, the search program itself has been criticized as "inept" and "dysfunctional" in an internal Pentagon study recently obtained by the AP.

Hudner and the team don't know if they'll find Brown's remains or the wreckage of the two planes.

But Makos, who intends to make the trip the last chapter of his book about the two men, said Brown's place in history makes it especially important to make the attempt.

"He's a Jackie Robinson in many ways. He's a Joe Louis," he said. "He's a historic figure, yet he's lying on a Korean mountainside."

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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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