The fairy tale ending to his personal quest in North Korea was not to be, but 88-year-old Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., may have succeeded on a grander scale by securing a promise from his hosts to resume searches for the missing.
The North Koreans have a long track record of breaking promises, but a senior colonel told the retired U.S. Navy captain that the People's Army would search an area near the Chosin Reservoir for the remains of Hudner's wingman once flood waters had receded, the Voice of America reported from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
The North Korean colonel also told Hudner that North Korea was prepared to resume working with the Defense Department on a full accounting for the more than 7,900 U.S. servicemen still listed as missing from the Korean War, which ended with an armistice 60 years ago on July 27.
"I feel that although we didn't get final resolution on this, this meeting has given us a lot of optimism. And we know that something is being done now and that will be passed on to the American people," Hudner told the VOA, one of several Western news organizations permitted into the North for the anniversary.
Hudner, who traveled with several other Korea vets, was on a mission to fulfill his pledge to a dying Ensign Jesse Brown: "We’ll come back for you."
Shortly after their arrival in North Korea, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that heavy rains and flooding in several provinces had submerged 6,000 houses, leaving 23,000 people homeless and killing eight. The area where Brown’s plane went down was inaccessible, the North Koreans said.
Brown and Hudner were flying F-4U Corsairs on patrol with Fighter Squadron 32 on Dec. 4, 1950 during horrific fighting in sub-zero temperatures, as outnumbered Marines and Army troops tried to break out of the encirclement by Chinese troops.
Brown's plane was hit by ground fire and he crashed in flames. Hudner could see his friend struggling but unable to get out of the burning wreckage. Hudner belly-flopped his own plane near Brown's and ran to help.
The citation for Hudner's Medal of Honor, awarded by President Harry S Truman at the White House, read that he "put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free.
"Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames."
The light was fading, Chinese troops were moving closer, the rescue helicopter had to leave. Brown told Hudner: "Tell Daisy (his wife) I love her." Hudner said "We'll come back for you."
The medal had special meaning for Truman, and for the future of the U.S. military.
Only two years before, Truman had desegregated the services despite criticism that whites and blacks could not work and sacrifice together.
Now there was the example of Hudner and Jesse Brown. Hudner, the middle class white Naval Academy graduate, had selflessly tried to rescue his friend Jesse Brown, the black sharecropper's son.
Hudner and his family were well aware that his return to North Korea might be used by the Stalinist regime for propaganda purposes.
"Yes, I'm concerned about that," Hudner told the VOA. "But I think there are enough people in the United States who are for the man [Jesse Brown] and for what he stands for, and certainly wouldn’t want to stay in the way to find him because many years ago I gave up the idea of being able to recover him," Hudner said.
"I felt by this time they surely would have found the wreckage," he said.
One of the figures who helped arrange the trip was Chayon Kim, a backer of the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington who also helped arrange a recent visit by former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Accompanying Hudner on the trip were Justin Taylan, a military researcher and founder of the non-profit PacificWrecks.org; Hudner's biographer, Adam Makos; and Richard Bonelli, a friend of Hudner's and a veteran of the Chosin Reservoir battle.
On Tuesday, the North Koreans ushered the group to the recently opened Korean People's Army Museum of Weapons and Equipment, where tanks on display were painted with the phrase: "Let's annihilate the U.S. imperial aggressors, the blood enemy of the Korean people."
The Hudner group was expected to leave for home before the massive, choreographed demonstrations in Pyongyang on Saturday, the anniversary of the armistice that the regime calls Victory Day in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.
Hudner can put aside any concerns that he had become a propaganda tool for the North, said Richard Downes, head of the Coalition of Familes of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs.
Hudner's trip had put a spotlight on the fate of the missing from the Korean War, and "any opportunity to do that is welcome," said Downes, who was three years old when his father went missing aboard a B-26 Marauder bomber that was hit over the North on Jan. 13, 1952. Other crew members bailed out and were captured, but Harold Downes' fate is unknown.
Harold Downes is among more than 7,900 MIAs from Korea. Teams from the Joint POW/MIA Command led searches in North Korea between 1995 and 2005, but the operations were cut off in rising tensions over the North's nuclear and missile tests, and uranium enrichment.
The search for the missing should be considered a humanitarian mission apart from diplomacy and politics, Downes said.
"What he tried to do the first time was unbelievably heroic," Downes said of Hudner, "And that he's doing it a second time is also heroic."
On Saturday, at the Korean War Memorial on the Mall, President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will preside at ceremonies paying tribute to Korea vets and honoring the 36,574 Americans who lost their lives in what is sometimes called "The Forgotten War."
Earlier last week, Hagel asked Korea vets at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention to stand and told them that "through your selfless service, the tide of communism on the Korean peninsula was halted and liberty triumphed over tyranny."
In a proclamation on the 60th anniversary he signed last Thursday, Obama said "we remember those brave Americans who gave until they had nothing left to give. No monument will ever be worthy of their service, and no memorial will fully heal the ache of their sacrifice.
"But as a grateful Nation, we must honor them -- not just with words, but with deeds. We must uphold our sacred obligation to all who serve -- giving our troops the resources they need, keeping faith with our veterans and their families, and never giving up the search for our missing and our prisoners of war. Our fallen laid down their lives so we could live ours."