MoH Recipient Gave Nation 'A Lesson in The Brotherhood of Man'

Medal of Honor recipient retired Capt. Thomas Hudner salutes while taps is played during the Centennial of Naval Aviation wreath laying ceremony held at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2011. (U.S. Navy photo/Mikelle D. Smith)
Medal of Honor recipient retired Capt. Thomas Hudner salutes while taps is played during the Centennial of Naval Aviation wreath laying ceremony held at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2011. (U.S. Navy photo/Mikelle D. Smith)

Capt. T.U. Sisson, commander of the aircraft carrier Leyte off Korea in December 1950, had a decision to make about the heartbroken lieutenant junior grade who had just returned from a desperate, unauthorized mission to save a dying friend.

He could recommend Thomas Hudner for a court-martial or a medal. Sisson chose the latter.

"There's been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history," he said.

Five months later at the White House, President Harry S Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to Hudner, who died in Massachusetts on Monday at age 93.

Truman told the 26-year-old Hudner, who would attain the rank of captain, "At this moment, I'd much rather have received this medal than be elected the president."

Hudner was the first person to receive the Medal of Honor for combat in Korea.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said, "The Navy lost a legendary aviator when retired Capt. Thomas Hudner passed away. Hudner was a hero in the true meaning of the word, receiving the Medal of Honor for his attempt to save fellow pilot Jesse Brown during the Korean War."

Spencer said, "The Navy is better for his service, and his legacy will continue to inspire every sailor who serves on the future [guided missile destroyer] USS Thomas Hudner."

"Few possess the bravery, determination, and character that Capt. Hudner displayed throughout his lifetime,'' Gov. Charlie Baker, R-Massachusetts, said of Hudner, who was a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services.

"The people of Massachusetts can be proud that a hero such as Capt. Hudner called the Commonwealth home," Baker said.

'If Anything Goes Wrong, Tell Daisy I Love Her'

Decades after the Korean War, Hudner said, "Not a day goes by that I don't think of that day, and Jesse."

The cliché about Hudner and Ensign Brown would be that they were an "odd couple."

There was Hudner, the New England "preppie," a graduate of the elite Phillips Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, and Brown, the sharecropper's son from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was the Navy's first African-American aviator.

In the many interviews he gave before his death, and in the 2015 book by Adam Makos, "Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice," Hudner described his first awkward meeting with Brown.

Two years earlier, Truman had signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces against criticism that whites and blacks could not work and sacrifice together in the military.

"I was changing into flight gear, and he came in and nodded, 'Hello,' " Hudner said of their meeting at the naval air station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island.

"I introduced myself, but he made no gesture to shake hands. I think he did not want to embarrass me and have me not shake his hand," Hudner said. "I think I forced my hand into his."

On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner and Brown were flying Vought F4U Corsairs, known as "Whistling Death" to the Japanese in World War II, on what was called a "Roadrunner" mission.

They were attempting to relieve pressure on the outnumbered Marines and Army troops seeking to break Chinese Red Army encirclement at the "Frozen Chosin" Reservoir.

Although Hudner outranked him, Brown had more flying hours and was the section leader. Hudner described himself as "tail end Charlie."

They made low runs at the enemy. Brown's Corsair was hit by ground fire, and he went down in flames.

Hudner made another low pass over the site and was astonished to see his friend waving from the cockpit and struggling to get out of the smoldering wreckage.

Hudner didn't know it at the time, but his squadron leader had strictly forbidden what he was about to do.

"Apparently, our squadron captain, commander, said, 'Now if anybody goes down, I don't want to have any heroes here trying to crash-land this airplane,' " Hudner said.

"The very thing that I did later on, I didn't know that was a direct violation of orders," he said, but "I was not going to leave Jesse down there for the Chinese."

'We've Got to Figure Out a Way to Get Out of Here'

Hudner tightened his harness, swooped down again and pulled off a wheels-up belly landing in two feet of snow about a hundred yards from Brown's plane.

He found his friend calm but suffering from the bitter cold. Hudner took off his watch cap and placed it on his friend's head. He wrapped a scarf around his numbed hands. He raced around the plane, throwing snow to put out flames.

"We've got to figure out a way to get out of here," Brown told Hudner, but Hudner could not free Brown's leg, which was stuck between the fuselage and the crushed control panel.

"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," Hudner's medal citation states.

"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 citation reads.

The light was fading, Chinese troops were moving closer, and the rescue helicopter had to leave. Brown told Hudner: "Tell Daisy [his wife] I love her."

By then, Brown was "motionless and slowly dying," Hudner said, but he told him, "We'll come back for you."

Navy commanders ruled out a second rescue attempt. Brown would later be posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Hudner's actions were hailed in what was then called the "Negro" press. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a leading black weekly, told the story of Brown and Hudner under the headline, "A Lesson In The Brotherhood Of Man."

A letter to the editor said, "I never thought a white man would help out a black man like that."

Through the years, Hudner maintained his friendship with the Brown family. He paid for the college education of Brown's widow, Daisy Brown Thorne, and he joined her in 1973 for the commissioning of the Knox-class frigate USS Jesse Brown.

Hudner said at the commissioning ceremony that Brown "died in the wreckage of his airplane with courage and unfathomable dignity. He willingly gave his life to tear down barriers to freedom for others."

Last April, Fletcher Brown, the 85-year-old brother of Jesse Brown, told the Boston Globe that he had remained close with Hudner.

"For him to have crash-landed his plane deliberately, that took a lot of guts and a lot of determination," Fletcher Brown said. "Tom is a very close friend."

Last Attempt to Bring Jesse Brown Home

Hudner tried one last time to fulfill his promise to bring his friend home. In the summer of 2013, on the 60th anniversary of the 1953 armistice in Korea, Hudner at age 88 went to Pyongyang.

The North Koreans were permitting Americans and Western journalists into the country for the ceremonies, and Hudner had a pledge from the North Koreans that he would be allowed to go to the Chosin Reservoir area to search for Jesse Brown's remains.

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, 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," Hudner told the Voice of America at the time. "I felt by this time they surely would have found the wreckage."

The North Koreans later canceled his planned visit to the crash site area. They said monsoon rains had flooded the area and roads were inaccessible.

Later in 2013, Jesse Brown's daughter and granddaughter were on hand at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath for a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of the guided-missile destroyer Thomas J. Hudner. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned in 2018.

In 2015, Hudner tried unsuccessfully to have the name of the ship changed to the Jesse Brown.

In a letter to then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Hudner said, "As our nation once again struggles with racial division, we could send a strong message by remembering Jesse in this manner."

"It would show that in our Navy, men and women of all colors are accepted as equal," he wrote, and it would "ensure that Jesse's legacy lives on, long after we, his friends, have left this Earth."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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