Thomas Hudner had a unique view of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. He was flying his Corsair above the fray as the Marines held on for dear life down below. That’s when a fellow naval aviator, Ens. Jesse Brown, was shot down by Chinese small arms fire. Hudner’s ensuing rescue would earn him the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War.
But the pilot wasn’t thinking about medals.
Hudner watched powerless as his buddy crash-landed five miles behind enemy lines. The plane was belly-down, but it didn’t look good — until Hudner saw Brown waving. They called a rescue helicopter, but it wouldn’t arrive for at least 30 minutes. The Chinese were all around the area and Brown was stuck in the cockpit of his burning Corsair.
“I was not going to leave him down there for the Chinese,” Hudner was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary. The Times called it a “civil rights milestone,” but Hudner wasn’t thinking of Brown as a black pilot. Brown was a Navy pilot — a U.S. Navy pilot.
President Truman had ordered the integration of the Armed Forces of the United States only two years prior. It worried many in government that black men and white men might not be able to fight alongside one another. Ensign Brown was the first African-American naval aviator.
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As history shows time and time again, it didn’t worry anyone who was fighting in Korea.
Hudner risked a court martial when he deliberately landed his plane, wheels-up, in sub-zero temperatures, ran to Brown’s Corsair, and simultaneously tried to control the fire and free his trapped shipmate. Hudner radioed the rescue crews to bring an ax and a fire extinguisher.
Hudner injured his back in the crash, but it was all for naught. Brown’s leg was pinned down by the fuselage and night was coming. The helicopter couldn’t fly at night and they would all freeze to death in the open if the sun went down before they could free Brown.
Unfortunately, Brown lost consciousness and the helicopter pilot ordered Hudner to leave. Hudner promised he would come back for him. Four months later, President Truman awarded Hudner the Medal of Honor for his heroic crash-landing and rescue of his shipmate, downed behind enemy lines.
He wouldn’t be able to come back for Brown until 2013, when the retired naval aviator flew to Pyongyang, North Korea to attempt to find Brown’s remains. Though the government agreed to the expedition, they were unsuccessful in finding Brown.
Hudner has an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named in his honor and lobbied then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to name a guided missile destroyer for Brown. The first USS Jesse L. Brown, a Knox-class frigate, was decommissioned in 1994 and sold to Egypt.
Thomas Hudner died at age 93 on Nov. 13, 2017.