By Joe Darby
A great American veteran died this week, just days after Veteran’s Day. However, his heroic story is unknown to almost everyone and it needs to be told.
When I first read of his Korean War actions some years ago, I thought his story would be a great movie. It would certainly be better than most of the senselessly violent, computer enhanced, ear-deafening productions that Hollywood is putting out today.
Some violence would of course be included in the movie, because it involves war. But it was Thomas Hudner’s self-sacrificing actions that make for a wonderful story.
Hudner, a Massachusetts man and a 1947 graduate of the Naval Academy, was flying his Corsair fighter-bomber on patrol over North Korea in December, 1950, when a squadron mate, Ens. Jesse Brown, was shot down. Brown happened to be the Navy’s first African-American aviator.
It appeared from the air at first that Brown must have died in his crash, but Hudner made a low pass over the wreckage and Jesse waved at him. He knew that a Marine rescue helicopter was on the way but Hudner could see smoke coming from Brown’s engine, possibly heralding a fire.
So Hudner made the incredible decision to put his own Corsair on the ground, heavily damaging it in the mountainous terrain. He tried unsuccessfully to extract Jesse from the cockpit, as Chinese troops gathered nearby.
Brown was in bad shape. “He was motionless and slowly dying,” Hudner said later. He packed snow around the engine to retard any flames. The helicopter had arrived but they could not get Jesse out — his leg was trapped. Brown told Hudner, “If anything happens, tell Daisy (his wife) I love her.” Hudner promised he would return soon with better equipment.
But Brown died in his cockpit. The Americans later returned and cremated Brown’s body to prevent the Chinese from desecrating it.
Hudner initially got into some trouble for losing his airplane, but wiser heads prevailed. For his actions, Hudner received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Hudner was also honored by the Civil Rights community because of his attempts to save the Navy’s first black pilot. Brown’s race never entered Hudner’s mind when he decided to put his own plane on the ground and do what he could do save his fellow aviator.
When the two men first met in the squadron room in 1949, Brown did not extend his hand in fear of embarrassing Hudner if he did not want to shake it. But Hudner walked across the room and extended his hand.
“A lesson in the brotherhood of man,” said The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a leading black newspaper at the time, of Hudner’s attempt to save Brown.
Hudner died Monday at the age of 93. But in 1973, the year he retired as a naval captain, he was on hand in Boston when the destroyer escort USS Jesse L. Brown was commissioned into the Navy.
That scene would be a fitting end to a great movie, which could also trace Brown’s early career as a pioneering black aviator. But there’s one more thing to be added. Next year, the Navy will commission a new guided missile destroyer — the USS Thomas J. Hudner.