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Wingman to the End: Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, and the Medal of Honor

Corsair pilot attempted rescue in Korea

Thomas Hudner had no idea how things were going to unfold on Dec. 4, 1950. As a carrier-based U.S. Navy pilot flying an F4U-4 Corsair of squadron VF-32 “Swordsmen” from the USS Leyte (CV 32) to support embattled Marines at Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, Hudner knew he was going into harm’s way. He just didn’t know how much.

Brown was the first African-American to complete naval aviator training. Although of lower rank, Brown had more air hours and experience than Hudner. That didn’t help Brown when North Korean gunfire ripped into his Corsair.

Lt. (j.g.) Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was flying as wingman for section leader Ensign Jesse L. Brown. In the newly integrated U.S. armed forces, Brown was the first African-American to complete naval aviator training. Although of lower rank, Brown had more air hours and experience than Hudner. That didn’t help Brown when North Korean gunfire ripped into his Corsair.

Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown, U.S. Navy

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, U.S. Navy, in the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter, circa 1950. He was the first African-American to be trained by the Navy as a naval aviator, and such, became the first African-American naval aviator to see combat. Brown flew with Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) from USS Leyte (CV 32). U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Badly out of control and coughing gouts of smoke, Brown’s Corsair made a belly landing on snow and ice. While Brown was going down, Hudner and division leader Lt. Cmdr. Richard Cevoli heard Brown say things like, “I think I’m getting it,” meaning Brown felt he was still in control. That was before Brown’s Corsair made a violent belly landing in the snow. Once on the ground, Brown fell silent inside his wrecked F4U-4, even as the plane sputtered and smoked.

Lt. (j.g.) William Koenig, Cevoli’s wingman, climbed to make a Mayday radio call. The members of the Corsair flight learned, discouragingly, that a helicopter was at least 30 minutes away. Cevoli, Koenig and Hudner feared that flames might consume Brown while he was trapped inside his wrecked aircraft.

Hudner made a difficult decision. He called Cevoli and announced his intention to make a belly landing to assist Brown. There was no discussion. Cevoli simply said, “Good luck, Tom.”

Hudner made a difficult decision. He called Cevoli and announced his intention to make a belly landing to assist Brown. There was no discussion. Cevoli simply said, “Good luck, Tom.”

Hudner got rid of his napalm bombs and belly tank, fired off his rockets, and put his Corsair into a tight, carrier-style approach. Every account of what followed, including the official version, says that Hudner made a wheels-up belly landing, but Hudner said in an interview that he lowered his landing gear. He touched down at 6,000 feet of elevation alongside a snow-strewn slope.

Hudner sprinted from his plane to Brown’s. “Jesse had barely survived the crash,” said Hudner. “But his aircraft had been crumpled in the landing and he was pinned in his cockpit.” Brown was near death, his badly mangled leg caught in the twisted fuselage.

Said Hudner, “The canopy of his aircraft was open but he was gravely injured and wedged inside, unable to move.”

Lt. j.g. Thomas J. Hudner

Lt. j.g. Thomas J. Hudner is congratulated by Mrs. Daisy P. Brown, widow of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, after he received the Medal of Honor from President Truman at the White House, April 13, 1951. Lt j.g. Hudner was awarded the medal for attempting to rescue Ensign Brown, who had been shot down by enemy fire near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, on Dec. 4, 1950. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The heat was tremendous. Struggling to suppress the fire in Brown’s burning Corsair, Hudner began packing snow around its smoking cowling. He had to use one hand to balance himself, so had only one hand to attempt to snuff the blaze and attempt a rescue. “There was no way to get traction to pull.” Although enemy troops were nearby, the helicopter arrived and, without hesitation, HO3S-1 pilot Marine 1st Lt. Charles Ward made a risky landing at the scene. Ward brought an ax, but it proved useless in extricating Brown.

“We were running out of daylight, Jesse was obviously dying, and we could find no way to get him free,” Hudner recalled. Because the HO3S-1 could not navigate at night, Hudner knew that if he and Ward did not leave, there would be three bodies in the Korean snow instead of one.

“We had no choice but to leave him. I was crushed. But there was absolutely nothing we could do.” Brown and Hudner had met when serving at Naval Air Station Quonset Point, R.I. The two men did not socialize, but they knew each other well and enjoyed great mutual respect.

The destroyer escort USS Jesse L. Brown (DE 1089), later classified as a frigate (FFT 1089), was named for the slain Corsair pilot. The ship was decommissioned and transferred to Egypt in 1994, a move that Hudner lamented because, said Hudner, “We need to honor Jesse’s memory.”

Brown died quietly. Hudner and Ward escaped in the helicopter with night closing in. Because the crash site was far behind Chinese lines and there was no hope of retrieving the slain pilot’s remains, VF-32 returned to the site a few days later and torched it with napalm.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Miss., enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1946, and became a naval aviator in October 1948. He flew the F9F Panther jet fighter before transitioning to the prop-driven Corsair. He wrote daily letters to his wife Daisy and year-old daughter, Pamela. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Korean War combat service. The destroyer escort USS Jesse L. Brown (DE 1089), later classified as a frigate (FFT 1089), was named for the slain Corsair pilot. The ship was decommissioned and transferred to Egypt in 1994, a move that Hudner lamented because, said Hudner, “We need to honor Jesse’s memory.”

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr., was born in 1924 in Fall River, Mass., where his father ran Hudner’s Markets, a chain of grocery stores. He graduated from Phillips Academy in 1943 and the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946.

Medal of Honor Recipient Capt. Thomas J. Hudner

Medal of Honor recipient retired Capt.Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. addresses friends, Midshipmen, and several honored guests during his “Visions of Valor” portrait unveiling in Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy on Dec. 15, 2008. Hudner and 139 other military Medal of Honor recipients are celebrated in the “Visions of Valor” portrait collection. Hudner is the only living Naval Academy alumnus with the Medal of Honor. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O’Brien

Hudner served as a communications officer aboard the cruiser USS Helena (CA 75), and became a naval aviator in August 1949. For his unsuccessful effort to save his section leader, Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on April 13, 1951, the first Navy member to receive the award during the Korean War. The citation for the award refers to Hudner’s “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

Hudner retired as a captain in 1973, and served as Massachusetts’ commissioner for veterans’ affairs. He believes recognition should go to helicopter pilot Ward, who came to the scene “at great peril.”

In 1998, Hudner misplaced the medal during an appearance in Boston. “That’s what happens when you carry it around in your pocket a lot,” Hudner said. A local resident found it and returned it to him.

Over the years, Hudner has maintained an aw-shucks attitude about the nation’s highest award for valor. “I once tried to clean it with Brasso but that didn’t work very well,” he said. In 1998, Hudner misplaced the medal during an appearance in Boston. “That’s what happens when you carry it around in your pocket a lot,” Hudner said. A local resident found it and returned it to him.

Editors note: Jesse Brown was “the first African-American to complete naval aviator training.” He was not the first African American naval aviator. Quotes from Hudner are from an interview in June 2001.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...