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December 2018 Hero of the Month:Thomas Hudner, Jr.

On December 1st, the US Navy commissioned the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer (DDG 116) named after one of America’s legendary Medal of Honor recipients: Thomas Hudner, Jr. of Concord, Massachusetts. It was my privilege to meet and correspond with Tom back in the early 2000’s as I was working on a Veterans’ Museum project. Tom died before the ship was commissioned but lived to know that he had been honored.

Tom was an incredibly humble man while at the same time incredibly tough. His story and that of his wing man, Jesse Brown, has been immortalized by Adam Makos in his recent book, Devotion (Ballantine Books, 2015).

This is a very short summary of their story:

Jesse Brown grew up as the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi and wanted to fly. He joined the Navy after President Truman issued an order de-segregating the armed forces in 1948. The Navy chose to assign him to flight school in upstate New York, rather than Pensacola, Florida because of continuing racial strife at Pensacola. Brown went on to become the Navy’s first black combat pilot.

Tom Hudner was born and raised in Massachusetts, where his family owned grocery stores. He had attended Phillips Exeter Academy before the US Naval Academy. 

After graduation from flight school, Hudner and Brown were assigned to Korea and  flew F4U Corsairs, the famous WWII Navy propeller fighters modified for ground attack missions in support of the troops. They ended up flying missions during the battle of Chosin Reservoir in December 1950, when the First Marine Division faced overwhelming odds in one of the toughest battles in Marine Corps history. (See, On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides, Doubleday 2018).

While on a mission, Jesse Brown was shot down by ground fire and crash-landed on the side of a hill, surrounded by Chinese regiments. Seeing that Brown had survived the crash but was trapped in his plane, Hudner chose not to ask permission (which would have been denied), and crashed his plane on the hill to try to save Brown. He did call for help and a helicopter flown by Charles Ward was dispatched. Brown’s leg had been crushed by the landing and Hudner and Ward spent 45 minutes trying to extract him as the temperature dropped and he passed in and out of consciousness, but they were unable to pull him out of the wreckage. Eventually, as nightfall approached and Chinese forces closed in, they realized that Jesse Brown had died, and they were forced to leave. The Captain of his aircraft carrier, the USS Leyte, said of Tom Hudner: “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.”

In 1951, Tom Hudner returned to the United States and learned that he had received the Medal of Honor.  Daisy Brown, Jesse Brown’s widow, attended a White House ceremony in which President Truman presented Tom with the Medal of Honor. He was the first serviceman in the Korean War to receive his nation’s highest honor.

    President Truman presents the Medal of Honor to Thomas Hudner,
    while Daisy Brown (Jesse Brown’s widow) looks on
Tom spent the rest of his life giving speeches about Jesse and staying in touch with Daisy. He often travelled to Mississippi to see Daisy and her family and attend events honoring Jesse. He refused to talk about himself unless he was forced to do so in interviews. He also made a trip in 2013 to North Korea to try to find Jesse’s body, but he was unsuccessful in this. He died at the age of 93; he was interned with full military honors at Arlington on April 4, 2018. In what can only be described as an extraordinary tribute, General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personally attended the ceremony.

Jesse Brown’s granddaughter, Jessica Henry, attended the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner on April 1, 2017, and said “Our family was honored to be there for him.”

                                    The USS Thomas Hudner

(In 1973, The United States Navy dedicated a Knox class destroyer in Jesse’s name (USS Jesse L. Brown), only the fourth naval vessel in American history to be named for a black American. Of course, Tom Hudner and his family were there to honor Jesse.)

Two heroes joined together for eternity. Role models not only for the armed forces, but for all of us. — Jim

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