By Mike Hixenbaugh
© December 16, 2013
Thomas Hudner’s boots were packed with snow. He had lost feeling in his hands and face. And he was running out of time.
As the sun dipped toward the mountainous North Korean horizon 63 years ago, Hudner tried one last time to pull the Navy’s first black fighter pilot from the crumpled wreckage of his downed airplane.
He had a choice to make. He could either stay with his unconscious wingman and face certain death from the cold, or he could leave on the rescue helicopter, which had to depart before nightfall, and try to come back after sunrise.
Hudner put his hand on his partner’s shoulder, leaned in close, and spoke the last words he would ever say to Jesse LeRoy Brown.
“Jesse, we’re going to go get some better equipment to get you out, so hang in there. We’ll be back.”
Six decades later, Hudner is still trying to keep his promise.
For most of Conor O’Neil’s childhood in Concord, Mass., he knew Mr. Hudner only as the friendly old man who lived down the street.
It wasn’t until he grew up, left home and became a Navy fighter pilot himself that O’Neil realized that Capt. Hudner was a legend.
President Harry S. Truman had presented him with the Medal of Honor. A naval aviation award bears his name. The Navy is in the process of building the Thomas Hudner, a guided missile destroyer.
Lt. O’Neil, now a 27-year-old F/A-18 Hornet pilot at Oceana Naval Air Station, asked Hudner earlier this year whether he’d be interested in visiting the master jet base.
Hudner doesn’t often pass up a chance to share his story. This week, the 89-year-old veteran shuffled into the Oceana Officers’ Club with his Medal of Honor draped around his neck.
The beer-drinking crowd grew silent as he walked slowly to the front of the room, grabbed a microphone and began to speak.
He talked about his decision to become a pilot in 1948 and the day he checked in at Strike Fighter Squadron 32 at a Navy airfield in Rhode Island.
Among the first people he met was Jesse Brown, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who had recently broken naval aviation’s color barrier.
Brown, who had endured racial discrimination throughout flight school, seemed unsure as Hudner reached out to shake his hand in the squadron locker room.
“Jesse and I never got to be close friends, but we were good squadron mates,” Hudner said. “And as it turns out, we often flew together.”
That was the case on Dec. 4, 1950, six months after the start of the Korean War. Hudner and Brown were among six fighters who took off from the aircraft carrier Leyte on a reconnaissance mission over North Korea.
As they soared above snowcapped mountains, Hudner noticed something streaming from the back of Brown’s F4U Corsair, a single-engine prop plane. Was it fuel?
Brown’s plane, they would learn later, had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. He got on the radio: “I’m losing power. Can’t maintain altitude.”
He crashed the plane into an open area, hitting the ground with such force that Hudner assumed Brown had been killed.
Hudner circled back around as the squadron’s executive officer, flying with them that day, radioed a nearby Marine base to request a rescue helicopter.
As Hudner flew over the crash site, he saw that Brown had opened the cockpit and slid back the canopy. He must have survived the impact, but smoke was billowing from the engine.
“My God,” Hudner thought. “If that spreads into a fire and reaches the cockpit…”
Without asking for permission, Hudner made one more pass over the site, dumped his rockets and ammunition, then crash-landed his plane in the snowy clearing.
“I intended to slide onto the ground and just… sort of softly land,” Hudner said, drawing laughter from the otherwise hushed room of Oceana pilots. “The ground, it turns out, was like concrete.”
Hudner ran through 2 feet of snow to reach Brown’s plane. The downed aviator was shaken up but was still conscious and speaking.
“Help me, Tom. We’ve got to figure out a way of getting out of here,” he said.
Hudner piled snow into the smoking engine to stop it from catching fire, then struggled to climb up the sloped wing to reach the cockpit. Brown’s bloody leg was pinned inside. Hudner pulled a scarf out of his flight suit and wrapped it around Brown’s freezing hands.
“We’re going to figure this out,” Hudner said, trying to sound calm.
There was little he could do. The wing was slippery, and Hudner couldn’t apply leverage. Even after the Marine helicopter pilot arrived, the two men could not pry Brown from the wreckage.
In desperation, Brown asked them to cut off his leg. Without proper medical equipment, they knew that would kill him.
They struggled in vain to pull him out, even after Brown lost consciousness.
Hudner told of the agonizing decision to leave his wingman and his struggle to persuade superiors to let him go back.
When U.S. planes flew over the crash site the next day, they saw that enemy fighters had stripped Brown’s trapped body of his clothes.
The following day, the commander of the Leyte ordered four Corsairs to bomb the crash site to prevent the planes and Brown’s remains from falling into enemy hands. The aviators recited the Lord’s Prayer over the radio as the wreckage burned.
That spring, Brown’s wife, Daisy, was at the White House when Truman placed the Medal of Honor around Hudner’s neck.
While sharing his recollections with the younger pilots this week, Hudner paused frequently to gather his thoughts. His hand trembled as he gripped the microphone.
Hudner had been asked to tell his own story, but this is how he ended it:
“Well, that’s the story of Jesse Brown. Does anybody have any questions about him?”
Young pilots swarmed Hudner after he finished speaking. They posed for photos and asked him for his autograph.
A few wondered aloud whether they would have the courage to do what he did.
Hudner wanted them to know that he hasn’t forgotten his promise to Brown.
This summer, he returned to North Korea with a team of researchers to look for Brown’s remains. Heavy monsoons during the 10-day trip prevented the team from attempting to find the site.
“We’re going to go back,” Hudner told a young Hornet pilot, after autographing a piece of notebook paper. “We said we’d come back.”