Tuesday, December 04, 2012

TFH 12/4: LTJG Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., USN

In recent days, Their Finest Hour has chronicled the stories of several heroes from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, part of the Korean War's first winter. Medal of Honor recipients such as Lieutenant Colonel Raymond G. Davis, Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith, Jr., Sergeant James E. Johnson, and First Lieutenant Frank N. Mitchell - along with Navy Cross recipient Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Fred T. Foster - braved and battled not just a brutal Chinese Communist enemy but the brutal cold and conditions of the Korean winter.

Today's honoree beyond any shadow of a doubt embodied both what it means to go "above and beyond the normal call of duty" and the lengths to which the American fighting man will go to see that no man is left behind. While this post bears the name of just one man, it is really about two officers of the United States Navy whose lives are forever linked by the events of December 4, 1950.

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 31, 1924. He began his course of study at the United States Naval Academy in 1943 but didn't serve during World War II, receiving his commission in 1946. Hudner was a classmate of both Jimmy Carter and James Stockdale at Annapolis. In 1948, after serving on surface ships for two years, Hudner decided to pursue a career as a Naval Aviator and earned his "Wings of Gold" in 1949.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born on October 13, 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Brown, an African-American, attended segregated schools growing up. His father took him to an air show at age six, and from then on he dreamed of being a pilot. Brown even wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 as a boy to protest the injustice of African-Americans being barred from service in the Army Air Corps. Brown worked his way through his attendance at Ohio State University, from which he graduated in 1947. He joined the Navy Reserve in 1946 at OSU and was accepted as an Aviation Cadet. On October 21, 1948, Brown became the first African-American Naval Aviator and was commissioned as an Ensign on April 26, 1949.

Brown and Hudner were squadron mates and Vought F4U Corsair pilots in Fighting Squadron THIRTY-TWO (VF-32) aboard the USS Leyte (CV-32). Leyte was dispatched to fight in the Korean War all the way from the Mediterranean as her pilots were among the best trained in the fleet.

On December 4, 1950, the two young aviators took off as leader (Hudner) and wingman (Brown) in a larger flight of six Corsairs to fly close-air-support above their beleaguered comrades fighting ashore. Brown's plane was damaged by ground fire and he was forced to ditch into a snow-covered, frozen valley fifteen miles behind Chinese Communist lines.

Hudner tried in vain to contact Brown on the radio. He could see his downed shipmate moving and struggling to escape his burning aircraft into the 15-degree weather, but Brown was trapped. With no other option for assistance or rescue, Thomas Hudner brought his own plane down into enemy territory to aid his stranded comrade.

From Medal of Honor Citations for the Korean War:


Rank and organization: Lieutenant (J.G.) U.S. Navy, pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, attached to U.S.S. Leyte. Place and date: Chosin Reservoir area of Korea, 4 December 1950. Entered service at: Fall River, Mass. Born: 31 August 1924, Fall River, Mass. Citation. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Fighter Squadron 32, while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane struck by antiaircraft fire and trailing smoke, was forced down behind enemy lines. Quickly maneuvering to circle the downed pilot and protect him from enemy troops infesting the area, Lt. (J.G.) Hudner risked his life to save the injured flier who was trapped alive in the burning wreckage. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in subzero temperature, he put his plane down skillfully in a deliberate wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free. Unsuccessful in this, he returned to his crashed aircraft and radioed other airborne planes, requesting that a helicopter be dispatched with an ax and fire extinguisher. He then remained on the spot despite the continuing danger from enemy action and, with the assistance of the rescue pilot, renewed a desperate but unavailing battle against time, cold, and flames. Lt. (J.G.) Hudner's exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

As darkness fell, the rescue helicopter had to withdraw. Brown, whose final words were to let his wife know of his love, is thought to have died from exposure to the cold shortly afterwards. Hudner pleaded with superiors to be allowed to mount an additional rescue attempt, but the request was denied as being too dangerous. Two days later, the crash site was bombed by American aircraft so as to prevent the two planes from falling into enemy hands. Ensign Brown's remains were never recovered.

Our Navy did not forget its first African-American aviator. On February 17, 1973, the USS Jesse L. Brown (FF-1089), a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned. The ship served in the Atlantic Fleet for twenty-one years until her decommissioning on July 27, 1994.

Hudner retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1973, not long after he was present at the commissioning of the ship named for his fallen comrade. He is still alive today. On May 7, 2012, the Secretary of the Navy announced that the 66th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, expected to be commissioned in 2016, will be christened the USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116).

Strike Fighter Squadron 32 (VFA-32), the unit Hudner and Brown fought with over Korea, is today equipped with the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet. Their home base is Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia. They are assigned to Carrier Air Wing THREE which flies from the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), Carrier Strike Group TEN.


  1. Thank you for retelling this great chapter in Naval Aviation history. Their legacy is still honored. Fly Navy!

  2. Thanks for visiting, David! Please keep coming back!



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