From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The city of Fall River, Mass. was just like every other major city in the United States during the beginning of World War II. Young men were eager to join the military and do their part for their country, including a young man named Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. whose family owned and operated a chain of grocery stores.
Hudner was an average student at the prestigious Phillips Academy, but excelled in sports like football and lacrosse. After a rousing speech by the academy headmaster, Hudner decided to apply for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy where he was accepted along with nine others from Phillips.
After graduating in 1946, Hudner served as a communications officer onboard surface ships like heavy cruiser Helena (CA 75) and at Naval Base Pearl Harbor for almost two years. By this time, he was ready for a new challenge and in 1948 was accepted into the flight training program. He earned his wings of gold in August of 1949.
Lt. j g. Hudner was stationed in Lebanon for a few months before being assigned to Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) aboard aircraft carrier USS Leyte (CV 32) as an F4U Corsair pilot. By the fall of 1950, Hudner was flying combat missions in Korea. Another VF-32 pilot onboard Leyte flying combat missions was Ensign Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator.
On Dec. 4, 1950, Hudner and five other fighters, including Brown, had orders to fly an armed reconnaissance mission over the Chosin Reservoir to keep eyes in the sky and attack enemy troops that threatened Americans and their allies.
While attacking enemy positions at a low altitude, Brown’s aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire. Losing power and oil pressure, the aircraft was too low for Brown to bail out or clear the snow-covered mountains. Hudner knew Brown was in trouble, so he began calling off a checklist to help prepare him for the inevitable crash landing.
When Brown did land, it was with such force that the fuselage buckled at the cockpit and Hudner at first believed Brown died on impact. After circling the crash site a few times, however, he observed Brown was moving but unable to free himself from the cockpit.
Knowing his flight leader would deny his request to land and rescue Brown, Hudner didn’t bother asking permission. He knew in the time it would take rescue helicopters to get to Brown it would be too late because of the freezing temperatures and his injuries.
As soon as Hudner dropped his flaps and made his wheels up hard landing, he quickly made his way to Brown. Hudner’s attempts to pull Brown out of the wreckage revealed Brown’s right leg was crushed under the damaged instrument panel. While Brown drifted in and out of consciousness, Hudner kept trying to free his fellow aviator, all the while packing snow into the still-smoking engine.
By the time a U.S. helicopter arrived to help, Brown was unconscious. For almost 45 minutes, Hudner and the helicopter pilot used an ax to hack away at the damaged plane but they could not free Brown. Even a plan to amputate the leg with a knife wouldn’t work because they had no firm footing due to the snow. As nightfall approached with the corresponding drop in temperature, Hudner and the helicopter pilot reached a grim decision to leave Brown behind since the pilot would be unable to fly in the dark. Brown was already near death and died shortly afterward.
Hudner was reprimanded by his chain of command and others for crashing his own plane in enemy territory but he believed it was something he had to do because he felt it was right. Almost five months later, Hudner received the Medal of Honor for his heroism from President Harry S. Truman, the first awarded for action in Korea.
After his tour was complete with VF 32, Hudner would hold a variety of training, operational and staff assignments. He commanded Training Squadron 24 (VT-24) in 1965-66 and then served as executive officer of USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 63). During the early 1970s, Capt. Hudner was Head of Aviation Technical Training in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He retired from the Navy in March of 1973. Most recently, he has served as the Massachusetts Commissioner for Veterans Affairs. Hudner has lived in Concord, Mass. with his wife, Georgea since 1991. A contract was signed in 2012 for the 66th Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116).
Hudner never forgot his buddy who was left behind. In July of 2013, he visited Pyongyang, North Korea during an unsuccessful attempt to locate and recover Brown’s remains from the crash site.