By CDR Nathan Scherry, Commanding Officer, USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116)
At 10:01 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2017, Capt. Thomas J. Hudner Jr., USN (Ret.) took his last breath and passed into the afterlife surrounded by his daughter Shannon, his son Tommy, and his wife Georgea. He was 93 years old.
My journey with Capt. Hudner began July 25, 2015.
I received his home phone number from Naval Sea Systems Command during my one week visit to D.C. during the training pipeline for precommissioning unit prospective commanding officers. I waited a couple of days to call. I had never met a Medal of Honor recipient, and wasn’t sure if it was good protocol to call him at home. Did he have an aide I should go to first?
When I picked up the phone to call, Mrs. Hudner answered. She has a gruff voice and likes to get to the point right away.
“Tom,” she yelled. “Get over here. There’s a commander on the phone for you, says he’s the prospective commanding officer of your ship.”
She didn’t explain until a few months later that he was hard of hearing sometimes so she had to yell. When Capt. Hudner came on, he was mild mannered, very humble, and super excited that I had called. After a brief introduction, he agreed to meet at his home and told me to call Adam Makos. He had to spell that name for me. I found Adam Makos on Facebook and messaged him. I was surprised when he actually answered.
I then looked Mr. Makos up on the internet. Turns out he wrote a book called “A Higher Call.” I read it. It was good. Adam was writing a biography on Capt. Hudner, and had spent the better part of seven years in his life. Adam was family to Tom.
I learned the family nomenclature pretty quickly. Capt. Hudner is “Tom,” Tom Hudner III is “Tommy,” and Tom Hudner IV is “TJ.”
I did my homework before my first visit with our ship’s namesake and our nation’s hero, Tom. I read about his squadron. I read about Jesse. I read about the Korean War and the Chosin Reservoir.
Adam’s book “Devotion” wasn’t in print yet, so I didn’t have the finer details – Tom, seeing that his element leader was losing hydraulic fluid from a bullet from Chinese gunfire that they couldn’t hear over the loud humming of the F4U Corsair’s engines, walked him through the landing checklist, stayed with him, kept him focused on controlling the aircraft, kept him calm, looked for a suitable landing site. Of course, with the ground covered in snow, they wouldn’t know if the terrain was smooth. It was not. Unable to control pitch, Jesse went down nose first and the impact on rocky terrain pinned him in the cockpit. Tom, without hesitation, went down to get him, called for help, and tried to save Jesse. It was combat. He did everything he could to not leave his friend and colleague behind.
His toughness was surreal: forty degrees below zero weather, injured during the landing, struggling to free Jesse, and coming to the excruciating understanding there was nothing he could do.
After being rescued, not court martialed as he had thought, awarded the Medal of Honor instead, Tom spent the next seven decades serving his country and looking out for Jesse’s family. 27 years of service in the Navy, 40 years of public service in Massachusetts in veterans affairs.
He did so much for our community, and never asked for anything in return. As Tommy said during the funeral service, Tom could have died on that mountainside alongside Jesse, either during the crash landing of his own plane or the incursion of Chinese soldiers nearby, or the lack of rescue detail able to pull him off the mountain on Dec. 4, 1950. It was combat.
But he didn’t die that day. So, every day that passed beyond Dec. 4, 1950 was a blessing, a gift. Tom knew it, and he paid it forward. He paid it forward selflessly. When appointed to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Secretary position, almost a year went by before anyone even knew he had earned the Medal of Honor.
Tom, Tommy, Adam, and I met in Capt. Hudner’s living room on July 25, 2015. For the next few hours, we talked, we laughed, and we shared a cup of coffee. We got to know each other.
Over the next few months, I visited Capt. Hudner at his home, approved the ship’s crest design with his blessing, attended the keel laying ceremony, and stayed in touch. I got to know his closest friends. Among them, Medal of Honor recipient Tom Kelley who, as a patrol boat OIC, had half of his face and the right side of his body blown away during skirmishes in Vietnam; Bob Gillen; Capt. Tom Hennessey, USN (Ret.), Army Chief Warrant Officer Bob Hallinan, and others. And, I also got to know his family – his wife Georgea, his son Tommy with Jen, TJ, Lily, and Reese, his stepchildren Stan, Kelly, and Shannon, and his extended family, his brother Philip, his sister Mary.
Some of my Sailors have had the opportunity as well to get to know Tom. In September 2016, we celebrated his birthday at his home with more than 40 Sailors. Despite his physical condition, he sat down with every Sailor that visited on that day. During the mast stepping ceremony on March 31, 2017, they went to his home and arranged for him to see the ceremony from his living room.
On April 1, 2017, the Christening, YNC Wills and IT1 Bryant escorted Tom and Georgea from their home in Concord to Bath for the ceremony and stayed with him. The Chief’s Mess gave him a coin. On his 93rd birthday, the crew sang Anchors Aweigh and Happy Birthday at his home.
I last sat down with him on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, and he recognized me, said hi, and to not worry about him. In the end it appeared we meant as much to him as he meant to us — we were Tom’s heroes. But Tom was always a hero. He was a hero the day he took to flying for the U.S. Navy instead of taking over his father’s supermarket business in Fall River, a hero the day he tried to rescue Jesse, a hero when he served our community, and a hero when he passed. Whenever I spoke to him, he always talked of Jesse and Jesse’s family. He never spoke of himself, or anything he did. It was never about Tom.
We will, as the first crew of his ship, carry forward his legacy and his values of family, life, equality, and service every day of our lives.